Stuck working with a man she abhorred

From our October 2012 issue

By Mabel (Wheeler) Hobbs – Maple Creek, Sask.

After our youngest daughter graduated from high school in 1981, I decided to leave teaching for a time. I needed a break from children, homework, and long drives to school.

At the time, a large pipeline construction project was scheduled to cross southwestern Saskatchewan from Burstall to Monchy.

Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government had made mandatory provisions for equal job opportunities for First Nations people and women. I applied for a job and was hired as a truck driver on the last crew.

Our crew was in charge of dismantling temporary gates, building permanent fences across the right-of-ways, painting the fence posts orange with white tops, and picking up thousands of skids – five foot 4 x 6s, used to keep the large 42-inch diameter pipes off the ground.

The crew was also to pick up the garbage left by earlier crews – wasted barbed wire, broken cables and skids and fence posts, and whatever else littered the right-of-way.

For three months our work camp was stationed in the Veinerville area of Medicine Hat, Alta. The crews drove out each day to the worksites. About the time I started, the unions were having a labour dispute with Majestic Wiley, the company in charge of building the line.

We couldn’t work but drove out each day, gabbed about, complained, and fiddled the time away. The workdays were long, mosquitoes annoyed us, it was dirty work, and the summer heat intensified. The bosses wanted the work to proceed quickly but the union officials slacked off on our progress.

My faith and idealism was an irritant because I didn’t think God would accept anything but my best effort. My parents had always been an example of hard work and good performance. One wasn’t to be lazy.

Our foreman had several crews to oversee. The straw boss was from B.C. and some of the crew was from Regina where they had worked on construction. None knew much about fencing. When a First Nations lady was hired, she was a good fencer and fence building improved greatly after she came.

I was in the Teamsters Union, so I wasn’t expected to be involved in the mundane work of the swampers. Once the other crews were ahead of us, I helped a lot with the fencing. It was much better than just sitting in the truck and watching.

Different workers accompanied me in the truck. I got along well with them, except the last tractor operator who joined our crew while we worked out of Shaunavon. He was quite a character. His former crew called him “Radio Shack”. Our crew nicknamed him “Motor Mouth”. Among other things, he thought himself God’s gift to women. I abhorred the man, but it was my luck he had to ride with me.

It was frosty in the mornings,d so I had to have the heater turned on in the truck. He would sit dressed in lined coveralls, fur hat, and mitts. He complained bitterly about the heat, the rough road, and my terrible driving.

The right-of-way crossed the White Ranch down along the Frenchman River for miles. There were many gates to open and close. It was his job to get out and open them. He hated it.

As the job advanced southward, we were finally out of the ranch. I was advised to take a dirt road that would lead to Highway 37. When I signalled to turn onto it, Motor Mouth complained that I didn’t know the way and I was dumb enough to get lost in the dark.

I quickly switched off the signal and proceeded to follow the road he wanted me to take. Little did he know that it would lead us back through all the pastures with the many gates! I chuckled to myself every time he had to get out and open a gate.

As the project was winding down and more and more crew men were laid off, near Monchy our crew again was made up of the straw boss, the worker from Regina, and me.

On the last day our foreman came around to say good-bye. He shook my hand and told me I had been a competent, willing hard worker. He and I had had our differences. It was gratifying to hear his remarks and I appreciated it.

His recommendation probably had something to do with my being called up as the first teamster to drive a bus the following year.

It had been a satisfying experience. I had earned more money in 4-1⁄2 months than I could earn in a year of teaching.