The new Soft life on the last frotier

PETER GZOWSKI November 2 1963

The new Soft life on the last frotier

PETER GZOWSKI November 2 1963

The new Soft life on the last frotier

This is Wabush, Labrador. Three years ayo it was barren bush. Today it's a bustling construction camp that's as civilized as most suburbs. A man who knew this country both ways here gives a slightly shaken report on the changes

PETER GZOWSKI

ONE SEPTEMBER EVENING, while Maclean's photo editor Don Newlands and I were roughing it in the bush, I had an extra dry Martini on the rocks, some snails Bourgogne, a bowl of pea soup, beef tenderloin with mushrooms, fresh hot rolls, Mexican corn and a carafon of Beaujolais. 1 would have had a chef's salad too, but they were out of lettuce. Nothing is perfect.

Later. Newlands and I walked across the street to watch the bowling and billiards, and then back to our hotel to see what was doing at a candlelight dance there. Not much was. 1 went upstairs to telephone my wife and settle down with that day’s edition of the Montreal Gazette.

All this took place, believe it or not — and as a onetime construction worker in the north, I am not certain 1 believe it myself — in a tow n called

Wabush, Labrador, some two hundred miles north of Seven Islands, Que., six hundred and fifty air miles from Montreal and about the same from St. John's. With its twin settlement of Labrador City, three miles around a corner of the shore of Wabush Lake, Wabush forms a new mining community in Canada’s far, or at least fairly far, north. Labrador City, which started producing iron ore this year, has a population of about three thousand. Wabush, which will not start producing anything until next winter, has a population of about two thousand, of which seventeen hundred people arc wmrkers and the rest are members of their families. This may not be Canada’s ultimate last frontier — let us hope we press much farther north in years to come — but for the moment it can be called that.

Three years ago, Wabush was bush: a rough, scraggly, nearly lifeless wilderness. The hills in summer echoed only with the whir of the black fly. The only way for a man foolish enough to want to go there was to do so by seaplane. The bush, like so many of the parts of Canada that have yet to be opened, had to be broken and tamed, and the men who broke it — the last frontiersmen — are a breed apart.

One of the subspecies of this breed is the college student. Boots shining, his university’s name emblazoned across the back of his windbreakcr to shout “greenhorn’’ to the world, his first, soft beard struggling vainly to be seen, the student laborer is as much a part of the modern expansion of Canada as the bulldozer. I served three terms as one of these typically

Canadian frontiersmen, on the three biggest construction jobs of my time. In 1954 I worked on the St. Lawrence Seaway. In 1953 1 spent a summer at Kildala, the powerline project that w'as to link Kitimat, the aluminum refinery on the coast of northern British Columbia, with Kemano, the hydroelectric station that supplied it from fifty miles inland. The summer before that, though, 1952, I worked on the QNS and L, the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway. This experience was gained in the same part of the world as Wabush. and it was hell. The QNS and L was — as it is now — the railway designed to carry iron ore from the vast wilderness deposits around Knob Lake, three hundred and fifty miles north of the St. Lawrence, to Seven Islands on the river's north shore. It was a tremen-

dous task, costing more than two hundred and fifty million dollars and employing as many as seven thousand men at a time. After a tortuous passage through the hills and canyons of Quebec above Seven Islands, it crawls two hundred miles across the soggy muskeg of Labrador. Until the head of steel approached its last stage, there were many engineers — good men at their jobs — who said no one could build a railroad where the QNS and L was going.

For many weeks that summer I wished they had been right. Untrammeled by labor legislation in either Newfoundland or Quebec, the construction companies that built the QNS and L treated the men who did the work like serfs. Bold and aggressive in their engineering, they seemed — to us in the camps at least — cold-

ly unaware that it was, in the end, men who were doing the job. We slept frequently in filth. We ate, while plentifully (any machine needs fuel), dismally. In B. C. and on the seaway, conditions were better. But never, in the bush camps around where I was working only a decade ago, could I have imagined the new life on the last frontier as it is now lived in Wabush.

The hotel where I ate so well on my first night in camp is the aspect of Wabush that separates it most strikingly from the kind of Labrador bush camp I worked in as a student. Except for the rugged scenery outside the window — a dirt road in the foreground and the sweeping hills of spruce and tamarack beyond — this hotel, the Sir Wilfred Grenfell, could as easily be in Montreal as in a mining town. ít has a curvy hostess named

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Christine, several pretty waitresses, a couple of switchboard girls, comfortable, carpeted rooms, room service — everything, in fact, except radio or television, the lack of which one housewife in Wabush told me was the roughest thing about living there. The roughest thing about the Grenfell hotel is the prices: twelve dollars for a small single room and eighteen for a double. You can do better than that at the Ritz Carlton in Montreal. The meal 1 described set me back about six dollars.

These prices, of course, keep most of the hotel’s facilities well out of the financial range of the working men. But the men are still able to — and do — use the tavern in its basement; beer there costs forty-five cents, but is obviously welcome after a day of slugging on the job. On the QNS and L, when it would have been more wel-

come still, we would have been fired for smuggling it into the camps. After our supper, we either sat around and talked or read, or drugged by fatigue, tumbled between our dirty sheets.

The sheets at Wabush are changed every week. A man living in one of the company dormitories — the only place he can live if he is just a working stiff—can also have all the laundry done he wants. The company charges him five dollars a month for laundry anyway, and most of the men seem to take advantage of the service. The single men’s dormitories are not unlike houses at a good boys’ boarding school: three stories of long, monastic halls, with two or four men in each numbered room. This summer, the camp was more crowded with construction workers than it will be with miners when the ore is being shipped out, and many of the rooms were

holding twice the number of occupants they had been planned for, in double bunks. To a man who had seen labor gangs living in boxcars at the head of steel, with one sheet each and no place to wash, these rooms still looked comfortable.

At Wabush, with its showers in every bunkhouse, its laundry services and its women to be seen, there is, as one company official put it, “no excuse for a man not to be clean,” and although the men coming off the job still do not look as if they’d just been rehearsing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the camp sports few unkempt beards and few grimy shirts. Newlands and I traveled to Wabush with a group of newspapermen from around Toronto, and when we got on the plane, I and the one other reporter — an old northern hand — who was wearing a sports shirt, talked

condescendingly of the greenhorns around us who were going to appear in Labrador wearing jackets and ties. As it turned out, no one is even allowed into the Sir Wilfred Grenfell dining room unless he is wearing a jacket.

Both the costuming and the food are a little different at the company cafeteria, but not as much rougher as one might expect. The men, still in their working clothes, queue up to get to spanking-clean, glass-enclosed steam tables, and other men, in white (more than sixty men work in the cafeteria), serve them their choices. One evening meal that I sat in on included, among many other items, fried chicken legs, corn on the cob, and ice cream. Ice cream! The bread is baked in the cafeteria basement every night, and comes up fragrant in the morning. About the only concession the cafeteria makes to its remoteness from what we used to

call civilization is that the milk is powdered instead of fresh.

After dining, a man can saunter over to the company - built recreation hall, and shoot a little pool, or bowl. Twice a week there is a movie — eighty-five cents admission — in the rec hall's auditorium, and any week night, the men at Wabush can take a bus or a taxi over to Labrador City for a commercial show or a change of grub. Mail comes in bytrain twice a week, and can come anytime by air mail, as the Montreal Gazelle does, arriving on the evening of the day it is published. If a man gets too lonely for home, he can call any place in the world by a microwave setup. You can direct-distancedial into Wabush, but not yet out of it. Isn't progress wonderful?

Aside from the pub and the avail-

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ability of the telephone, the characteristic that brings Wabush a long step forward from my time in the hush is the presence of women. This time, progress is wonderful. During the summer I worked on the Quebec North Shore and Labrador. I saw roughly as many women as 1 did champagne cocktails, but in Wabush, women are as common as — as cocktails, come to think of it. As well as the hotel employees, there are about three hundred wives, mostly of senior or managerial personnel. (To answer a fairly obvious question: no. there is no prostitution in Wabush: since the camp is on private property, and access to it is limited, the company can and does prevent the import of fallen doves simply by not importing them. The company’s temptation to stray from the paths of mining and construction must sometimes be strong: a pretty red-headed switchboard operator in the hotel told me she had been offered as much as seventy dollars for her favors.) Shopping in Wabush is not good — there is only one store — and the women mostly drive to Labrador City where there is a shopping centre. This means one needs a car, but doesn’t one in Don Mills. Ont.? Perhaps the only difference is that it costs seventy-two dollars to ship a car to Wabush from Seven Islands and. once one has it. there is nowhere to go except back and forth to Labrador City.

Two-million-dollar school in the hush

Prices are outrageous. Forty-five cents for a quart of fresh milk. Twenty-nine for a handful of cottage cheese. Nearly two dollars a pound for steak. One woman, with no children. told me her grocery bill often topped forty dollars a week, and there is one family there with eleven children.

The families live in row housing which is certainly as comfortable as many places I've looked at in Don Mills. There is quite a rigid grade system for distributing tenants — the map in the camp manager’s office frankly lists “Class A” and “Class B“ houses — and if Wabush were much bigger it could properly be accused of segregating income groups. The sameness of the houses in the rows has been camouflaged a bit by painting the woodwork different colors. The company does not furnish the houses, but pays the shipping costs for old employees it transfers to Wabush. Anyone hired especially for Wabush pretty well has to get his own belongings in as best he can.

There are schools in Wabush. The school system now is a temporary building that will eventually be converted to a housing unit. Perhaps the showpiece of the whole camp is a new two - million - dollar school that will have, under Newfoundland's cumbersome system, one wing for Catholic students, one wing for “amalgamated’’ (everyone else), and a common cen-

tral section for such secular items as labs and a gym. This building, high on a hill with a stirring view of Wabush Lake, will be opened next fall, and will look after students from grade one to grade eleven. The Newfoundland government paid for most of the school, but the company subsidized the construction, and even now, the temporary Wabush school with its seventy-one pupils has a higher teacher-to-student ratio than Newfoundland’s present run-of-thecatch.

Throughout this report, I have used “company” as a kind of euphemism for the powers that be. In fact, the powers arc multifarious, and although Wabush will eventually be a “company town” — one of those sometimes beneficial and occasionally malevolent institutions that dot the Canadian north — it is now under the hands of so many different people that it is impossible to explain who it was that changed the last frontier without giving a brief history of iron mining in Labrador.

Mining men have known since 1900 that there were iron deposits in the heart of the wilderness, the Labrador trough. But for years no one believed it could be brought out economically

— if at all. Although most of the iron in Labrador lies so close to the surface that it can be mined by bulldozers, it runs in such low percentages

— the best ore is only fifty-two percent iron — that transportation becomes a big part of the price. By the 1940s, though, it was evident that the vast Mesabi range south of Lake Superior, which had been supplying most of North America's iron, was going to run out, and the last Mesabi reserves were scarcely higher in grade than the best at Labrador. That was when a number of bold men and bold steel companies banded together to form the Iron Ore Company of Canada, and set about building their impossible railway to the richest deposits in the trough, at Knob Lake, three hundred and fifty miles from the St. Lawrence. Ever since 1954 when the QNS and L went through. Knob Lake, or Schefferville as it is now known, has been sending from five to twelve million tons of ore a year down to Seven Islands, and thence to the steel mills of North America.

Since 1954, however, the people who work with iron ore have learned a lot more about it. New experiments, many of them conducted on the dwindling Mesabi reserves, showed how ore could be concentrated at the mine, and by the late Fifties, it was evident that there were many places other than Knob Lake that would, with the new processes, yield ore profitably. John C. Doyle, the promoter who was described in Portrait of one of Canada’s U. S. owners (Maclean's, Dec. 15, 1962), began developing some property he had acquired control of around Wabush Lake, more than a hundred miles closer to the St. Lawrence than Knob Lake, and only thirty-eight miles from the QNS and L. Shortly after, the Iron Ore Company, still working away around Schefferville, began developing another property it owned at Wabush. The ore in both IOC's and Doyle's land at Wabush is much lower in iron content than that at Knob Lake. Most

of it runs about thirty-seven percent. But with the new processes it can be worked up to as high as sixty-seven before it is shipped. This means that the ore shipped from around Wabush Lake will be richer than that from around Knob, as well as being closer to the port at Seven Islands.

Doyle began building a spur line from the QNS and L. Then he worked out a scheme with IOC for jointly financing the new line as far as Labrador City, where the IOC ore is, and paid for the remaining three miles to Wabush himself. IOC, because it was already an operating company, got the jump on Doyle in developing the new deposits by a couple of years, and when we arrived in Wabush to see what the last frontier looks like. Lab City, with its mine and its concentrating plant both working full blast, seemed already more of a town than a camp.

Doyle couldn’t have financed his own developments by himself. Eventually, he worked out a consortium of American, Canadian, and European steel companies to form a new company called Wabush Mines. Wabush Mines, in turn, will be run by Pickards Mather, a firm that acts as managing agents. And PM, as it is called, handed out contracts for constructing the mine and camp to a number of different construction firms, principally Henry J. Kaiser of Canada. These construction firms started work on Wabush only in 1960 and have already brought it along to the state I have tried to describe here.

Life in the queues

For all the softness of life on the frontier compared to the camps I knew, no one has yet learned how to make it pleasant for the working man. No movie theatre, no bowling alleys, not even any beer parlor, can ease the brain-crushing monotony of labor in the north. No ice cream can compensate for the black fly; no steam cafeteria for the slicing cold. They can bring in mail every hour on the hour, but a man who can’t afford to get an airplane out or bring his family in is going to feel as isolated as if he were on the moon.

Life in the camps of the north has some things in common with the life of Ivan Denisovich. A whistle sounds at 5 a.m., and the men stumble groggily from their bunks. Breakfast ends at seven, and many of the men have to be on the job well before that. All day long they seem to be in queues, so many working machines with numbers. Unless they’re among the first arrivals, they queue for breakfast in the cafeteria. They queue to catch buses or trucks to where they're working. At 11.30 (travel in and out of camp for lunch is on their own time), they come back in on the buses and queue for lunch, then queue again to go out on the job. Again to get a beer after work. Again for supper. Again for mail, or to pick up laundry. With the mixed tongues of Newfoundland, the Gaspé, Italy, Portugal and a score of other countries, men often spend hours alone with others they cannot talk to or comprehend. At night they lie around the bunkhouses, listening to someone's record of a cowboy tune or playing cards desultorily, or just

lying there letting the fatigue drain out of their hones. They go to sleep early.

Men go north to make money, and now. as when I was in the camps, one hears grumbling about the lack of opportunity to work overtime. Wages have improved as much as fringe benefits in the last ten years, but a man slugging away with a pick or shovel at Wabush still gets only $1.65 an hour for ten hours a day, six days a week. Anything over that is time and a half. Even bulldozer operators make only $2.20 an hour; a general foreman $2.50. The company charges sixty dollars a month — two dollars a day — for eating at the cafeteria, and anywhere from fifteen to about thirty for the man’s room. With laundry on top and without deducting taxes or his own incidental expenses, a laborer might clear three hundred and fifty dollars a month. The construction companies that have done most of the hiring so far have used Wabush as their point of hire, which means that a man must pay his own way in from Seven Islands or Montreal or St. John’s. Wabush has an arrangement with the Newfoundland government to see that sixty percent of the men employed here will be from Newfoundland and the camp echoes with the musical accents of the island, but Newfie laborers, as I remember from my own days in camp, get homesick very quickly. Nobody keeps figures on the turnover of labor but the airport at Wabush, which has three airlines servicing it, is busy most days with men coming in or going out. One can’t help thinking that a lot of the men on their way out must be far short of the stake they hoped to get when they agreed to go to Labrador.

After a few days of living and observing the new soft life, Newlands and I boarded a passenger car at Labrador City to travel over to and then down the QNS and L to civilization and television. I had enjoyed our visit, and was impressed by the changes we had seen. But after a few days among the square, regimented living quarters that looked so like a concentration camp, I felt a tinge of exhilaration at escaping. On the train I got to talking with a general foreman who was on his way out with a bad back. He was a veteran of many construction campaigns in the north. I told him how impressed I’d been. “Yes,” he said. “It’s a good camp, the best I’ve ever been in. But they’re all pretty much the same.” ★