Work Force - Construction to Production

Construction worker wearing a Kitimat sweatshirt. 

Construction workers and management, administrative and support services personnel, and families for many came to Kitimat first, and then a period of changeover to the permanent work force took place.  The construction workers came from everywhere – around the globe – and did all manner of work.

[Basil] had an appointment at 9:30 a.m. on November the 14th at the Alcan Office in Vancouver for an interview for a job and he phoned me about 10:30 and said he had the job and I said, “Oh great!”…we were so pleased at the idea because it was what he wanted, and he said he didn’t think I would be quite as happy when I heard what else he had to say.  Would I collect his clothes together in a suitcase and bring them over to Vancouver and meet him on the wharf at such and such a time before the boat left for Kitimat that night?  Well, I didn’t have a washing machine, or a dryer so you could imagine what it was like trying to get clothes ready and I lived in North Vancouver, a quarter of a mile from the bus stop and I set off with the suitcase, a three-month-old child and a three-year-old child, and we walked down to the bus.  We got off at the ferry, and got on the ferry to go to Vancouver, got off there and then got another bus and we met Basil out at the wharf.  When he left that evening we had no idea, well apart from anything else, how long he would be up here and anything like that but we didn’t even know how we could keep in touch.  (Cathy Baxter)

[Fred Ryan] came from Vancouver….he took his wife’s cookbook and went to work as a cook in the survey camp and the story is told ... his first breakfast he cooked for eight people in the camp and the first guy came in and took half of it and the next one came in and took the other half…He was so surprised because the recipe said “serves eight”.  He went to work in the big kitchen…Fred didn’t work in the cookhouse too long.  He bought himself a book on photography and became Alcan’s official photographer and did excellent work.  He took some great pictures….and later on he and Ed Schisler opened a photography and sporting goods store in the townsite when the opportunity arose and everyone knew him as “Five Percent” Fred because for five percent he would get you anything you wanted…pictures, cameras…  (Dick and Mary Hermann)

Kitimat Constructors crew member meets with a bear. 

“I got off the boat on Christmas morning and Bob Halsall who was working in Personnel for Kitimat Constructors, he came down to meet the boat, and there were only two women on the boat and a bunch of very sad-looking men who obviously didn’t want to be in Kitimat for Christmas but they were sent up there for jobs, so he says to me, “Are you Mrs. Coultan?” and I said, “Yes I am,” and he said, “Can you type?”  And I said, “Yes.”  He said, “Well I think we have a job for you in our office.”…After New Years Art said, “Well I’m not going to stay up here he said if you’re going to be in Victoria, because that’s never going to work, you see….So I said, “Well you know, I got an offer of a job the morning I got off the boat,” I said, “wonder if I should go down and see them.”  So I put on my little brown gumboots which I got by this time, and the black suit, and the short fur coat, and I got on the rickety old bus and I went down to Kitimat Constructor’s office.  Well Doug Armstrong was the comptroller.  A big good looking guy and he’s sitting at his desk snoozing with a ski cap over his face, and somebody pokes him up and says, “Oh Doug.  This is Mrs. Coultan and she is looking for a job.”  So he puts his foot down and he looks at me and he says, “Oh, you’ll be fine.  We’ll start you at 250 per month and we’ll pay your fare up as a new hire which was 80 bucks”…so I was suddenly an accounting clerk for Kitimat Constructors.  (June Coultan)

Between 1954 and 1956, Alcan’s permanent work force for production was mainly recent immigrants to Canada.  At that time, high employment existed in the country for English and French-speaking Canadians.  “If you want to study a foreign language, go stand at the bus stop” was a popular saying in the early days.  John Kendrick remembers, “What started as a necessity became a policy.  The young immigrants, many with wives and children, became the first stable labour force in the smelter."  During all the years of construction and early operation, engineers – civil, chemical, electrical, and mechanical – were hired many straight out of school.  

Men were recruited in major centres using radio, television, and the press to find suitable applicants.  Alcan recruited men from road building crews, farm crews, railway crews, and logging crews – labouring men who could endure the rigours of smelter work.  They came after hearing about the new town being built – a place you could bring your family and have a permanent job.  Special assets of the area for the family, such as outdoor activities, were promoted.

“The first collective agreement for Alcan employees at Kitimat and Kemano was negotiated and signed with the Allied Aluminum Workers Council on June 21st 1954.  On August 14th, 1956, Local 5115, United Steelworkers of America, was certified as the bargaining agent for Alcan hourly paid employees in Kitimat and Kemano, and at present has a collective Labour Agreement with the Company which runs until the summer of 1960.” Kitimat - Kemano: Five Years of Operation, 1954-1959, Aluminum Company of Canada

Prime Minister Diefenbaker visits with Kitimat Works potline shift crew.

Shortly after the Council was certified the first United Steelworkers of America organizer arrived in Kitimat.  As at that time the community was closed to “undesirables” the Steelworkers’ representative Wally Ross was covertly planted as an Alcan employee.  He was soon exposed and fired but shortly after, the Steelworkers Local 5115 won over the Allied Aluminum Workers Council by 1447 to 426.

The Labour Relations Department administered the collective agreement.  In 1955, the labour force was 2,079 persons; a two-year Collective Labor Agreement was signed with the American Federation of Labor, and by 1956 the payroll was $7.7 million.  The following are some reminiscences and observations of first days of employment on the Project: 

It was a great job for somebody fresh out of school like I was because there was so much going on, so much to see and so much ability or opportunity to learn about the industry and the construction business…Alcan had quite an interview program at UBC…  (Dick Hermann)

The first workers came in on this anode baking.  Somewhere around 1953.  December 1953 and were set up in the washer and locker building….But none of the workers that came in got any plushy bunkhouses or anything like that.  They really toughed it out.  I tell you it was a dirty hot job that they were doing…baking the anodes….At the start of the shift they had the anodes in steel casings sitting down on the pot shelves then they…had a baking pan on the bottom of the anode casings and they put that down and they filled the cavity with coke and lit it and when they lit the coke for the first few hours it was pea soup black in there….There are not many guys left that remembers the smoke.  (Harry McLellan)

They had to start Line 2 up in July, so they had to recruit men, and of course, construction was still going on, so you had the washer locker building, then they had these tent camps…just south of Line 1A, down in the flats there.  So we had to bring men in, then…the supervisors had to have training programs for all these men, and what a potroom was like.  These guys, the average guy didn’t – some of the foremen went east to look at a potroom, but the men didn’t….When the thing started up in July 1954, there was a whole horde of eastern potmen came out, to start up Line 2 and then Line 1.  So, you almost had double crews in each section with the easterners and the westerners, and of course most of the guys from Quebec couldn’t speak English, so there was a bit of a language problem….Each section had like say four from Arvida and four new guys, and they showed them.  It was pretty tough, we had all kinds of problems….but by the end of the year, December 1954, things were going very well.  (Harry McLellan)

I was the first operator in the transformer station. This is where the power was generated in Kemano and transmitted over the powerlines to Kitimat, stepped down there and then sent on to the potlines from AC, alternating current, to direct current. It operated at a considerable power. There was a thousand volts over the bus-bars ….at 100,000 amperes, so it was quite considerable. My job was just to make sure that the power flowed smoothly.” (Noel Lewis-Watts)

In-plant communication was essential as well.  The workers needed a reliable source of information that presented changes, initiatives and plans.  John Pousette remembers the early days of in-plant communication:

“The way we communicated … the manager would hold a meeting over in the plant or somewhere and it would be sort of a council meeting and everybody would be invited and told what was going to happen next.  Then we developed another technique…if I knew what I had to do I could call about eight people in the plant in the morning and by that afternoon the story would have gone around the whole plant.  There was a phenomenal underground arrangement there to communicate and the thing is that when people started repeating stories by the time they got to the guy that was down on the bottom of the ladder it might not resemble very much the story that was started with.  There were an awful lot of people from quite a few nationalities there and some of them were still having linguistic problems.  

Alcan produced papers in Eastern Canada for the Sagueney and so one day somebody at one of our meetings said “We need a paper here.”  Dutch Turney looked over at me and said, “Would you start a paper?”  And I said “I don’t know anything about establishing a paper.” And he said, “I’ll get somebody out from Montreal” I never thought anything more of it and then about two months later a fellow by the name of R.T. Rudd - Bud Rudd – arrived on the scene.  I get introduced to him and he said, “We’re going to start a paper.” And I said, “Fine, I’ll help you whenever I can.” Because I still had other jobs that were still very much part of the operation and were very important.  Anyway, Bud and I put together the first paper.  … We were working with the boys down at the Sentinel – publication day is Friday and about Wednesday or Thursday Bud comes in and says, ‘Well, we should be getting this over to the Sentinel because I’m leaving on Monday.”  I said, “Leaving on Monday?” He said, “Yeah, you’re going to be the editor.”  I said, “Yeah, yeah, sure,” and brushed the thing off.  Then I found out that he’d arranged that we’d publish this thing every two weeks or whatever.  But nobody told me that I had any less work to do and so we’d end up putting the paper up on Wednesday or Thursday because we had to have it to the Sentinel on Thursday.  I’d sometimes be writing stories for the paper at one or two o’clock in the morning.”  (John Pousette)

Arthur Clinton “Dutch” Turney was Kitimat Works’ first manager (1954-1957).

[Dutch Turney] was a very interesting individual because he was quite thorough in some things – he was a draftsman/engineer – and so he was always interested in details.  He wasn’t too interested in people, but he was interested in the mechanics of the operation.  (John Pousette)

Wilf Thebes describes his first work at Kitimat Works as an electrode baker:

“It wasn’t until I got into the plant and saw all these pots lined up one behind the other and all the buzz bars [sp.] and that… so they took us into an area…there was just one black cloud of smoke… I thought, oh my God, do I have to work in there? It was unbelievable.  Finally I saw a guy coming out of there. He was just as black as the ace of spades… It was John Gooding who had come from Quebec ….and it was just unreal. Anyway, as luck would have it I never got into that situation ….They put me in another area. We were building cathodes…. Where John came out they were baking anodes. We were put into the area where we built the cathodes…

They had brought a lot of French Canadians out from Quebec to assist us, because we never had a clue what to do and how to do it…In those days too… with the liquid paste in the anode, when they pulled the studs out that liquid paste would run into the hole, come in contact with the molten bath and there was an explosion…lots of times they used to burn up cranes…. it was a real disaster there.

We managed. We got thought it. We got things running pretty well. Then you move on to the other building. Gradually… after about three or four months they made me a section chief. I had three or four men under me. By this time you get to learn a little bit what’s going on and how to do it.   

….and my superintendent was Bill Rich. And Bill used to say to me, ‘You know Wilf, you’re a heck of a lot older than I am. I’m just a young fellow. How do feel about me being your superintendent?’ I said, ‘Hey, never a problem. Don’t worry about that. We’ll get along good.’

We had a wonderful team. We had a real team. We had real teamwork. We had the best production. We had the highest current efficiency and we were just booming right along".