This First Person column is written by Dave Mackenzie who worked as a welder in Calgary. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
I was standing in bay 5 in a smoky, dark welding shop in a soulless industrial park in Calgary. What used to be a clean, orderly, well-staffed workspace was now a mess.
Engineer’s drawings were scattered everywhere. Cut lists were missing, broken tools were piling up, and the previous shift had somehow managed to build part of a gas processing structure backwards.
“What are we doing here?” I thought.
That was last winter. I’d been doing this work for almost a decade and I’d never seen morale so low.
The welding crews I supervised are an integral yet invisible part of the oil and gas sector, Alberta’s largest industry. Working nights and days on the outskirts of Calgary, we fabricate massive structures for distant oil and gas fields — some 35 metres long and weighing upwards of 100 tonnes.
It’s a much-maligned industry. After years of austerity, government tax cuts and increasing energy prices had finally given us hope. But unlike previous booms, this time there isn’t much new investment.
Without regular work, welding shops had slashed their workforces and reduced wages for those that remained. When large jobs did come in, shops would bring in welders much the same way as they brought in steel and welding electrodes.
Then let them go. But these were people, not consumables.
That’s why I kept my goals modest. Keep my crew safe, keep the quality of work up and accomplish what we could in our allotted shift — in that order. Today, it was obvious we weren’t going to meet our deadlines.
Suddenly, I heard someone yell, “Man down! Man down!”
My heart skipped a beat. I was off, running in the direction of that voice.
I rounded the corner into bay 6, past Hermingildo, who was manoeuvring an I-beam into place with the overhead crane.
I swerved to the right, scrambled over a loose pile of angle iron and cut to bay 7.
Doubled over in pain on the floor of the pump skid was Russ. He was well into his 60s, had curly grey hair and a hockey player’s smile. He had served in Bosnia with the Canadian Forces and had worked for years as a night shift welder before transferring to my crew. I liked this Cape Bretoner from the beginning.
Russ held his left knee. His lower leg was grotesquely misaligned.
“Russ! What happened?”
I looked at Laurn who was up a nearby ladder. Earlier that shift, she’d seen Russ was hurting and offered to switch jobs. But “he’s a stubborn old Caper,” she said.
Hailing from Sydney Forks, N.S., Laurn had her own stubbornness. Given thankless jobs that were both hard and boring (the worst combination in a welding shop), she would attack them with a determination I could only envy.
Russ writhed in agony. I dropped to my knees, ready to give first aid. He waved me off.
The rest of the crew gathered round.
Tomo was there, a crew leader who was always there when needed — such as the time the oxyacetylene hoses caught fire, burning right next to some high-pressure gas cylinders. His shout saved us from disaster that day.
Nicole was there too. One of the few born-and-raised Calgarians on the crew, she placed fourth at the Skills Canada welding competition while at Notre Dame High School. But three layoffs in her first five years as a welder soured her on the industry.
Russ tried to reassure us. “I’m OK,” he said.
I had my doubts.
“Pass me that dunnage,” he said through clenched teeth.
A four by four length of wood, as long as his leg and just as heavy, was slid toward him by one of the crew. He placed it beside his misaligned knee and raised his fist.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The dunnage was the anvil and Russ’s fist was the hammer. He smashed his knee between the two.
I jumped back in shock. I think we all did.
The leg was miraculously straight again. Russ was back on his feet, smiling, apologetic.
He was due for replacement surgery any week, he told everyone, and sometimes his knee would just pop out. Nothing to do but hammer it back and keep going. He assured us he was fine, picked up his welding helmet, and got back to work.
Relieved, the rest of the crew drifted away. As I went back to bay 5 to figure out how to cut that backwards structure apart, I thought about who we are and what we were doing there.
This crew was from all over the world and every corner of Canada. Some had chosen welding right out of high school, but most, like me, had fallen into it by chance. There was an engineer from India whose credentials weren’t recognized in Canada and another person who had been a tank driver patrolling the demilitarized zone during his Korean military service. Hermingildo seemed to have done every job available to him since immigrating from the Philippines, from ironing pants for a fashion company to driving taxis.
Welding for oil and gas is dirty work and somewhat dangerous. It is hard on our bodies. I got the sense most of us were OK with that. We chose this trade and this industry, because at one time, it was something to be proud of and a way to get ahead. These days, it feels like that’s no longer the case.
I left that crew earlier this year. I now teach high school kids how to weld, believing and hoping there will always be a need for skilled tradespeople — if not in oil and gas, then elsewhere.
But I often think of that crew. All but two were eventually laid off or quit on their own accord. I wonder if, like Russ’s broken knee, we weren’t all a little bit broken, hanging on the best we could.
Telling your story
As part of our ongoing partnership with the Calgary Public Library, CBC Calgary is running in-person writing workshops to support community members telling their own stories. Read more from this workshop on the theme Shifting Work:
To find out more, suggest a topic or volunteer a community organization to help host, email CBC producer Elise Stolte or visit cbc.ca/tellingyourstory.