FOR MANY YEARS, LOCAL 63 William (Junior) Abbott led a double life. For about half of any given month, he worked long shifts in the Alberta oil industry. The rest of the time, he was back at home in Newfoundland where he did his other job—mayor of the town of Seal Cove, Fortune Bay.
He was elected in 2007, the same year he started working in Alberta.
This busy double life was a challenge, but it ultimately worked out well for both Junior and Seal Cove.
“The town council that was there before, they were having issues,” says Junior. “They couldn’t seem to resolve anything. So, myself and three of my friends, we got nominated.”
After success at the ballot box, the new town council set to work.
“The first thing we wanted to do was get the water and sewer debt paid off,” says Junior. “The town owed $670,000, and our plan was to get everything paid off within the first term-and-a-half. We successfully did that in five years.”
JUNIOR, WHO IS 47, was born in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, and moved to Newfoundland with his family as a boy. He and his wife, Tina, have made Seal Cove their home since 1994.
“What we did was bought a little house—a little fixer-upper—and we fixed it up,” he says. “We’ve been together almost 28 years, married for 20.”
Tina has a job in Newfoundland’s growing aquaculture industry. The couple do not have any children, and have adapted pretty well to the long separations.
Seal Cove, Fortune Bay, is a community of about 245 people located on Newfoundland’s south coast, approximately six hours west of the capital of St. John’s. It sits on the north side of Fortune Bay, across from the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon.
If you are ever driving to the town, you might want to put a little more information into your GPS. There is more than one Seal Cove in Newfoundland. Seal Cove, White Bay, is a town in the northwest region of The Rock, while Seal Cove, Conception Bay, is on the east side. Formerly an independent town, it is now amalgamated by Conception Bay South, but still shows up on your GPS as Seal Cove.
Junior’s term as mayor ended a few years ago, but he still stays in touch with town business and helps when he can.
Seal Cove made national news in October 2016 when it was slammed by Hurricane Matthew. Roads were washed out and bridges damaged.
“I was on my way home from Alberta that day,” he recalls. “I was leaving the site when my wife called and said, ‘You’re not going to get here.’ ”
The main road leading into Seal Cove had been washed out in six places. Junior flew to Gander where he and a friend hopped in a car and drove as close to town as possible.
“My brother-in-law was waiting there with a speedboat,” he says. “So we made it.”
The cost of cleanup in Matthew’s wake—including $88,000 for a damaged bridge—was paid by the province and didn’t become one more burden for the struggling community.
JUNIOR’S EARLY TRAINING IN THE skilled trades led to his current work as a pipe insulator at the Kearl Oil Sands Project near Fort McMurray. It was a good career choice.
Fifty years ago, people in the Seal Cove area made their living in both the fishing and forestry industries.
Now, the population is mostly retirees and old-age pensioners,” says Junior. “Those not drawing pensions are going and working in Alberta, mainly. That includes me and 25 of my friends.”
As a young man, Junior was determined to learn a trade.
“I went to school to become a millwright and ended up being a refrigeration engineer,” he says.
That led to work in nearby industries, which paid the bills but didn’t hold his interest.
“I got tired of playing with poisonous gases, like ammonia and Freon,” he says. “So then I heard of work in Alberta—it was actually booming then—and I decided to try to see how this works out. I haven’t looked back since.”
He and about 1,000 other Local 63 members work at the Kearl site, which processes 220,000 barrels of bitumen per day. They are employed by AECOM Maintenance Contractors Ltd. and are in the middle of a five-year maintenance contract.
A lot of on-the-job training led to Junior’s current work as a pipe insulator.
“They put you up with a good journeyman and he shows you his stuff,” he says. “At first, my job was basically to serve him and learn.”
Being a quick learner has given Junior the flexibility to pick up new trades. Mastering pipe insulation was as easy as Pi, he says. The Pi equation (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter) is fundamental in pipe work.
“I learned that the only thing I needed to remember was Pi = 3.14,” says Junior. “Then you’re good to go. Everything we do deals with Pi.”
Junior put his leadership skills to good use in the oilsands as well. He has served as a CLAC steward on a number of occasions.
After more than 10 years, Junior still thoroughly enjoys the work, even though the commute back to Seal Cove is daunting.
When he wraps up his 15-day stint at the Kearl site, he takes a charter to Edmonton, then flies to Ottawa and catches a connection to Halifax, before landing in Gander.
From there, it is a three-hour drive south to Seal Cove. The entire journey can take up to 18 hours. It takes a day or two to recover from the jet lag, but just being home again is energizing.
“I like to go out for a scoot around, just enjoy the scenery, the peace and quiet, the fresh air,” Junior says.
And he still likes to keep in touch with what’s happening in the town. Community involvement, it seems, is in his blood. This year, for example, it’s all about roads.
“We’re going to pave our local roads—all the side roads—so that’s going to cost,” he says. “It’s a 50/50 split between us and the provincial government. We’ve got to pay $150,000 and then the province will pay $150,000. So not a bad deal.”
The town also recently made improvements to its water treatment facility, which has made a huge difference in the daily lives of Seal Cove residents.
“Now, they can actually drink the water,” Junior says. “It hadn’t been treated with chlorine for so long, and now we have this potable water system that purifies the water—same as what you would buy in a bottle.”
Dividing his life and time between two provinces is a fact of life for Junior, as it is for so many Newfoundlanders and others from the east coast who work in Alberta’s oil industry. After a couple of weeks of Seal Cove sea and sky, it’s back on the plane for the circuitous flight to northern Alberta. But there is great camaraderie at the Kearl site and the camps where the workers stay.
“It’s a good bunch of people and you learn pretty soon how to get along,” he says.
Despite the oil industry’s ups and downs, the work has been pretty steady over the last 11 years.
“The only year that was bad was 2009, because of the recession,” Junior says. “I came back in 2010 and haven’t looked back since.”
Looking forward, he hopes the steady work, combined with a solid CLAC pension, will mean he can retire in his mid-50s. Then he can go back home to Seal Cove for good.
Hurricane Matthew did its most serious damage in Haiti, taking 546 lives and causing $1.9 billion USD in damages. But Canada was not untouched. The remnants of the Category 5 hurricane hit Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland from October 10-11, 2016, unleashing heavy rains and strong winds. Gander International Airport recorded 6.45 inches of rain, and winds reached 130 kmh in Fortune Bay. The Thanksgiving Day storm caused widespread flooding and numerous landslides, uprooted trees, and left thousands of homes and businesses without power. Seventeen communities declared a state of emergency. Damage to roads alone in Newfoundland reached over $10 million while the storm caused over $100 million in damage across Atlantic Canada.