Going the Distance
A trip through northern BC inspires a new appreciation for remote workers
By John Kamphof, National Board President
Earlier this summer, my wife Corrie and I took a trip to northern BC in our Roadtrek van. I wanted to show her the places I used to visit while working as a CLAC representative.
We started the trip by taking the ferry from Port Hardy near the northern tip of Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert—a spectacular 16-hour trip. From there we headed to Terrace and Kitwanga, and from there north to Meziadin Junction and then west to Stewart, BC, and Hyder, Alaska.
We used to represent the employees of a number of construction firms developing about five major gold mine operations in that area. It’s one of the most scenic drives in the world. Between Meziadin and Stewart—about 60 kilometres—there are over twenty glaciers and one major glacier, Bear Glacier, near the highway. Each time I made this trip in the past I was left in awe of the beauty of this province. We were left in awe again this time.
From Stewart, we headed south and east toward Smithers and Prince George. We experienced more spectacular scenery, although the weather was much more cool and damp. Driving through BC made us realize just how vast our province is, and how long it takes to get from one major location to another.
I also realized that in many ways, my job as a CLAC representative could get a bit crazy. My wife stated on a number of occasions that there were often some real risks in visiting some of these job sites. Some were extremely remote locations in the northernmost parts of BC—and this was in the day before mobile phones! How would I have contacted home or gotten help if I’d been in an accident? There were also many occasions when I would spend about 12 hours of travel one way to visit a work crew for a one-hour meeting, then meet with management, then spend another 12 hours going home. CLAC representatives still do this sort of thing today—only now they have mobile phones and other devices to stay in contact with their families. It’s just what we did, and still do, to maintain contact with our members and ensure their concerns are addressed.
But the big thing that hit me as we made this trip through the province is not that CLAC representatives make some crazy trips to meet our members. It’s that our members who work in remote locations are making some huge sacrifices. When I was a rep, I was only away from home for the better part of a week every month. These members are away from their families for months at a time. How can a person maintain a meaningful relationship with their spouse and kids if they’re only home one week per month—or less? What does this do to a family? What are the added social costs to a construction project that requires workers to be absent from their families and communities? What do companies and unions need to do to mitigate the social damage done by the demands on their workers?
There are no simple answers to these questions, but it was something that was a part of the discussion when I was a representative, and I know it is still a matter of discussion and negotiation today for CLAC. Let us hope that as we reflect on this and talk about these matters at our membership meetings, we can come up with some meaningful ways to reduce the social cost to our families and communities as they do the hard work that keeps our country prosperous.