This is story of the most amazing summer I have ever spent. A summer that started off with tears of, “I can’t wait til this is over”, but ended with tears of, “I don’t want this to end.” My name is Harjasprit Dhaliwal and this is the story of the summer of 1990 that I spent as a labour teacher.
I was nineteen years old and was sent to work for CN Rail on a tie - gang in northern Ontario. This was the first year that CN Rail was hiring women on their railway gangs so it was a rather big deal. I flew from my home in Vancouver out to Toronto for the week long training camp before being sent on my mission with CN Rail. I had never seen or heard of railway gangs so I had no idea what a tie-gang actually did. I didn’t even know what a tie was. I started to get a taste of what lay ahead of me when we role-played during the training camp. An experienced labour teacher took on the role of the CN employee and my role as a labour teacher was to convince him to participate in some evening classes I had set up. All of a sudden my role playing partner started insulting me and swearing and then told me to go take a hike. That completely took me off guard. I was told that I would be dealing with potential ex-convicts, verbally aggressive, rough men that didn’t come from my socio-economic background. I started to think of what I had gotten myself into. I was a naïve 19 year old that had never even spoken to a person that was not from the same socio-economic background and here I was going to be living and working with these people for the entire summer.
The day before I was sent out to my tie-gang, I was told I needed steel toed boots. I had never seen a pair of steel toed boots before and didn’t even know where one would purchase them from. So off I went shopping to buy some sparkling new boots and a new wardrobe of work wear as all I brought to Toronto were nice fashionable clothes that a 19 year old would wear with the hopes of down time spent in chic cafes and restaurants. With my luggage packed with my new wardrobe and boots, I left the next day for some small town in northern Ontario that I had never even heard of.
I was supposed to take a plane first and then a greyhound bus and get off at the Husky gas station off of the main highway. Not being familiar at all with Ontario’s towns and cities, I had no idea where I was going and just re-iterated the directions that I was given to the bus driver. The bus was driving in the middle of nowhere and then all of a sudden this Husky gas station appeared and there I was dropped off. I was given a telephone number that I was to call once I arrived at the gas station. It was the foreman’s number at the tie-gang and he said he would come pick me up. Four hours later that was. I actually didn’t think any one was going to come after two hours had gone by and started to panic. The gas station clerk didn’t seem very talkative so I just sat outside the gas station on the ground, wondering where I was, while watching the non-existent traffic drive by. Three hours into my wait, a vehicle stopped and two young men stepped out. They were German tourists who were hitch-hiking their way across Canada. They sat down with me and we helped each other kill time. They were waiting for their next potential ride and I was waiting for mine. Finally, as it became dark, the foreman arrived in his pick-up. He seemed very nice and warned me that the men might take some time to warm up to me and that they didn’t really appreciate the fact that women were being hired. Apparently on my tie-gang, three women had arrived a few days earlier and the men didn’t welcome them with open arms. Railway gangs usually consist of the same men working year after year so anyone new, especially a woman, is given a hard time, the foreman explained. If he was trying to ease my anxiety, it backfired. Again I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into.
As we rolled up to the camp site, I was searching for cabins but instead saw a train parked on the railway with about twenty modern railway cars attached behind the front engine and ending with a very old ratty looking car. Well that very old looking car was to be my home for the summer that I would be sharing with the three other women. It was specifically added this year for the newly hired women and had its own shower and bathroom so we could have our privacy and not have to go to the railway car that was converted into showers and bathrooms for the men. In fact, all the railway cars had been converted into something related to a home. There was one that was a kitchen that the cooks used to cook our breakfast and dinner, a dining car, a lounge car, a laundry car and the rest were converted into bedrooms. I was quite impressed with the set up. A few minutes later I heard a motor and many voices. In a few minutes I was about to meet the “rough, verbally aggressive, potential ex-convicts”.
I stepped outside and saw about sixty men and three women, all of European origins while my origins are from India. They walked in my direction and as they passed me, they stared long and hard and that was it. The three women were friendly and nice but the only men that spoke to me were the other foremen who came to explain to me the hours we would be working, our days off and the necessary paperwork that I needed to fill out. Okay, so they didn’t jump and run in my arms but at least they weren’t mean. I returned with the women to our car. They had only arrived a couple of days earlier so they weren’t of much help on what I should expect but they did say some of the men were rude towards them and behaved like jerks. Terrific. It was soon dinner time and all the men and women left to go shower before they would head to the dining car. I lectured myself as I walked to the dining car on how I should behave. I decided it would be best to be reserved and keep a low profile until the men became used to me and then I could be the happy, out-going person that I am. I would allow them to make the first move.
I was the first person in the dining car and was able to watch as, one by one, the men walked in. They seemed to be in a jovial mood and were joking with each other but the moment they noticed me with my smiling face, they became silent. Eventually they did smile but that was it. One by one, all the men had the same reaction, first surprised but then an eventual smile. Some even came to sit at my table. Those sitting at my table seemed very reserved but polite as they asked my name. I took the opportunity to tell them that I was a labour-teacher and all that it entailed. Apparently, the foremen had already informed them that a labour-teacher would be arriving that day but exactly what a labour-teacher was, they didn’t know. As I observed the other tables, I noticed the surrounding tables eavesdropping on our conversation. I also noticed the three other women interacting with the men at their table. The men were joking with them but in a lewd and inappropriate manner. I hoped that wasn’t what lay in store for me. The polite conversation continued at my table and I discovered that the sixty tie- gang crew were all from small towns in northern Ontario with the exception of five Quebecois and five Newfoundlanders. They stayed at the camp site and never went home during the four days off we were given for every ten days of work. Home was too far for them so they would only see their families at the end of the work season when the tie-gang would stop work due to the cold. Then the men would collect unemployment benefits for the rest of the year until the tie-gang started up again in late spring. This was their routine, year after year. After dinner, I went directly to bed for my first work day that was to start at five a.m.
The next morning in the dining car, this time for breakfast, I noticed a lot more smiles in my direction and hello’s. Some men even helped me when I was looking perplexed at a table lined with sandwich meats and loaves of bread. They politely explained that this was the lunch station and we were to make our own lunch and bring it with us as to the work site as it was located too far from where the train was parked. So every day, lunch would be eaten outside, seated on the ground. We would take these little motorized open air carts that drove on the train track to the work site. Upon our arrival, I would discover exactly what my job would be.
After a ten minute ride, we stopped and got off where these large machines were parked. The men all spread out, those who worked the machines headed to their machines and those who did manual labour headed behind the machines whose errors they were to correct. A foreman came to me and told me I would be working behind the spike machine as manual labour. My job was to remove the spikes that had not been put in correctly into the newly replaced ties and hammer a new spike in. It seemed easy enough until he handed me the hammer I would be using to bang in the ten inch spikes. It was about four feet high and weighed twenty-five pounds. As the foreman passed me the hammer, I dropped it as I didn’t anticipate it would be so heavy. I could barely lift it let alone swing it. The other men who were doing the same job as me, told me to hold it like a marching soldier would carry his rifle, with the head leaning on my shoulder and the base in the palm of my hand. It was so painful to carry and my shoulder ached from its weight and only five minutes had passed. I could barely carry this thing, how was I supposed to swing it with skill and aim for the spike. I tried to look for the other women and wondered what their job was. I found them at the very back of the gang, picking up the old spikes that the machines had removed and replaced with new ones. They were sort of like a clean up crew. So a very easy job that required no power, strength, skill or aim like mine did. As I also had to remove the spikes that hadn’t been put in correctly before hammering in the new ones, I was given a crow bar that reached just a little over my head, so it was about five and a half feet high and weighed thirty pounds. I didn’t have to carry both the hammer and the crow bar as each manual labour gang crew had to carry one tool. The men didn’t even attempt to carry two tools at the same time as the combined weight would be too heavy to carry all day long. After a two second job description I received, I was ready to hammer in my first spike. I was walking and following behind the spike machine, waiting for it’s first error but was struggling with just walking with this heavy tool that dug into my shoulder. The machine made its first error by skipping a spike so I had to bang one in. It was up to me. I had to show them a woman could do this job and CN Rail didn’t make a mistake in hiring women. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to control the hammer and it kept hitting anything and everything but the spike. The men were surprisingly very kind. One came running to my side and banged the spike in for me and at the same time gave me some pointers. I thought his kindness was an isolated incident but all throughout that day, different men would come and help me. These men were behaving so differently from what the women had said about them. I couldn’t figure it out. That first day, I didn’t manage to bang one single spike in.
At the end of the day, I was so tired I just showered and hit my bed, skipping dinner. My shoulder was so sore from carrying the hammer all day long. I remember crying that night thinking I wasn’t able to do the job, and surely the foremen had noticed and were going to fired me, proving CN Rail wrong for hiring women. I was capable of driving any one of the machines which only required minimal skill and absolutely no physical force but unfortunately, you had to have seniority. I wondered why I was given one of the tougher manual labour jobs to do and the three other women were just picking scrap metal. After three more days of pretty much the same scenario of not being able to bang a single spike, aching shoulders and crying at night, wondering what I was doing here. I knew I couldn’t quit as I would let down Frontier College but most importantly, I wanted to show them that CN Rail didn’t make a mistake in hiring women. Every day, I did the job to the best of my ability. I never asked to be changed to an easier position and never asked for help. I figured ways to use the crow bar to pull out the bent spikes by locking the head of the crow bar into the spike and them swinging on it with all of my body weight to pull down the crow bar which would then yank the spike out. It was my method as I wasn’t able to do it the way the men did for lack of upper body strength. When I would bang a new spike in, instead of swinging the hammer to hit the spike, I would aim and just repeatedly drop the hammer directly down in front of me and its weight itself would knock the spike in. After about two weeks, I got the hang of things, but by using my technique.
I noticed that the other women were not treated as respectfully and kindly as I was. Any lewd or sexually charged conversation would immediately stop when my presence was noticed but would continue if the other women were there. The men were always kind and helpful and I never had to ask for help as someone was always looking out for me and would notice if I was struggling. They even gave me a nickname, “Smiley,” as I was always smiling. Everyone on the tie-gang had a nickname and compared to the other women, mine was far nicer than theirs. One was called “Bugs Bunny” because of her buck teeth, and another was called “Sapphire” because of her resemblance to an overweight female wrestler and the last one had a very derogatory name in reference to her very large breasts. The next few days I would observe the other women working and they didn’t seem to be hustling, complained that they were tired and took quite a few cigarette breaks. I realize that you actually teach people the way you want to be treated. My hard work doing a physically demanding job with no complains, earned me respect that was not given to the other women. This lesson has been useful all my life. Act like you want to be treated. Your behaviour determines the way people will treat you. Work hard and the respect follows. The other women noticed I was being treated differently and didn’t seem to understand why. Unfortunately they didn’t last long on the tie-gang and by week three, I was the only women left which increased the respect I received from the tie-gang.
Once I got the swing of things, the job actually became enjoyable as there was non-stop laughter all day long. The hard work was bearable because of the great group of men on the gang. That was another lesson I learned, that no matter how much you hate your job, if you‘re working with great people whose company you enjoy, the worst job doesn’t seem so bad. These sixty men were the funniest, most helpful, and kindest men I had ever met. True gentlemen. Laughing all day long continued for the rest of the summer. After work, we would go fishing if we were close to a lake which was a first experience for me. They shared their hobbies with me and their world. They all had a vast knowledge of the wilderness and could spot different animal tracks and be capable of identify the animal they belonged to. They taught me how to make a fire from scratch and how to know if a river’s water was safe to drink. They taught me so many things about nature and the wilderness. They opened their world to me. I, in turn, would offer them classes after work in the areas they wished. It was almost always individual tutoring as everyone had so many different needs and I preferred to concentrate on one person, one hundred percent, for one hour and then continue with someone else after, one on one.
For the Quebecois, they wanted English classes. Even thought their spoken English was quite good, their grammar wasn’t up to par. I did a lot of math tutoring as I noticed when pay day would arrive, some men were never quite sure if their overtime was calculated correctly. So basic division and multiplication was something they asked for.
The only negative thing that occurred during the whole summer happened almost near the end. I was particularly close with two of the Quebecois as I worked behind their machine all day long so I got to know them the best. One evening after work, I was walking through their bedroom car looking for them and was about to knock on their door when I heard a conversation in French where they were referring to me as the “Paki”. My heart just broke. I left immediately without knocking and returned to my room, stunned and shocked. How could someone I considered a friend allow another person to call me “Paki” without defending me? By not saying anything and participating in the conversation, he was condoning it. The person who did say the racial slur, I also considered a friend, in fact, I considered everyone on the tie-gang a friend.
The next day I ignored all of the five Quebecois as they all participated in the conversation. I could tell my close friend was puzzled by my behaviour and saddened. That evening after work, he asked me if something was wrong and I told him that I heard his conversation last night. He didn’t seem to get it but I left it at that. The next day I ignored him again and he seemed deeply saddened and affected by the fact that I wouldn’t speak to him. Again he asked me what he had done, and this time I said that I had heard how he and his friends referred to me. I wasn’t able to say the word “Paki” because it hurt to even repeat it out loud. He still didn’t seem to understand or maybe he did, I’ll never know, because for the rest of the summer I did not speak to him and he just sort of closed up and stopped joking and seemed to be really affected by the lack of my friendship. At least he did understand that it was something that was said so he did learn that words are very powerful tools and can be hurtful if not chosen carefully.
The summer wrapped up for me as I had to go back to university. I remember packing my bags and feeling so sad that the summer was ending and I didn’t want it to be over. I said goodbye to all of the men and was so surprised that they actually became emotional. I was very flattered by their reaction and of course, there were tears on my part. They all asked me to come back to work for CN Rail directly but I declined.
So ended my adventure as a labour-teacher. I have travelled the world, been to many exotic locations and even moved to Paris thirteen years ago where I am currently living but no summer compares to that summer of 1990. I learned so many life lessons and experienced a whole different world that wasn’t mine but became mine that summer. When I returned back to university a few days later, my friends all made comments on how I no longer had a neck. I looked like a line backer with these large shoulder muscles. Eventually the muscles faded but not the memories of that summer. The next summer I was working in a small café in Vancouver and who should walk in but the two German hitch-hikers that I had hung out with at the Husky gas station in the middle of nowhere. We recognized each other immediately. I guess we really do live in a really small world.
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