Friends of Grain Elevators

Voices of the Grain Trade

Our volunteer interview teams in Thunder Bay and Winnipeg did their best to collect voices reflecting all major facets of Canada's international grain trade. As a result, you will find interviews with farmers, researchers, plant breeders, company owners, and railway employees blended in with the stories of grain handlers, inspectors, lake shippers, regulators, builders, marketers, and many more. Our voices are spread from Quebec City to Victoria, with the highest concentrations being from Thunder Bay and Winnipeg.  Getting all these interviews onto the website will be a gradual process. Check back often and please contact us if you have questions about the project.

Voice of the month

Victor Bel - Inspector: Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Victor Bel worked as an inspector with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. At first vowing never to work in an elevator, as his immigrant father and uncle had, he became what he calls the “bug man” –a career that regularly had him crawling around ships hulls and elevators to guarantee bug-free grain shipments. Vic takes us on a tour from elevator to elevator on Thunder Bay’s waterfront, recalling his adventures and sometimes very dangerous work.

Listen to a snippet of the interview with Victor Bel -

John Mallon

Labourer, General Manager: Manitoba Pool

John Mallon began working in the Manitoba Pool in 1935 after his father, a grain inspector, helped him find a job. He began by shovelling box cars, but worked up the ranks until he was general manager. John gives much praise to the farmers of Manitoba. He describes working early hours, and having a high level of responsibility - yet he thoroughly enjoyed this job. Mr. Mallon also talks about the wartime storage silos - huge warehouses that have now been completely decommissioned. His recount is quite interesting, as it is not often that you get to hear the stories from someone who started working in the industry over 80 years ago!

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Paul Martin

President, Prime Minister: Canada Steamship Lines

Paul Martin worked as the president of Canada Steamship Lines - a major great lakes shipping company, in 1973. A decade later, he bought the company himself. Paul has a strong connection to the grain industry, being aware of their influence from a young age, and continuing to learn about the industry and its importance to the Canadian economy for his life. Another important topic that Paul discusses is the shift in the grain industry from the European market to the Chinese market. Please contact friendsofgrainelevators@gmail.com for this interview.

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Ken Matchett

Accountant, CEO: United Grain Growers, XCan Grain

Ken Matchett is a chartered accountant by profession, and has worked in marketing and country operations of UGG, as well as CEO of XCan grain. His work when he began at UGG was very important - he introduced a great deal of computerization and automation, and he is proud of the fact that at one point while he worked there UGG represented ⅔ of the grain going in and out of Thunder Bay. When he moved into marketing, he was quite good at that as well. This part of the industry is extremely interesting, as it involves marketing towards other countries on a massive scale. Ken also talks about the shift from European to Asian markets, and the effect that had on his work life.

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Charlie Mayer

Farmer, Member of Parliament

Charlie Mayer grew up on a farm, working there until he got into politics and achieved the position of the MP who is responsible for the Canadian Wheat board. Charles became educated at a young age, eventually completing an undergraduate degree in agriculture. He discusses the mentality towards elevators in the farming community when he was young; many people believed that they didn’t have a say or any power in the enterprise that decided their economic fate. He also speaks about the role of farm women, who he believes majorly contributed to the grain industry by contributing to the farm work in a major way, as well as supporting the other workers, and retaining economic and familial stability.

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Glen McGlaughlin

Executive Director: Saskatchewan Wheat Pool

Glen McGlaughlin worked for the Farm Credit Corporation for 8 years before starting at Saskatchewan Wheat Pool in 1973, where he worked for 22 years until he became the Executive Director of Policy and Member Services. Glen discusses many of SWP’s policies, Otto Lang’s LIFT program, and changes in the Canadian Wheat Board. He discusses national politics within the grain trade, and the role of many different organizations. He also discusses the major changes to the wheat pools; construction, consolidation, and closing.

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Patricia McGonigal

By-Law Enforcement Officer: City of Thunder Bay

Patricia McGonigal worked as a by-law enforcement officer for the City of Thunder Bay. Her father also worked as a grain inspector. A big part of Patricia’s work involved attempting to get the grain companies to clean up derelict elevators - or enforcing minor by-laws in regards to them, such as boarding up the entrances. Patricia remarks upon how hard it was to get the elevator companies to actually comply with these laws, and describes how whether they could be forced to or not became a political decision. She also explains how dangerous it could be to step into an old elevator - something that she often decided not to do, as the firefighters with her wouldn’t do either.

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Tom McKinnon

Grain Trimmer

Tom McKinnon worked as a grain trimmer, following in his father, grandfather, and grandfather-in-laws steps. He was born in 1933, and worked an extremely long career of 52 years. He discusses the grain industry in the 50s, and which companies were large in that era. His job was essentially to make sure that the grain was correctly loaded into the ship, so as not to flip it over. Tom also speaks to the dangers of the ship - the potential of explosions, the exposure to grain dust, etc. His knowledge grew steadily to the point that he was given the position of president within the company. Mr. McKinnon is very enthusiastic about his enjoyment of the job, and still wishes he was working.

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Doug McMillian

Sailor, Union Officer: Seafarers International Union

Doug McMillian gained a groundwork of shipping knowledge in the beginning of his career on boats, before starting a 30 year career in the Seafarers International Union. He discusses ship life in the early career, and how strict the ships were - since they had a large pool of workers to draw from, the workers would have to wait at the union hall for long hours to get employed, they could never drink or use drugs on the ship, and they had to pay so much in union dues that it took 3 months of ship work to pay them off. During his career, Doug bounced around to different cities such as Toronto, Montreal, and Thunder Bay. Doug’s understanding of the changes that have occurred in the grain trade run deeper than most; he discusses automation, changing markets, changing routes, and changing union membership.

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Roderick Medwick

Car Checker, Yardman, Superintendent: CNR, CPR, Cando Rail

Roderick Medwick has worked as a car checker for the CNR, a yardman for the CPR, and currently works as a superintendent for Cando Rail. He discusses the importance of his job as a car checker - to ensure that cars aren’t overloaded, and to keep track of the cars, so that the company was aware of what stock they had in order to build trains. Roderick brings up the changes that he witnessed in the industry and at home, such as safety changes, staffing changes, and the construction of the Prince Rupert. He gives a detailed recount of the rail industry, and the challenges he faced working there.

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Jean Morrison

Author, Historian

Jean Morrison is a Canadian Historian, who wrote the book “Labour Pains: Thunder Bay’s Working Class in Canada’s Wheat Boom Era”. She didn’t move to Thunder Bay until 1966, as she was studying the history of the Finnish people in Canada, which led her to this city and the grain industry of which they were heavily involved. Jean heavily discusses the racial divide in Thunder Bay industries, explaining what jobs certain nationalities would get, how they were viewed and treated, and what individual struggles each nationality would suffer.

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Ron Oikonen

Grain Clerk, Accountant: Saskatchewan Wheat Pool

Ron Oikonen worked for Saskatchewan Wheat Pool from 1961 to 1997. He started as a grain clerk, and ended as a grain accountant. He discusses the changes in the elevator when the ownership and name changed from SWP to Viterra. Ron speaks to various other changes as well, such as the change in metric used for grain, automation, and the market shift. He also describes the relationship between the railroad and the elevators.

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Brian Oleson

Grain Analyst: Canadian Wheat Board

Brian Oleson studied mathematics and economics in university, before starting a job at the Canadian Wheat Board as a grain analyst in 1970. He speaks to the massive economic boom of the “great Russian grain robbery,” and the ethanol driven boom of recent years. Brian is extremely knowledgeable on foreign grain economies, and Canada’s role in them. He also speaks to Canada’s wheat quality, and what has been done and what needs to be done to maintain it. Another topic is the fall of the CWB. Overall, Dr. Oleson has a great deal to say about the grain industry, and provided a very nuanced perspective.

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Gene Onchulenko

Labourer: Saskatchewan Wheat Pool

Gene Onchulenko starts the interview off explaining some childhood stories from Thunder Bay. He went to school at Ryerson, and came back to work in the grain elevators - starting out by shovelling cars in Sask Wheat Pool 9. Gene gives quite a bit of praise to the foremen he worked with - some of them that he worked with were very good at their jobs in his opinion. He speaks to the work culture, as well as the day to day life - and also tells some interesting, and surprising stories.

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William Parrish

Owner: Parrish and Heimbecker

William Parrish, Sr. is the co-owner of Parrish and Heimbecker. He describes the history of the company, as he has experienced a great deal of growth of change. He speaks to the rise and fall of the grain trade in the 70s and 80s; the mass construction followed by the collapse. Mr. Parrish explains how he would decide where to build, expand, or shut down elevators. He even describes the initial resistance to concrete elevators - and his determination, that eventually paid off, to construct them. William is quite proud of the longevity of his company, especially considering it is co-owned by two families. It is existed for over 100 years!

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Len Penner

Farmer, President: Cargill

Len Penner started working on farms at a young age, and with that experience got a degree in agriculture with a major in animal science. His education took him to the position of President of Cargill Canada, where he worked for 38 years before retiring in 1975. He discusses his early life on the farm, and the risk involved with working in that industry. However, he says that he learned the most about agriculture in school. Working for Cargill, Len ended up in various different cities across Canada - because of this, he explains the difference between markets and operating systems in various cities, as well as the difference between the Thunder Bay and Duluth systems.

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Thomas Polhill

Manager: Parrish and Heimbecker

Thomas Polhill worked in various positions for Parrish and Heimbecker for 35 years, until retiring as manager. He speaks to the company, and gives praise to Bill Parrish. Thomas gives a raw explanation of work in the grain elevators, speaking about topics such as closing elevators, employees being inefficient, and drinking on the job in a genuine manner. Mr. Polhill is comfortable sharing his opinion on the bad sides of the elevator, and the good sides, and he paints a useful picture of the many changes the the elevators faced. He also has many interesting stories, such as what happened when the dock at P&H closed, or the time an employee intentionally sabotaged equipment.

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George Richardson

Owner: Richardsons

Being born into the iconic Canadian grain family didn’t guarantee George a successful career in the industry, but his abilities, willingness to learn and innovative thinking did. In this wide-reaching interview, the listener will find stories of his family’s early years in the trade, George’s own experience with terminal elevator work, ship-building negotiations, pelletization innovation, and even the story behind the gamble to rebrand Richardson elevators with startling new colours. Mr. Richardson talks of his company’s many firsts in the industry including the first all-Canadian route shipment of western grain through Thunder Bay and ground-breaking sale of wheat to China--formalized only with a handshake.

Richardson, George

Len Rissanen

Story teller

Although Len is not an elevator worker, he wanted to record the story of his father's bravery in rescuing workers stranded at the top of Saskatchewan Pool 4 after the disastrous 1945 explosion that killed over 20 workers. This short interview sets the record straight.

Len Rissanen

Richard Ross

Welder: Manitoba Malting

Richard Ross worked in various elevators in his time, such as Manitoba Malting, and one of the Saskatchewan Pools. He starts off by explaining his familial history, and explains the trouble his mother had operating a Ford Model T car. He explains his role in installing dust filters. Another skill that he learned over time was welding. He explains a funny story about how he got chosen to work for a company by a donkey; his taste for carrots eventually landed him a job. Richard also speaks about ship building in Port Arthur.

Richard Ross

Frank Rowan

Naval Controller: Canadian Maritime Commission, Canadian Wheat Board

Frank Rowan worked as a Naval Controller. He speaks about his father, who was in charge of various naval disaster investigations, such as the Halifax Explosion. Frank was a pilot during WWII, but he also talks about the creation of the wartime storage warehouses, and why they were needed. After returning from the war, Frank enrolled in the University of Ottawa, and join the Canadian Maritime Commission. His career began here, where he would keep track of hundreds of shipping vessels. He worked in this industry for a long time, after a while getting hired at the Canadian Wheat Board, where he still kept track of ships, but also helped to set up new offices in various Canadian cities. Mr. Rowans experience in the industry is vast, and because of his relatively high up position and time spent in various cities, he has a broad yet complex understanding of the industry.

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Patricia Roy

Grain Sanitation Officer: Canadian Grain Commission

Patricia Roy worked as a Grain Sanitation Officer with the Canadian Grain Commission, she started in 1988. Her job entailed running the entomology lab - essentially testing various elevators to see if there are insects in the grain. She describes the various requirements and challenges she faced - for instance, it was a heavily physical job. Patricia also mentions what being a woman was like in a male dominated industry - she did not have many problems, although she remarks that others did. Her experience with the industry is relatively unique, as she worked in all of the different elevators in the city.

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Avery Sahl

Delegate, Member: SWP, CGC, CWB

Avery Sahl has worked in many different roles in the grain trade, such as Delegate of Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, Farmer, and member of the CGC and CWB. He was born on a farm in 1926, where his father worked for a tractor company. He discusses what it was like to grow up in the depression era, and the way things steadily improved - a major theme of his interview is the different stages the grain elevators took; new ones popped up over time, and shut down, or amalgamated, all depending on the economy at the time. He is very aware of the many stages that grain goes through to get to the consumer; He has experience with inspection agencies and foreign markets, and he also worked as a farmer, and in the elevators.

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Ray Schmitt

Farmer, Delegate, President: Alberta Wheat Pool

Ray Schmitt has been a farmer since 1951, and still works as one today. He has also held a variety of positions at Alberta Wheat Pool, from Delegate to President. He discusses the attitudes that farmers held towards to pools in his time, some being against them due to their size and supposed misrepresentation of them, while others supported them as the idea of a co-op appealed to them. Ray played a major role in representing farmers, and speaks to the politics of grain elevators. He speaks to the changes in the grain trade, especially the amalgamation of many small elevators into few larger ones, and technological changes.

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Bill Skrepichuk

Historian

Bill Skrepichuk is an amateur historian who studies the grain industry. His father was involved as he was initially a sheet metal worker, and then an elevator employee. He comments on the first spike of the railroad, started in Fort William, which leads into a conversation about the advancement of the CPR. Another interesting topic he discusses is the implementation of telegram lines, and how much it changed the industry. His interview focuses specifically on the late 1800s; a period which is not nearly as well documented. He generally discusses the economics and politics behind the trade at the time as well.

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Peter Spafford

Farmer

Peter Spafford grew up in Manitoba on a farm, and worked in customer harvesting and construction for a long period of time. He talks about the hard life of a farmer, and his extreme commitment; for instance at one point he was still working while he was on crutches, and he would often have to use old and ineffective machinery. Peter has experienced work in the industry for a very long time, and speaks to the changes he saw due to technology, market shifts, etc. He explains why working in the industry was so hard and volatile as well. Lastly, he speaks to the connections he made with others here, and the importance of the agricultural industry to Canada.

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Bob Speak

Saskatchewan Wheat Pool: Worker

Bob Speak was pushing wheelbarrows of cement for a construction company for $1.00 / hr.  But he was offered a job at the elevator carrying a small bucket & scoop for $.99/hr. It didn't take much to figure out which was the better deal.  After starting at noon in 1951, he spent the next 39 years at various elevators. Bob had the misfortune of being involved in the 1952 explosion of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool elevator in Current River. His descriptions put the listener right into the horror of the situation and his fortunate escape.

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Garf Stevenson

Farmer, President: Saskatchewan Wheat Pool

Garf Stevenson worked as a farmer, and eventually played a major role in Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, working his way up to President. He discusses various issues related to wheat pools and farming, and the effects that the industry had on the Canadian landscape - for instance, many of the roadways in Northern Ontario were decided by the needs of grain growers. He speaks to the increase in farmers’ land value, which is not reasonable considering the low profit margins and volatility of farming. He is quite proud of his time spent at SWP, and remarks that the time he is most satisfied having spent is the year that he was President.

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