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 -

Michael Amos

Michael Amos was born in North Dakota, coming from a family that has roots in the grain industry. He began work in rail shipping in the 70s, where he gained an in-depth understanding of the the logistical system behind grain transportation. He worked in several companies, such as CN, and GTA. He details the changing shipment methods, and problems with shipping. Michael does a good job of explaining the many reasons why a factory may suffer a major delay. It is clear that he was could effectively prevent this in his day.  He also details, at points, stories of shady dealings including bribery. His talk is very grounded in practicality and logistics.

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Janice Andrews

Grain Inspector - Canadian Grain Commission

Janice Andrews was a Grain Inspector in the Canadian Grain Commission. A recommendation from a family friend in 1978 opened the doors for Janice to the CGC, and a thirty year career in the grain industry in Thunder Bay. She was one of the early pioneers as this male-dominated workforce began to change in the late 1970’s.

Janice outlines her duties as a grain inspector and eventually training coordinator. She discusses changes in the workplace and nature of her work, the rewards of being a trainer, and the unhappy consequences of the downturn in grain shipments at the Lakehead.

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John Attridge

Elevator Worker, Sailor

John Attridge began his career in the elevators, but very quickly realised that he was better suited for life on the boats. His description of life on the ship is authentic, from the poor working conditions and danger, which included working 7 days a week without breaks - to the serenity of being at sea, being in a good financial position, and having strong bonds with his shipmates. He discusses the seedier side of ship life, such as heavy gambling, drinking, and stealing grain. Although John only worked in the grain industry for a handful of years, and spent the majority of his career in insurance, he looks back upon those times in the elevators and ships fondly.

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Greg Arason

CEO: Manitoba Pool Elevators, Canadian Wheat Board

Greg Arason details his experience in the farming and grain elevator industries. He comes from a line of immigrant farmers that arrived from Iceland and settled in Manitoba. Greg experienced at close hand the massive change in the industry through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, as the small scale farmers grew their operations and subsequently become profitable again. Greg tells a coherent and chronological story of the farmers of Canada. He brings a great deal of knowledge on the various organizations involved, such as farming co-operatives, elevators, unions, and grain marketing organizations.

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Don Arril

Metal worker: Woodside Foundries

Don Arril worked in a factory called Woodside Foundries, an innovative, Thunder Bay company producing parts for grain elevators and various other purposes. He discusses metal work, iron, brass, and aluminum casting, and the creation of massive parts. Another topic is the purchase of Woodside by Bob Newsom, and Stuart Barron. He speaks to the industry, and the blacksmiths important role in the Canadian grain industry.  

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Jim Ball

Weighing Staff: Canadian Grain Commission

Jim Ball tells his family’s grain industry story, starting with his grandfather who lived in Winnipeg before moving to Thunder Bay in 1956. His grandfather was in charge of the manual scales at Pool 6, operating and maintaining them. He explains how the manual scales work, and what actually changed when the companies moved on to electronic scales. For his own part, starting out was an intimidating experience, as Jim was essentially left to figure out how to work in the elevator on his own. His time at the elevators was long and varied. He paints a picture that includes many small details, such as working relationships, grain theft, and Canadian Grain  Commission changes. Jim’s explanation covers not only his own experiences, but the political and logistical changes that occurred over the years. He has a good understanding of the implications of various changes, not only to himself, but to other grain operations throughout Canada.

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Peter Barr

Purchasing Agent: Saskatchewan Wheat Pool

Peter Barr was lucky enough to obtain the position of purchasing agent for Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, which allowed him to move back to his hometown, Thunder Bay. He discusses many different aspects of the job, such as his day-to-day affairs, and how technology such as computers affected his position greatly. For that reason, this interview is relevant to anyone who is interested in the logistics and business side of grain elevators. Another interesting point that he brings up is that Saskatchewan Wheat Pool owned a significant portion of Robin’s Donuts; in fact the business invested heavily in other businesses. Barr talks of shady dealings as well, he, himself, experiencing offers of bribes.

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Joe Bechta

Bread Salesman: McGavin and Toastmasters

An interesting addition to our list of interviews is Joe Bechta, who worked at the “end” of the grain industry. Joe was employed by McGavinToastmaster Bakery, Thunder Bay. This company came to represent almost all of the baked goods market here. Joe describes the massive amounts of product that would be made in-house, as well as other products that were purchased from out of town. He describes his daily work as a door-to-door bread-delivery man.

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Bill Boyce

Elevator Worker: Richardson

Bill Boyce was an elevator worker and shop steward for 30 years with Richardson Terminal. He discusses the dangers and accidents in the elevator, and the major changes that the elevators experienced in his time. Topics range from smoking culture, to co-worker relationships, and then the eventual automation of the industry. As a shop steward, Bill has a unique understanding of labour relations. Listeners be warned that the content contains graphic details and strong language.

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Cam Brown

Field Supervisor, Marketer, Manager: Manitoba Pool Elevators, Canadian Wheat Board, Feed-Rite

Cam Brown was born in St Boniface, Manitoba. His father began a farm in Alberta, and throughout his childhood he learned the farming industry inside and out. With a degree in agriculture, Cam began his career working directly with farmers, then moved on to grain marketing with the CWB. He ended his career in the animal-feed industry as a manager with Feed-Rite Mills. 

Cam describes the tough life in rural Alberta and Manitoba, and how brutal most people lives were in the early days. We also hear his view of Thunder Bay’s role in the grain trade, and how significant the grain industry is to Canada as a whole. This interview reflects Cam’s great depth of knowledge of the grain trade, from the farm field to national and international consumers.

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Greg Brown

Stevedore, Grain Sampler: Lakehead Shipping

Greg began as a stevedore at Lakehead Shipping, working there until he became a grain sampler. He explains the ins and outs of the job, and how technological advancements changed the workplace, for instance, when boxcars were replaced by hopper cars. Greg worked as safety commissioner for some time. He details his attempts to improve quality of life for workers. He also speaks to the injuries that he received on the job, including lung damage and a back injury and the difficulty he had in finding work once injured.

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Walter Bushuk

Cereal Chemist: University of Manitoba

Dr. Walter Bushuk, world-renowned cereal chemist, built Canada’s reputation as an international leader in the industry. He recognized the importance of world-wide connections in promoting and developing our grain trade. To accomplish these connections, Dr. Bushuk was a key player in the development of the Canadian International Grains Institute. The Institute aimed to educate participants, Canadian and international, about the grain industry, as well as conduct research relevant to it.

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Jody Buttman

Welder: Pascal Shipyard

Jody Buttman’s contribution to Canada’s grain trade was repairing ships, large and small, in a shipyard called “The Pascal”. He received his welding ticket after high school and immediately joined the industry’s workforce. The scale of the work he did is immense--most of the ships he would repair were 730 feet long. He recounts the daily life of welders, fitters, machinists and mechanics. There is discussion of the ever-present danger of welding flash, as well as the importance of getting a perfect weld. It was simply not a job where you could make a mistake without consequence.

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Bev Bennett and Harv Friesen

Canadian Ports Clearance Association

Bev and Harv describe the work involved in coordinating grain shipments from our ports. Working out of the CPCA office in Winnipeg, they kept careful records related to grain in storage at the terminal elevators in Thunder Bay and British Columbia. They describe how their work was essential to moving ships in and out of ports as quickly as possible. After hearing this interview, you will understand the behind-the-scenes work required to ensure Canada’s reputation for efficient grain shipping.

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Patrick Chandler

Grain Inspector: Canadian Grain Commission

Patrick Chandler, a grain inspector stationed in Quebec City,  joined the CGC in 1997. He explains the history of Baie Comeau, where he started his inspection career in the Cargill elevator, the largest in Canada. Chandler’s inspection work took him to various elevators, where he held high-level responsibility as a grain inspector. Some unique points he discusses are the marine life off the shore of Baie Comeau, the countries that grain is exported too, drinking on the job, and elevator life. This interview is in both English and French.

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Erv Choquette

Erv Choquette began his career as a sailor, sailing the Great Lakes from 1960-1963. He is fascinated by the process of moving grain between elevators and ships, and shipping in general. Erv tells many stories about the dangers of ship life, and what happened when he left the industry and when the industry began to decline. After leaving shipping, he settled down in Thunder Bay, and began to work as a trackman. He experienced many incidences of injury that occurred while he worked for Saskatchewan Wheat Pool 5. This interview demonstrates the double-edged sword aspect of the industry--the good living the grain industry provides to workers versus the danger workers face.

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Ernest Contardo

Grain Trimmer: Thunder Bay Grain Trimmers

Ernest Contardo started in the grain trade in the late 50s and worked for over 50 years before retiring. He worked for a trimming company, which ran as a cooperative. The grain trimmers were in charge of loading the boats, and calculating the proper load distribution required to not flip or damage ships. He describes the exclusively owner-operated company and how he was quite lucky to find a spot in it as the first Italian member voted in. Ernest’s perspective on the grain trade is relatively unique, considering that he was in the industry for so long. He has seen the industry change vastly in his time.

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V.B. "Jim" Cook

Professional Engineer: Barnett-McQueen, V.B. Cooke Engineering

V.B. Cook was born in Thunder Bay, where he also acquired his engineering degree. He began to work on many elevators with Barnett-McQueen, a firm that began in 1909 and constructed many of Canada’s elevators. V.B. tells the story of the firm going through tough times, eventually having to reorganize after most of the employees left during the Great Depression. Initially to get into the grain industry, he had worked on the Bunge elevator in Quebec, modernizing it to become the fastest elevator in Canada. During Cook’s career (1948-1988) the company switched focus to mining, specifically potash. Please contact Friends of Grain Elevators if you wish to hear this interview.

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Murray Cormack

Various: Manitoba Agriculture, Manitoba Pool Elevators

Murray Cormack grew up in the 1930s--tough times that were considerably more bearable because his family owned a farm. In 1953 he left to go to the University of Manitoba before getting a masters degree in the US. Upon returning to Canada, Murray began his notable career in the grain trade. Listening to Murray describe his career highlights, you will be fascinated by the description of the work involved in various positions and his depth of knowledge of the industry. He started as a field representative advising farmers, worked in policy development and management with the Manitoba government, joined Manitoba Pool Elevators management team, and took on a major study of grain marketing in Canada. He discusses the grain industry in periods of change, downsizing, the  demise of the Pools, westward shifting markets, and the Canadian Wheat Board. Mr. Cormack has a very comprehensive understanding of the grain industry, and explains the history through an economic lens, one which is seldom pictured. This is a two-part interview.

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Regina Coulombe and Trudy Frowen

Story tellers

Both of our interviewees, Regina Coulombe and Trudy Frowen were born into families that participated heavily in the grain industry. While not directly participating in the grain industry, they were involved nonetheless. They are great observers of the impact the industry had on their family members. The interview reflects family life of grain and rail workers starting in the early 1900’s. Their stories of early hardships, explosions, housing, transportation, and even the difficulty of keeping work clothes clean given the dusty elevator environment, put a personal face on the family life of elevator workers.

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Gerald Culliton

Grain Handler, Railway Fireman, Yardmaster, Conductor: Manitoba Pool Elevator, CN, CPR

Gerald Culliton began his career in the railway, shipping grain. His father worked in CN, but he, chose to join CPR, establishing his career on his own instead of using his father as a way in, the route that many people took at that time. He participated in the industry during huge periods of growth, and describes times when 1000 cars were delivered and shipped from Thunder Bay per day. The industry mentality during those days is quite different than today--many practices have been shifted in the wake of fatalities, such as walking across the top of grain cars, drinking on the job, etc.

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Herb Daniher

Grain Handler, Union Representative: Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, Grain Handlers Union

Herb Daniher started working at Saskatchewan Pool 4 when he was 17 years old doing whatever needed to be done, but his favourite job was cross belt man, diverting grain elsewhere in the elevator. After taking steward training and labour relations courses at Confederation College he became a union shop chairman in 1981 and a full-time union officer with the Transportation Communications Union, Grain Division in 1986.  He describes the rather loose safety practices at the beginning of his career and vast improvements over the years. Besides detailing changes he witnessed, he touches upon personalities and interactions in the workplace. A good storyteller.

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R.L.M. "Dick" Dawson

Grain Exporter, Negotiator, Vice-President: Cargill

Few people in the grain industry share the breadth of experience of Dick Dawson - he left emigrated from England to America to work for Cargill, and continued to work for them in Winnipeg, Switzerland, Vancouver, and Argentina over 15 years. He worked as a grain exporter, negotiator, and at one point was Vice-President of Cargill. In 1974, he came full circle to Winnipeg, and ended his career as Vice-President of Cargill’s Canadian operation in 1993.

In his first interview, Dick speaks of world-wide market conditions and changes he experienced in his early years including the collapse of the Russian grain production and China coming on stream as wheat buyers. He comments on diverse subject such as the Canadian Wheat Board, international financing, export trading, labour relations in Thunder Bay and Vancouver, quality of Canadian grain, and much, much more.

Dick Dawson starts his second interview by remembering his early experience with Thunder Bay operations, moving on to review early Seaway traffic, impact of changing freight rates on Thunder Bay and early negative interaction between Cargill and the Pools. He expands on his time in Argentina, comparing Canadian and Argentinian grain businesses. His comments wrap up with musings on the implications of farmer-owned grain companies.

Interview three begins with Dick commenting on several contemporaries in the grain business in Winnipeg. He moves on to his work negotiating international trade agreements. When discussing current challenges the industry faces, he weighs in on genetic modification, organic products, obesity vs hunger, and farmers growing quality vs quantity. He wraps up this interview and his feeling about his career with a comment that reflects the tone of his interviews—“Feeding the world is a fun thing to do with your day!”

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Ron Depauw

Ron Depauw studied agriculture in his undergrad and genetics for his masters degree. Because of this, he was able to complete a great deal of research that contributed heavily to the Canadian grain trade. He outlines the history of wheat production before the industry mushroomed, including the establishment of the Canadian experimental farm system in 1889 until 1929 when wheat became Canada’s number one export. His work ensured that wheat grown in Canada kept ahead of diseases and retained its marketing advantages.

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Patrick Doherty

Vice-President: N.M. Paterson, Steamship Division

Patrick Doherty worked first as an office clerk, advancing to traffic manager before becoming vice president. He was responsible for managing the grain input and output of the elevator, as well as other things such as organizing the storage of ships in the winter. He enjoyed a long career, witnessing many industrial changes due to changing methods, technology, and changing markets. He touches on other topics including communication methods between various offices and accidents and explosions in the elevators.

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Vern Duke

Grain Inspector: Federal Grain, Canadian Grain Commission

Vern Duke first started work with the Federal Grain Company, before writing his exam to qualify as an inspector with what was then called the Board of Grain Commissioners. He explains the quality control system very well, and the process of transferring grain from a farm to an Eastern elevators and then on to international markets. Stationed in Winnipeg, his work as chief inspector took him to elevators across Canada and eventually overseas on various missions. Very few people in the industry had the knowledge of grading that Vern displays in this interview.

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Peter Eaves

Machinist: Port Arthur Ship Yards

Peter Eaves worked as a Machinist for Woodside Brothers in the Port Arthur Ship Yards. Paul had completed a five-year apprenticeship and spent the next 14 years practising his trade.  In the interview he recounts the various jobs that he performed for the elevator companies. Snippets of his workday gave you an insight into his profession and also the emergency tasks that had to be completed to keep the elevators working.

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