Community Memories from Bill Laing

Bill Laing is a genuine pioneer of Thompson.  He came here in 1956 at the age of 17.  He worked as a kitchen helper for Paddy Harrison Construction Co. at Moak Lake.  As a lunky as he calls himself, Bill put in very long hours.  He describes his first job.  "I came by train and bombardier to Moak Lake.  I weighed in at about 160 pounds and left there at 225.  That will never happen again. Cheese Whiz was just coming out, so one of my jobs, besides setting the tables, was to take the mold off the cheese-whiz once a week.

Entertainment and recreation in the camps were minimal - Thursday night movies, card playing, going for walks.  Some of the fellows in the bunkhouses would save juices and make their own brew. Bill tells of one fellow nicknamed Swish—Swish who hoped to allay his feelings of loneliness by writing to a Lonely Hearts Club.

A lot of the miners lived fast and partied a lot, made a pile of money, then went out and blew it all.  Living accommodations were in tents or bunkhouses.  Bunkhouses were like huge barns, you had a room partner.  If he decided to have a party, you'd check out who was at the party or card game, then go and sleep in his bed.

Bill left Thompson for a while and worked at various jobs in Flin Flon, mostly in construction work and truck driving. He helped build the Ukrainian Church in Flin Flon. He met his wife Lorene who worked in the meat department at the Co-op store. They were married in June on Bill’s Friday off. Bill and Lorene returned to Thompson in 1960 and Bill began his job with INCO.

They purchased their home on 48 Deerwood Drive.  Houses were not ready and most people had to wait several months for homes to be built.  House construction was like an assembly line, with different contractors doing cement work, framing etc.  Always interested in gardening, they purchased topsoil for $6.00 a truckload and did their own landscaping.  Most complaints about defective housing such as lack of insulation and poor-fitting windows were handled by a firm in Winnipeg whose usual response was, "Too many boarders and too high humidity.”

Bill started working underground as a shoveller to a powder man. He trained to be a stope leader, training new employees how to blast.  "I was supervisor for a couple of years but I wasn't cut out for that job." Bill was part of a Shaft-deepening operation by Paddy Harrison where a new shaft to the 4,000 feet level was constructed underneath the 2000-foot shaft in operation at the time.  When the shaft was completed, the bulkhead between the old and new shafts had to be removed and all the pipes and pumps reinstalled—a job that lasted two years.  Bill's favorite job underground was operating a slasher, a cable driven machine that cut through blocks of ore and scraped the ore into a chute.  This process was later replaced with the use of scoop trams. He also enjoyed the drilling but blames the noisy environment for his hearing loss. Bill always followed the rules when it came to the workplace safety and health. "When you drill and blast, you wash everything down to eliminate the dust.  Hard rock is totally different from coalmining.  Basically, you make your own safety. If a guy is a bit haywire you could get into trouble.”

Bill spoke of being part of Mine Rescue for 28 years.  He felt what he learned there could apply to his daily job.  The biggest concern working underground was the possibility of entering an unknown spot and there’d be no air.  Bill explained that he’d light a match in the entrance and if the match didn’t light then he wouldn’t go in there.

The Mine & Mill union was the active union for the first couple of years and was replaced by the United Steelworkers in '64. Bill spoke of the strike that year. One condition was a highway and the other was getting rid of the camp. As things were, the overflow from the H-huts were accommodated in tents, and when they were full, people bunked in the machine shop.  After the strike, INCO brought in trailers and set them up in the Queen's bay area while the Polaris boarding houses were being built.  For transportation, they had buses running back and forth through town and a taxi. The most they could put in the taxi was five, but if you wanted to, you could crawl in the trunk.  Sometimes there'd be two guys in the trunk.  Bill felt that many of the gains and improvements as a result of the strike were forerunners to the generous benefits that INCO retirees enjoy today. In his view, the company and union have a better working relationship than in the early days.

Bill, like many other early citizens, says he often had to be in a lineup for over 30 minutes for mail, at the bank, and for other services.  There were few women and lots of men.

Bill also commented on the abundance of mud everywhere.  "If we went to a dance, you wore rubber boots and had to carry your shoes."

The Lutheran Church was built by Malcolm Construction.  Bill describes the plan. It is built in the shaped of a fish. "In the early days (Biblical times), Christians would meet each other and before they said anything, you could draw a fish in the sand and that would mean you're a Christian."

Bill also commented on the transient population.  He feels that most people came to get away from something, or to get rich quickly.  His personal goal was to stay for the winter and then go to work on the Trans Canada pipeline. 

Bill spent many years with the fire department as a volunteer. He said that the fire department in the early days did many tasks besides fighting fires. They looked after the ambulance and often were required to drive the hearse. He feels that the response time for ambulance and fire calls was excellent.

Transportation-wise, there have been many improvements such as the completion of No.6 highway built during the time Joe Borowski was MLA, the Miles Hart Bridge that replaced the old one-lane Bailey Bridge, and improvements to the city.

Bill is appreciative of the good drinking water.  He feels that the Homeless Shelter and the food banks were good improvements.  He is optimistic about Thompson's future, citing the new mining technology, the possibility of further mining development and the fact that there are many people employed by other institutions besides INCO.  He feels that it is a good place to bring up a family.

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