Community Memories from Harry Lamontagne

Like many others, Harry Lamontagne came to Thompson seeking employment.  He describes the construction that was underway when the first arrived in 1958.  The refinery was just four pegs in the ground outlining the planned building site, and the headframe a bare steel framework.  Harry went back to his home in Winnipeg for a year, then returned to Thompson in 1960 when he accepted a job with INCO.

Most of Harry's employment years had been spent in the construction industry.  He had worked on an aluminum smelter in Kitimat, B.C. and on the D.E.W. line in Northern Canada, which was a Distant Early Warning Line built for the defense of Canada and the U.S.  He found his job in Maintenance at INCO was quite different from his former work experience as a maintenance electrician. Besides his work at the plant, he also did jobs for the hospital and some of the company homes.

Harry described some of his earliest impressions of INCO and Thompson. Transportation from the train station to the plant site was on the back of a flat-bed truck in -40 Celsius weather. Harry had felt that the prospect of returning to the station under those same conditions was probably an incentive for people to stay.

As for life in the camp, he was used to the rather primitive conditions of a construction camp, so he wasn't bothered by that.  But there were some men who pretty much went stir-crazy, Harry says.  He remembers when one of his neighbours shot himself.  He guesses the 18 days and the isolation really got to some people.  A couple of broom-ball teams made for a little diversion and there was always hockey.  Harry often went down to the outdoor rink where his kids were skating.  He would lace up their skates and warm their feet in the warm up shack.  As a family, they looked forward to summer vacation.

Being a Catholic, the church became a "soothing outlet" for Harry; he tells how many institutions had to make do with temporary facilities.

The surface dry became a gathering place during the week for poker players, but on Sunday afternoons it became a church when Father Lavasseur arrived to say mass.  The St. Lawrence Hall was the first Catholic Church to be built and served the congregation until the larger church was constructed.

The first residential areas to be developed were Juniper and Riverside followed by Deerwood.  Their first home was a slab house on Juniper Drive and they later bought a larger home in the Deerwood area.  Their son still occupies this home.

Harry was generally happy with working conditions over the years.  There was a massive movement of employees in the '60's, some arriving, some leaving and some staying.  On the whole, people who stayed permanently did so because they needed a good-paying job and the assurance of a decent community in which to raise their families.  Harry and Marilyn's three sons have also chosen to make Thompson their home.  Harry chuckled about his starting wage of $1.50 per hour, but commented that the price of everything was in proportion.

When questioned about the hiring of aboriginal people, Harry felt that they had been treated fairly as far as he was aware.  He mentioned that many aboriginals were employed during the construction period hauling freight from Thicket Portage to Moak Lake, the first site of development.  They pointed out that working for INCO would have been challenging for people who had been accustomed to a culture of fishing and trapping.  He praised those native people who had gained a good education and those who showed entrepreneurial efforts. When asked about stories of unfair labour practices, Harry stated that the union would have made sure there was fairness for all, and he was never aware of discrimination.

For Harry, his work with INCO was an enlightening experience in many ways. The one thing he learned is that you never stop learning. "INCO is a vibrant company and the research and development continues. They have to maintain their standards in order to remain competitive. They have the foresight to send people abroad to promote the many users of nickel.”

Harry did not see any disadvantages to living in Thompson.  "People worked together and cared for each other.  The facilities for sports and the opportunities to participate did not depend on a person's wealth or social status."  He praised the fact that all facilities are centrally located and the time allotted to teams was fairly distributed.  Having been accustomed to the climate in Winnipeg, he doesn't find the weather too severe as long as a person is properly dressed. 

As for retirement, Harry did not see the logic of returning to one's hometown to spend one’s later years.  He likes to know his neighbours and appreciates the familiarity of his surroundings.  People are free to travel, and until recently, Harry and his wife were part of the Snow Birds’ trek southward. He feels that Canada and especially the North are probably safer than any place in the world.

Harry feels that INCO has been fair to the residents of Thompson, providing the city with sewer and water, paved streets and schools.  In addition, Harry and Marilyn continue to pay taxes to the city coffers and contribute generously to many local clubs and institutions.  He has no regrets about making Thompson his home.