Speaking of Latvians, last week I got a call from a fellow named Karl (pseudonym, as he didn’t want me to use his real name). Seems like I’m a go-to guy for Latvian wannabe truck drivers here in Toronto on a work permit, as this is the second young Latvian that’s called me. The first chap had an Ontario drivers licence but no experience driving truck and had started working for a landscaping company hoping to eventually get on board as a driver.
But Karl is different in that he has experience hustling freight in Europe in a three axle Scania , and has his AZ licence after completing a training course with a reputable truck driving school in the GTA. He was frustrated because trucking companies around Toronto won’t even look at him, let alone give him a road test, without two years Canadian experience.
This is, of course, the dilemma for any newbie driver trying to get a foothold in the industry. You can’t get the job if you don’t have any experience, and you can’t acquire experience without getting the job.
Ironically, only a few years ago, Canadian carriers were actively travelling to Europe and sponsoring job fairs to recruit people like Karl. Europeans with driving experience were especially coveted as they were skilled, often exemplary employees and could usually function in English.
I advised him to try the drivers services and look at the trucking job sites. What Karl needed was someone to give him a break and put him behind the wheel. But today he called me and was ecstatic. “No one was going to give me a job in Ontario, but I heard from a friend who knows someone hiring Latvians in New Brunswick,” Karl told me.
Apparently, the area around Woodstock, New Brunswick is a hotbed for trucking and there are over a dozen Latvian trucking families settled in the area. The carriers in the area like the work ethic of the Latvians (as well as the Poles, Russians, Dutch, English and Scottish drivers) and there’s a vibrant community in this region of emigre drivers and their families. It sounds like Karl’s being offered a contract and will be driving with a trainer for a few months and then be on his own. He wasn’t sure what company he’d be working for, but Karl was plenty happy and packing his suitcase and rucksack as I spoke to him.
So here’s a thirty year old guy, stranger in a strange land, out to start his new life in New Brunswick. I could sense his excitement. Sounds like some Ontario company missed the chance to pick up a pretty good driver and worker. Not only that, Karl will be living in a beautiful part of the country where the cost of living and houses are affordable. Godspeed, as the saying goes.
It strikes me that many people come to driving truck by a circuitous root, and it’s often a roll of the dice that gets you in the door. Of course there are those who know from a very young age they are going be driving trucks—it’s all they want to do. The above-mentioned Karl worked in the IT field but didn’t really like it. “My dad was a truck driver and I think it’s in my blood,” he told me.
This Russian fellow I know would have taken up trucking when he landed in Canada but his experience in Ireland driving a boom truck and delivering construction materials didn’t count in Ontario. Today Vlad is one of the hardest working guys I know, working seven days a week for two appliance repair companies. While my friend George arrived from Scotland twelve years ago and got his Canadian Class A licence as his Scottish experience wasn’t considered valid. By chance or by fate he got the name of a manager of a big company that was hiring and started working the next day.
My path started out where I was working in a gas station as a designated apprentice mechanic but wasn’t going anywhere. Ron Kimber, a friend of mine from Holland Landing (I don’t know where he is now but wherever it is he’s got a fleet of trucks), suggested a company that was delivering school books around southern Ontario. The first day I walked in the door, one of the brother-owners handed me a sheaf of bills and sent me bombing around southern Ontario in a GMC van with a 350 four barrel carb. Gas was cheap in those days and that thing would fly.
But the day came when I was assigned a five-ton a straight truck I gulped hard. I’d never driven anything like this and it was up on Hwy 69 near Parry Sound that I finally figured out how a short fourth transmission worked. All the gears could be split high and low except the top two, the fourth and fifth which you had to shift first and then split.
I didn’t get my A licence until 1981 but even then I didn’t hop right into a semi. One summer I heard about a week’s work driving a dump in Sutton, Ont., close to where I was living. My marriage had broken up and I really wasn’t in any hurry to sign on for life with one employer.
This was a fairly big company from Scarborough and the crew was from the Ottawa Valley, a very hard working group of guys who talked in that clipped, high-octave sounding way, a little like Newfies. They were apparently catch basin and sewer specialists and worked all over Ontario, staying in motels and getting home weekends.
The truck I was assigned was an ancient beast with a two stick transmission where every gear could be split four ways. In my recollections I’ve imagined it as a Diamond Reo, but I think it was in actuality an old Dodge goat. The crew boss warned me that there was very little clutch and not to goose the throttle in low gear as it would snap off the drive line. He went with me on my first move and showed me where to dump the fill, over a slight embankment into a gully.
My very first solo trip turned disastrous. I forgot to open the tailgate as I hit the hydraulic lift. The dirt shifted and the truck lifted up in the air at a 45% angle. My first thought was that the whole thing was going to tumble over backwards and I was going to die.
Instead I ended up dangling just below the hydro wires. A kid on his way to school stared at me in disbelief. So then I opened the tailgate and put it in one of those low gears. The truck lurched forward and down, jumping a couple of times until it settled back on its front wheels with half the dirt dumped on the road behind me.
So I had to get the courage up to drive back to the dig and tell the boss I’d done a wheelie and dumped a load of dirt on the road. But when we got back, it was all cleaned up. A crew from the township with a front end loader had apparently lifted it into the ravine where it was supposed to go.
That day I also learned that a fully loaded dump won’t stop when you want it to. I remember sweating while rolling past a stop sign with the binders locked and learning new respect for an overweight load as a 26 year old novice. On the way back to the excavation I’d swing past the Sutton School of Hydrotherapy and Massage where I’d recently started seeing a gal from British Columbia. There were lots of women attending this college, mostly from BC, to become Registered Massage Therapists. And they were a different breed from the locals. The first night this girlfriend was at the Irish House Tavern, where I’d notice a group of these gals dancing by themselves painted up like gypsy maidens and indians.
Regardless, I was taking a bit of a detour to roll by the school to wave at anyone I knew and the crew boss caught me at it. These guys worked hard and expected me to as well. As soon as one truck pulled out of the excavation the boss wanted another immediately backing in the hole. And when I wasn’t driving he had me rolling up and down the street on this vibrating steam roller tamping down the gravel.
So that was a real interesting week of work. I wanted to show these guys the local watering hole but they weren’t interested and just wanted to get back to their motel after the 12 hour days. Friday afternoon they were done by three pm and heading back to Combermere and Tory Hill and Calabogie, catch basins installed and the road limed up and level waiting for the paving crew.
Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.
With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude. All posts by Harry Rudolfs