Manitoba driver garners top trucker honors

by John G. Smith

WINNIPEG, Man. – There must be something in the diesel they pour around Winnipeg. Perhaps it’s in the coffee they pour in the truck stops. But whatever the reason, truckers from the region have now collected two of the nation’s top behind-the-wheel honors for 1999.

Jules Balcaen, a 55-year-old trucker with Bulk Milk Haulers in Steinbach, Man., has been named the 1999 CTA/Volvo Trucks Canada National Driver of the Year. Donald L.J. MacDonald, a trucker from Stonewall, was named the 1999 Canadian Owner/Operator of the Year late last year.

“You have one chance in a career for this and I was fortunate enough to win,” Balcaen said of the award he collected on April 8 during the Manitoba Trucking Association’s annual convention. “I’m elated.”

It’s the 24th year for the award, which has rarely ventured outside Ontario with its honor roll.

Balcaen has been a professional trucker for 34 years, and has driven more than 3 million km without a preventable accident. But this highway hero from La Broquerie, Man. has also come to the aid of stranded and injured motorists on several occasions.

Also setting him apart is the fact that he’s driven for the same carrier for three decades. “I have good equipment (a 1997 Kenworth T800) and I’m treated very well,” Balcaen says, explaining his tenure. “Why would I leave? I get up for the job and I look forward to coming to work.”

The nation’s top driver began to train as an automobile mechanic after quitting school in Grade 9, and t spent nine months on the job at Manitoba Hydro, but he quickly realized that trucking was the career for him.

Since then his days have begun at 4:30 a.m., rushing from farm to farm.

“There’s a tight schedule out there,” he says of the milk business. “The equipment is getting bigger; the farms are getting bigger.”

But the schedule has never made him too busy to lend a helping hand. In 1979 he pulled the car of a mother and child out of a ditch on the side of Hwy. 8 near Gimley, Man., and then escorted them home through a blinding snowstorm. In 1994 he came across an overturned van that had passed him on an icy highway only a few minutes before, and cut its pregnant driver free from the wreck.

Still, he admits to being more wary in a modern world. Now he waits for the people to walk up to his truck to ask for help when he pulls to the side of the road. (He doesn’t want to be jumped.)

The Driver of the Year Award isn’t Balcaen’s first behind-the-wheel honor. He has earned 10 first-place positions in provincial truck driving championships, and was Grand Champion on three occasions. He earned first place at the national level in 1981 – his first year of competition.

“It’s a good challenge,” he says of driving championships. “You meet a lot of people and it gives you an incentive to stay out of trouble.”

Last year, his 24-year-old son who now works at Kleysen Transportation won the four-axle division during the Manitoba competition. (Dad won the two-axle competition once again.)

“He wanted to drive a truck as soon as he could say the word,” Balcaen says of his middle son. But Patrick wasn’t allowed until he completed his high school education. “He wants to buy his own truck now. He’s got the sickness.”

Balcaen also held Manitoba Driver of the Month honors in 1981 and 1998, and the Milk Grader’s Award is another past honor.

“I’ve been very fortunate not to have any big mishaps,” he says of his driving record. His secret to safe driving? “Every day when you go out, you have to drive defensively, be careful and adjust for the road conditions.

“Take it easy. If you hate to get up in the morning, it’s one strike right there.”

Balcaen is also active in his community. He’s on his third term representing the Local Urban District of La Broquerie, and manages the La Broquerie Habs junior hockey team. Balcaen is also on several hockey and sports boards.

“Jules is a truly professional driver. He is always conscious of our customers’ needs, and represents the best a driver can be,” said Bulk Milk Haulers’ Seaton Coleman, who hired the young Balcaen in 1970. “I guess he needed a job and I had one.”

“He’s a shining example of professionalism,” added David Bradley, CEO of the Canadian Trucking Alliance.

Winners of the award are judged by a panel from the Canada Safety Council, Transport Canada, the Traffic Injury Foundation and the Canadian Trucking Alliance. Entries are received from the seven provincial associations that nominate reigning provincial drivers of the year.

Balcaen receives a $1,000 cash prize, a trip for two to a Canadian destination of his choice, and a trophy. n

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