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Picking At ‘Scabs’

GRIMSHAW, Alta. -An ill wind blowing in Northern Alberta has at least one long-time independent trucker warning about a potential confrontation between his peers and what he claims are cut-rate competitors who are putting them out of...


GRIMSHAW, Alta. –An ill wind blowing in Northern Alberta has at least one long-time independent trucker warning about a potential confrontation between his peers and what he claims are cut-rate competitors who are putting them out of business.

Marvin Belcourt of Grimshaw, has been hauling since the 1970s, but in the past few years has seen his business drop off to the point where he’s forced to take on other duties to make ends meet. And though he won’t name names, he blames unfair competition and government representatives who he says care little about their constituents for creating an intolerable and unsustainable situation.

“Edmonton companies are coming up here and charging less than half the going rate,” Belcourt says, claiming that while the road builders’ rate in Alberta is $120 an hour, some companies are offering their trucks for only $45.

He calls it a “really dumb move,” and expresses his frustration that truckers don’t get together and refuse to work for that rate. Unfortunately, he says, “there’s always scabs. What do you do? You can’t start shooting out tires.”

Yet this is precisely what he fears if the situation doesn’t change. “In our area people are getting tired of these groups coming in and working for less than half rate,” he says.

The groups of which he speaks include Mennonites and other farmers Belcourt says will work for less to augment the farm income Belcourt says is government-subsidized and which therefore gives them an unfair advantage.

“One guy I won’t name has four or five trucks and farms on the side, so he gets government hand-outs. Farmers get hail money, crop failure money, drought money, even cattle farmers get hand-outs. We get nothing.” He also says these groups stick together and won’t let outsiders in on the work.

Belcourt claims these farmers can also own trucking companies and gravel pits and are “buying up everything using farm money.”

He thinks they’re trying to run everyone else out of business so they can raise prices but “they’ll go broke before that happens. All it would take would be a couple of years of bad crops and they won’t be able to pay their trucking bills.”

And while that might be poetic justice and a free market equalizer, it could also be too late for independents such as him.

Belcourt also aims his ire at governments who he says not only refuse to step in and help level the playing field, but who actually make the situation worse. Chief among these culprits are municipal districts who he says hired local truckers in years past, but who over the past few years have stopped doing so. And now, “the last MD in our area has tendered their gravel jobs out,” he says, “and the tender for next year went to a company from Edmonton. That means there’ll be 20 or 30 local owner/operators out of work.”

According to the Municipal District of Peace No. 135, where Grimshaw is located, this shouldn’t even be an issue.

“The only trucking we do is with our gravelling program,” says chief administrative officer Lyle McKen. “And it’s tendered out on an annual basis.” McKen says the tender goes typically to a local contractor, and that “when we do our tendering we require them to supply a minimum of four trucks.”

He admits that some may subcontract to local individuals, but “I believe most of the times the trucks are company-owned. They may hire on privately-owned trucks occasionally, but our gravelling program only goes on only for a couple of weeks and to our knowledge this hasn’t been an issue.”

The neighbouring MD of Northern Lights No. 22, however, makes no apologies for tendering to the lowest bidder. According to chief administrative officer Theresa Van Oort, “we’re kind of stuck with tendering requirements and can’t cut anyone out of the process,” she says. It isn’t just trucking that’s being affected, either, she says, but “other contractors are bidding for quite a bit less than last year.”

Van Oort blames the economy. “We had one contract unrelated to trucking that we tendered last year,” she cites as an example, “and this year the costs were exactly half -and it was the same contractor both years. We’re certainly not trying to purposely cut out our local guys, but we do have a responsibility to ensure we’re getting the best bang for the buck.”

The district has open tendering, Van Oort says, and if a company meets the requirements -such as bonding, proper WCB coverage, liability insurance and the like -“there isn’t a lot we can do.” She points out that if a company has given them problems in the past the MD won’t work with them again, but that hasn’t happened.

“We don’t see that we can turn down a tender from someone just because they’re from outside the area,” Van Oort says. “Once you start playing favourites, people quit bidding because they figure the game’s rigged -and you don’t want to see that.”

That’s small consolation for truckers like Belcourt who see their livelihood slipping from their grasp. “I’d like to see truckers across Canada completely shut down and cripple the country for two, three weeks like they did in France,” he says in frustration. ” It won’t solve anything, but at least it’ll show people how important truckers are.”

He also wants a government solution. “This is where the MLAs should step in,” he says, “but they don’t care.” Belcourt says he spoke with two area MLAs and the upshot was that “It wasn’t their concern and there’s nothing they can do.”

Alberta Transportation agrees, saying it’s basically a free market issue. According to spokesperson Trent Bancarz, “our concern is if the vehicles being used are properly registered, have the proper permits and safety records and the like, and that qualified people are driving them. Other than that we don’t get involved.”

Bancarz says the province certainly doesn’t direct municipalities who to hire, but “we would hope they would hire qualified people with the right permits, licences, vehicles, and the like -and of course that they’re following the regulations, with no overloaded vehicles and the like. But that’s really where our concern ends.”

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Belcourt says the dissatisfaction among he and his peers is mounting -and he sees the potential for things to get ugly. “In our area people are getting tired of these groups coming in and working for less than half rate,” he says, “and I think something might happen down the road that isn’t going to be pretty.”

Such talk alarms Alberta Transportation’s Bancarz. “That (kind of activity) worries us from a safety perspective,” he says. “What if the victim gets into his truck and doesn’t know about the damage someone did? It could be very dangerous, and I hope no-one does anything to compromise public safety.”

Bancarz is sympathetic to the truckers’ plight. “There’s lots of frustration because the economy has dropped out and things are difficult,” he says. “It’s very competitive and from time to time we field calls from people in the industry wanting things like guaranteed contracts or that contracts only be open to people who live in a certain area. Of course we can’t do that.”

Faced with a situation he’s unlikely to change, Belcourt is being forced to diversify.

“I’ll work for other people if they pay a decent rate,” he says. “I do other stuff in construction that doesn’t involve tucking, and we have our own butcher shop in Grimshaw. My son Marcel’s a really good meat cutter and we make a little extra that way.” He also cuts grass for a Peace River businessman with several properties.

“You’ve got to do what you have to, to survive,” he says. “We’re kind of the forgotten people up here.”

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‘There’s always scabs. What do you do? You can’t start shooting out tires.’

Marvin Belcourt


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