'It comes with sacrifices': After 4-year slog, Samuel De Champlain Bridge a source of pride for workers

The site operated nearly 24 hours a day, all year long. Workers were usually scheduled for 10-hour shifts, night and day. Some days were even longer than that, with very little time to sleep.

The long hours and sleep deprivation took a toll on many, but workers pleased to be part of Montreal's history

Samuel de Champlain bridge. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Alexandre Guérard likens the last four years of his life to playing a high-stakes game of Tetris. His colleagues describe it as assembling a giant Lego project, one piece at a time, nearly every waking hour, day in and day out.

Ensuring the prefabricated components of the new Samuel De Champlain Bridge fit together perfectly required extreme precision — down to the millimetre.

"It's a source of pride," said Guérard, an ironworker and, for the past two years, site foreman on one of the biggest infrastructure projects in North America. "We will talk about this for a long time."

Close to 2,000 workers toiled on the $4.5-billion bridge, working long hours, often six days a week. 

Days blurred into years as crews tightened more than one million bolts and pieced together thousands of concrete slabs.

High personal cost to many

Four years after construction began, the bridge will open to traffic in both directions for the first time Monday.

Alexandre Guérard was a foreman on the bridge project, working 12-hour shifts, six days a week. (Submitted by Alexandre Guérard)

As satisfied as Guérard and his co-workers are feeling, now that the job is finally done, building the 3.4-kilometre bridge that spans the St. Lawrence River came at a high personal cost to many.

They worked 10-hour shifts, night and day, all year long. Some days were longer, with little time left for sleep.

"Day after day, work, work, work, because the date to finish was very, very short," said Sylvain Boivin, a business agent with Local 711 of the Ironworkers Union. It took a toll on many workers' families, he said.

"It was bad because the workers, at the end of their day, were very tired."

Suspended over the river, far from shelter, they were vulnerable to Montreal's harsh winters, wet springs and steaming-hot summers.

Those living on the outskirts of the city left home as early as 4 a.m. to beat traffic, park and then either make their way on foot to the site or get shuttled by boat or bus. Spouses were stuck tending to home and kids alone, sometimes seven days a week.

Boivin said roughly 40 ironworkers' marriages cracked under the pressure of the bridge's construction.

Members of Local 711 of the Ironworkers Union celebrate a job well done. (Submitted by Matthew Fortin)

Guérard's 16-year relationship survived the project, even though his partner, Julie Maurice, said she felt like a single woman at times.

"Spouses take on all of the chores because workers have to take advantage of the economic windfall," she said. Talk of burnout is taboo in the industry, she said, and it's easy to worry that "our spouses exceed their limits."

Missing birthdays, graduations

Site steward Matthew Fortin was on the job seven days a week at times, logging 16-hour days at the project's peak.

Working long hours for a month is one thing, but doing it for years is something else altogether, he said.

"Yes, we're paid for it, but it's still three years that you're not home," said Fortin.

The first cars made it across the new Samuel De Champlain Bridge at 5 a.m. June 24, 2019. (Radio-Canada)

Parents didn't just miss out on dinner with their kids, they missed birthday parties and graduation ceremonies. Now that the project is wrapping up, many workers are taking time off, Fortin said.

"I felt privileged to work on such a project, but it comes with sacrifices," he said. "It was hard, but now it feels satisfying. It's pretty much the job of a lifetime."

The project, led by the construction consortium Signature on the St. Lawrence (SSL), was supposed to be delivered by December 2018. Facing up to $150-million in penalties for missing that deadline, SSL pushed crews to work as much as possible.

Matthew Fortin is proud to have been part of building the bridge, but he'll be happy to take a break when it's all over. He expects to finish up in the fall. (Submitted by Matthew Fortin)

There's still more to do, such as finishing the pedestrian and cycling path by the end of September and then the light-rail train tracks for the Réseau express métropolitain (REM) need to be installed on the central deck. Track installation is expected to begin this fall and be finished by 2021.

Regardless of the delays and the work that's left to do, Federal Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne says the workers who got the bridge to this point are "heroes."

"With every centimetre I crossed, I was thinking about the more than 2,000 men and women who have delivered a signature infrastructure for Montrealers," he said last week, after leading a convoy of vehicles from the south shore of the St. Lawrence River across the bridge for the first time on June 24, Quebec's national holiday.

'Part of the history of Montreal'

The ironworkers had lots of help from those who slogged away on less conspicuous work.

Surveyor Ben Primeau spent three years working on the highways leading up to the bridge, from both the north and south sides.

Primeau, too, averaged 60-hour work weeks. It was tough, he said, but so was saying goodbye to the team when he recently moved onto the REM project.

Ben Primeau put in long hours as a surveyor on the roads leading up to the new Samuel De Champlain Bridge. He's now at work on the REM light-rail project. (Submitted by Ben Primeau)

Still, it's a good feeling watching the cars drive over it for the first time, he said.

"I know it's going to be there for a long time, much longer than I am going to be alive. It's part of the history of Montreal, and it will be part of the modern commute to the city."

Glyn Clarke, a drafter who made sure the decking pieces fit together, also put in long hours at the project's peak.

He also made sure he was one of the first to cross the bridge the day the northbound lanes opened.

He told his family that, after attending his kids' award ceremonies and school plays, this was his turn to show off something he worked so hard on for so long.

"I was so excited, I actually crossed it three times that morning," Clarke said.


Isaac Olson has been a Montreal-area journalist for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Isaac_J_Olson


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