Nfld. & Labrador

Making a living on the Great Lakes: A Land & Sea archival special

The lake boats meant steady work with a good wage, but the tradeoff was long stretches away from home and family.

From 1986: With a work shortage at home, Newfoundlanders find work on the lake boats

Charlie Savoury said he came to work on the Great Lakes because he could not make a living at home in Newfoundland. (Land & Sea 1986)

At a glance, it looks like a classic Newfoundland scene: men on a dock, working to handle a boat on a large body of water. But even though many of those men are from Newfoundland and Labrador, it's happening on the Great Lakes, where seamen travel to work when they don't find enough to do at home.

A lake boat without a Newfoundlander on its crew is rare, said Richard Bacchus. He said he'd worked with many different Newfoundlanders over the years, and as a whole they made good seamen.

"I've never met a bad one. I say that without any regrets," Bacchus said.

But even if they could do the work well, and were glad to be making a reliable income, several of the men working on the lakes on the Canadoc said they were there with a great deal of ambivalence.

Long days on watch leave a lot of time to miss home, Ted Thorne says. (Land & Sea 1986)

What would Charlie Savoury of Rose Blanche do if he found out he could have a job at home tomorrow?

"I'd pack my bags tonight."

Missing home and family

Working on the Great Lakes had some advantages, some said. It was a good, consistent wage, work that allowed employees to spend time home during the summer months.

Ted Thorne of Burnt Islands used to do deep-sea fishing but didn't like being gone all winter long. He decided to give the Great Lakes a try and was working there as a watchman and crane operator. 

During his winter break, Thorne focuses on family time. He says he'd rather leave the bit of work there is in Burnt Islands for those who need it. (Land & Sea 1986)

But long days on boats crossing several lakes, heading between Thunder Bay and Quebec City, meant plenty of opportunity to miss his family.

"There's a lot of time there in between that I can think — really, really think — about home," he said.

The men on the Canadoc found ways to pass the time, playing cards and listening to Newfoundland music. And they made the most of their time at home — Thorne said he mostly spent his winter months off with his family, letting others in town take advantage of the meagre work available at that time of year.

On the Canadoc together for months at a time, the crew of Newfoundlanders finds ways to stay occupied. (Land & Sea 1986)

In many small communities, that work was hard to come by at the best of times, which meant the men kept making the trip to the Great Lakes, whether they wanted to or not.

"The people that I know, I think they had the same idea that I had," Savoury said. 

"In order to make a living, you have to come out here."

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