The Doc Project

I became a pipeliner's wife. It's not the life I signed up for, but I learned how others make it work

Giving up home and career to follow a partner working the line? For some women, it's the only choice

Giving up home and career to follow a partner working the line? For some women, it's a choice they're proud of

Adrienne Pan, her husband Ben, and their dog Otis. The couple got married on March 21, 2015. (Submitted by Adrienne Pan)
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This story was first published on Nov. 15, 2018.

"You're a pipeliner's wife?" 

There are usually several layers of tone when I hear this question: disbelief, curiosity, sympathy, contempt.

I'm new to the pipeline world, and the hell it can be for a marriage.

I'm a former TV news anchor turned afternoon radio host for CBC Edmonton. My husband, Ben, is on a seven-month contract (up from five) helping replace Enbridge Energy's aging Line 3 oil pipeline. He was supposed to be home at the end of 2018, but the project has been extended into the new year.

Adrienne at work as Host of CBC Edmonton's afternoon show Radio Active. (Submitted by Adrienne Pan)

Since its approval, the project has garnered strong opposition and protests from those who say it threatens wildlife and protected land. Pipelining as a whole, given the environmental implications, is an increasingly contentious topic. For several decades, the industry operated in near-obscurity, but in recent years has entered the forefront of political, environmental, and economic debates in Canada.

The Line 3 pipeline runs from Hardisty, Alta., to Superior, Wis. My husband is working on a portion of it near Brandon, Man., and our home is about 1,200 kilometres away in Edmonton, Alta.

The thing is, this is a bit of a blindside. When Ben and I first got together, he felt he was done with pipelining. Three years into our marriage, he's back at it and I've been doing my best to adjust.

What does she do all day? Doesn't she get bored? Where's her ambition?- Adrienne Pan

With my work keeping me in Edmonton, we keep connected through daily phone calls and the occasional visit.

Ben at work as a pipeline utility welder. (Submitted by Ben)

I miss him a lot, especially our Sunday morning routine. We used to sit around in our pyjamas with the dog, eat a big breakfast, and catch up on a TV show.

But to be honest, I'm a bit mad, too. This isn't what I signed up for; I didn't think I'd be living alone.

Getting beyond the typecasting

Pipeline jobs start, finish, and start up again somewhere else as fast as the product moving through them. There's so much separation and distance, and that's why some partners of pipeliners travel with their spouses.

I'll admit, I had some preconceived notions about that particular "type" of wife — the one who quits working to follow her man from job to job, living in trailer parks.

Travelling with a pipelining partner is nomadic and sporadic, but the wives who travel with their working husbands say it's worth it. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

What does she do all day? Doesn't she get bored? Where's her ambition?

I'm not willing to uproot and give up my career, but who are the women who do?

During a visit with Ben to the Brandon site, I went to the "Ladies' Lunch," a weekly gathering of women who have partners working in the area. It was there that I was invited into what I'm calling the "Pipeliner Wives Club" and got some of my questions answered.

[Note: Opposition to pipelining has been, at times, violent. For this reason, CBC is not including last names or the names of family members in order to ensure the safety of all parties.]

Darlene: From prison guard to homemaker

Darlene is an Ontario Provincial Police prison guard turned uber-devoted pipeline wife. She has spent nine years travelling with her husband.

Darlene gets up at 4 a.m. to fix her husband breakfast and sends him off to work with a bagged lunch she prepared for him. After that, she vacuums, does the laundry, and gets the groceries. Dinner is ready for 8 p.m., when he comes home. An hour or so later, it's bedtime.

That's the routine — six days a week.

"It's very regimented, almost like you're in a boot camp," Darlene said.

Darlene's day as a pipeliner's wife starts early. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

She takes care of everything in their short-term home, maintains their home back in Ear Falls, Ont., and is in charge of finding accommodation at the next job site.

"I still work, but I just don't get paid per se for my work because now I'm the wife," she said with a laugh. "I'm the housekeeper."

Darlene has made lasting friendships and seen a lot of Canada, but she's missed a lot of special occasions back home. It can be difficult and disjointing, she said.

"I don't know where I fit in. If I fit in with my pipeline family, or do I fit in with my family at home? You basically live two lives at all times."

Elaine: A working holiday

Four generations of Elaine's family are in the pipeline business. She's been a pipeliner's wife for 31 years.

Her husband's father and his father before him were also pipeliners. Elaine's daughter is the first female pipeliner in the family.

Elaine considers travelling with her husband and their two dogs in their trailer a working holiday. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Elaine didn't leave her career at first. Her husband worked on pipelines out of town, and she stayed back home to raise the kids and work as a teacher.

But then, her husband suffered a brain injury and was blinded in one eye in a serious jet ski accident in the 2000s. Elaine quit working then to care for him because the family couldn't afford a full-time nurse and day care. The recovery took two years, and he eventually went back to pipelining.

I thought it was kind of unfair that I was the one who was giving everything up so he could have his choice of job.- Elaine, the wife of a pipeliner

Elaine never went back to teaching.

"For a while, I had to say I had some regrets, because I thought it was kind of unfair that I was the one who was giving everything up so he could have his choice of job," she said.

Despite that, Elaine calls herself a proud pipeliner's wife. She considers travelling with her husband and their two dogs in their trailer a working holiday.

"This is kind of 'me time.' I can either do nothing all day, or I can go socialize, or just enjoy my pets."

Sharon: Tech to the rescue

After five years of chasing pipelines with her husband, Sharon has life in a trailer park figured out.

Her motor home has a king-sized bed, double sinks in the bathroom, and a specially made sewing table where she can mend worn-out coveralls.

Sharon's motor home is decked out. Who says you can't have luxury in an RV? (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Sharon recalls driving away from their place in Pine Falls, Man., for the first time. She was a homebody, suddenly on the move.

"It's a real weird feeling. 'Oh, what's going to happen? Are my plants going to die? Is water going to get into the basement? Is somebody going to break into the house?'"

No one broke in, and Sharon settled into her new nomadic life.

She married into pipelining at 55 after becoming a widow, having lost her first husband to a massive heart attack. Her current husband has health problems, too. He's diabetic and lives with atrial fibrillation, which is an abnormal and irregular heartbeat.

Sharon knows "things happen," but she is more than willing to be a cook and road companion for as long as she and her pipelining husband are healthy enough to keep going.

You can either cry and whine... or suck it up, buttercup, and do what you need to do.- Sharon

"We miss the grandkids, that's probably the biggest thing. We miss our neighbours. But there you go — you got a phone, you can text, you can call," she said.

"It's not the sacrifice it used to be when there was no such thing as a cellphone." 

One thing I'm learning fast is that pipeliner families, they are tough. Both those who work the pipelines, and their spouses. They keep the whole machinery of a marriage and a life running so that their partners can keep working the grueling hours and making the money that will pay off houses, keep the bills paid, get kids through university, and support them during the off times.

"It's what you make it," says Sharon. "You can either cry and whine... or suck it up, buttercup, and do what you need to do."

Pipeline jobs start, finish, and start up again somewhere else at a moment's notice. There's so much separation and distance, and that's why some partners of pipeliners travel with their spouses. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

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About the Producer

Adrienne Pan is the host of CBC Edmonton's afternoon drive show, Radio Active. This position comes after 15 years in television news. She's been a reporter and a host in Lethbridge and Winnipeg for Global News and CBC. In her hometown of Edmonton, she anchored CBC's TV News at 6 for six years before moving into radio in July 2018. TV was her first love, but radio is her new main squeeze. One of Adrienne's proudest moments is winning a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in the Best Long Feature category for her television documentary "Saving Grace: The Harry Lehotsky Story". Find her on Twitter: @adriennepancbc

This documentary was co-produced by Acey Rowe.