Kahnawa’kehró:non Matthew Montour (pictured) works as a connector on the new Champlain Bridge. (Courtesy Matthew Montour)
From New York City’s Chrysler Building to an aluminum mill in Kitimat, BC, Kahnawake’s ironworkers have reshaped the landscape of Turtle Island. That tradition is closer to home this year, as work ratchets up on revamped links between Montreal and its south shore.
Eight Kahnawa’kehró:non are involved in the creation of two major infrastructure projects near the community: the new Champlain Bridge, and a new connection between Nun’s Island and the Montreal borough of Verdun.
“I feel very proud to represent the community for this project,” said Matthew Montour, a 43-year-old community member working as a connector on the new Champlain Bridge.
For Montour, the work is a chance to carry on a proud family tradition.
“My father, my wife’s father, my grandfather, her grandfather, my grandfather on the other side; it’s what we do.”
“I feel honoured to be working on a bridge that’s going to stand for 150, 200 years after I’m gone,” said Chester Gilbert, also a third-generation ironworker, a member of the rigging and lifting gang on the Verdun span.
Both Gilbert and Montour have worked on many different types of structures over their careers, and both got their start in the US: Gilbert in San Francisco, and Montour in Detroit.
However, Gilbert spent the bulk of his career stateside while Montour worked mainly in Quebec. And while Montour has extensive experience with bridges, this is the second of Gilbert’s career.
Gilbert, 59, worked steadily as a journeyman throughout the early 1980s before returning to Kahnawake to raise his family, switching to white-collar work, notably at Kahnawake Survival School.
The call of ironworking was too strong, however, so he returned to the profession in 1999. Though Gilbert loves the freedom that comes with the job, he admits it has its challenges.
“I wouldn’t wish this kind of life on anybody. To leave home for two or three weeks at a time, that’s pretty tough,” said Gilbert, a father of three, who believes it was worth the sacrifices.
“Ironworking really paid for many meals, built many houses in this town, and that’s why I’m proud to follow in my father’s footsteps.”
He added that this latest job has an unexpected fringe benefit.
“I’m home!” he said with a laugh, noting that this is one of the few times he’s worked in Quebec.
“I’m sleeping in my own bed and that’s a big deal. I’m in my own house enjoying a normal life. And that is so unusual for the last few years.”
Gilbert has seen many changes in the industry, including tighter safety regulations, increased mechanization, and the lessening influence of unions. Still, he’s adapted his skills with the times.
“Today the material has less bolts per point, and it has to be clean,” he said, adding that steel for the bridge has to be handled with extra care to not contaminate the special rust-resistant paint.
Gilbert noticed another change, one that came as a pleasant surprise. While working on the bridge over the past four months, he found himself bonding with francophone colleagues, despite having what he terms “ironworker French.”
He has vivid memories of past tensions with French Quebecers, especially in 1990, but says things are different now.
“I honestly really appreciate the younger generation francophone ironworkers,” said Gilbert, adding that many readily switch to English when speaking with him, eager to learn what it’s like to work outside of Quebec.
Gilbert also said having a shared sense of humour helps them all bond. “I tease these guys, they tease me back. The weeks go fast.”
Signature sur le Saint-Laurent, the consortium behind the two projects, is happy to have a mix of cultures working on their projects.
“Qualified Mohawk workers are always welcome to showcase their knowhow for hiring,” consortium spokesperson Annie Claire Fournier told The Eastern Door.
Though only eight Kahnawa’kehró:non work on the projects in Montreal, that number might swell in spring as work on the new Champlain Bridge enters the next phase.
For the next eight months or so, Chester Gilbert will continue to work on the Verdun/Nun’s Island Bridge. However, he has no intention of stopping there. When asked if he will still be an ironworker in five years, his answer comes fast and solid.
“You’re damn right.”
That’s a sentiment shared by Matthew Montour, who has dreamed of being an ironworker as far back as high school.
“As long as I can do the trade, that’s what I’m gonna do,” said Montour.