Prairie road work has a Punjabi connection

It might be surprising to know that many of the gravel crews working in Western Canada are from the Pnjab region of India.

“We have 20 guys on the crew here, and 17 are from the Punjab,” says Jag Sandhu, on the job near Val Marie, Sask. “There are lots of Punjabi drivers working in Canada. I think driving is in our blood.”

Co-workers Malkit Brar and Pappa Gill agree. Anywhere in the world — even in other parts of India — Punjabis are driving taxis, farm tractors or trucks. Pappa Git, originally from the Punjab and more recently from Dubai where he had four trucks, came to Canada eight years ago. He, like Brar and Jag, owns his own truck — a considerable layout at about $300,000.

“A lot of people get stuck,” says Jag. “Road building depends on the economy.” Making the $5,000 monthly payments is challenging because hauling gravel is seasonal work. Gravel crews are paid by the ton, and the going rate, depending on how far they haul, is about $4 a ton. On a good day they can haul 300 tonnes but they must pay their own way — operating costs, fuel, accommodation and meals — it adds up. If it rains, the gravel crew doesn’t get paid.

Drivers work 12 to 13 hours a day, from 6:30 a.m. to early evening. There is no job security, and no benefits. Contracting companies hire and fire at will.

The seasonality of the job allows some of them to go back to India for other work in winter. Brar works on the farm when he returns to India. Like Jag, he’s been driving tractors since he was 12 years old.

They say Western Canada has three seasons: winter, spring, and road construction season. Nobody spends more time behind road equipment and highway crews than rural drivers.

Ever wonder what goes into building a highway? Gravel, for one thing. Lots of it.

For other crew members, with their families now living in Canada, they don’t travel back often because they need to pick up extra work here. Stockpiling is one wintertime option — hauling gravel on winter roads that are too soft to travel on in summer time. The ring-road in Regina provided Brar with a year and a half of work. “Sometimes in winter I haul groceries,” says Brar. “I prefer gravel trucking. Groceries involve night work. Gravel trucking is day-time work.”

Most of this crew now live in Alberta or Saskatchewan, but they work throughout Western Canada, short jobs, usually six or seven roads each year. For them, each town is associated with a highway number. The Pas, Highway 10. Fort McMurray, Highway 63. Edmonton, the Ring Road. Calgary, Highway 2. Meadow Lake, Highway 4.

The drivers enjoy the camaraderie that develops between crew members. Most of gravel crew repair their own trucks and become good mechanics. They help each other out as much as they can.

As Brar, a former engineer, says, “You learn on the job with experience. You have to.” Hauling sub-base road gravel for highway beds is not without risks. Accidents are rare but loading up at the gravel pit is one point where things can go wrong. The weight has to be evenly distributed. Last year, Brar accidentally tipped his side-loader when a tarp hindered the load deposit.

Outcomes can be more serious, as when the ground is soft and the load shifts, putting uneven pressure on the back wheels. “We haul 36 tons in a quad wagon,” said Jag. “During unloading most of the weight is on the back of the truck. If a tire blows you’re going to roll. That’s how guys die. When you have not so much weight, it’s easier to handle.”

Road work is team work and the crew is in constant communication.

“Three or four people are always watching me and communicating with me by radio,” says Brar. This is particularly important when the load is being spread.

“What’s my weight, how many metres are spread? We’re talking mostly in Punjabi. There are maybe 20 trucks, different crews — it can be complicated,” says Pappa Git.

Gravel crews are just one of many crews involved in highway road works. There are dumpers, packers, pavers, engineers, signal-men, foremen — all crews hired by different contracting companies. They come together at tail-gate meetings at the beginning of a job and regularly throughout the project to talk about safety, pick-up sections and routes crossing towns.

Of living in Canada, Pappa Git says he generally feels respected and safe. “In the Pubjab, you have one kind of community. In Canada there are lots of communities living together. That’s very good.”

He, like most of the Punjabi gravel crew, are of the Sikh faith. “I wear the turban when I go to the gurdwara — the temple,” he says. “I feel good when I wear the turban, but it’s not compulsory. We pray in the early morning, for peace, for protection.

“The Sikhs have a saying: do good, be good, get good. Many drivers feel lucky to be working here. So much in life depends on luck. Lots of people are trying to get to Canada. But only the lucky people get to come here.”

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