Olivier Vermette, 2017’s Honourary Lumberjack
Olivier Vermette, Kapuskasing's 2017 Honourary Lumberjack
By Julie Latimer
Curator – Ron Morel Memorial Museum
Special to The Northern Times
From the tender age of 14 or 15, Olivier Vermette has worked in these northern Ontario woods, first with his father in the forests around Opasatika, and then for the Spruce Falls Power & Paper Company.
Born in Opasatika, Olivier is the middle child of Anna, née Garand, and Alcide Vermette. Along with his older sister Lilianne and younger sister, Laura, the entire Vermette family toiled this northern land as hard as other pioneer families did.
Working with his father in the woods, Olivier’s hard work caught the eye of a foreman from Spruce Falls’ Camp 59; he was recruited to work for Spruce Falls in 1951. Olivier’s first job with Uncle Spruce was as a tally man, working with scaler Harry Walsh.
The tally man is sort of (but not really) the scaler’s “secretary”. During the working day, the scaler measures the diameter of each log cut by the lumberjacks, and this is recorded by the tally man. Each evening, after a hearty lumberjack supper, the scaler and tally man added up the cordage cut that day. If you think this sounds easy, apparently they could measure the diameter of upwards of 10,000 trees per day!
January of 1952 saw Olivier working as tally man for scaler Alan Ruxton at camps 56 and 46, but in July of that year, Olivier and Alan went to Kukatush, a lumber camp owned and operated by Spruce Falls.
Reaching Kukatush was an experience in and of itself: take the train to Hearst, stay overnight, leave the next morning on the Algoma Central Railway, get off at Oba Station and take the CPR to Kukatush camp where workers only got out every three months! For a then-single man like Olivier, staying in camp was no hardship, but one of his soon-to-be-married co-workers, spending three months away from his intended bride was difficult! In fact, Olivier said that the travel in/out of Kukatush was so long (more than a day and a half) that he preferred staying at the camp!
Olivier stayed at Kukatush from July 1952 until April of 1953. In October of that year, Olivier took a three-week course in Thunder Bay, half funded by Spruce Falls, to get his scaler’s license. Because they didn’t need any more scalers until July 1954, Olivier continued as tally man, working with Joe Hemingway at Camp 64.
When Olivier was finally hired as scaler in July 1954, he worked at Camp 70 and 58, both on the Smoky Line, and then returned home to work as scaler at Opasatika’s Allen Lake. Life in the lumber camps always started with the 5:45 a.m. bell, signalling breakfast at 6 a.m. Never one to eat early, Olivier would eat a bit of breakfast at 9 a.m. when he’d quickly eat half of a sandwich.
January of 1956 found Olivier in the woods near Coppell, working for Spruce Falls, but scaling the trees felled by the logging firm of Upper Canada. Spruce Falls wanted their man to measure the logs they bought from a contractor.
At some point in his career, Spruce Falls promoted Olivier to strip boss; he’d tell lumberjacks where to cut, make sure they cut the branches on the logs, and tell them where to cut next. Olivier didn’t like telling lumberjacks, older and more experienced men, how to do their jobs, so he went back to scaling after three months as strip boss.
Besides scaling, Olivier was a foreman on road construction projects (Fred Flatt Road to Guilfoyle, and Cargill Road), and for two seasons of tree planting. During the last ten years of his career, he was a check scaler: meaning that he supervised other scalers.
The year 1991 brought his career with Spruce Falls to an end; the reorganization and downsizing at the new Spruce Falls meant that cuts were looming. Olivier said that the Woods Department was overstaffed; two check scalers were let go, Olivier being one of them.
At 56 years of age, and with 6900 Tembec shares in his pocket as a “retirement gift”, Olivier couldn’t stay home and relax, so he found work as a scaler with Lachance Construction and with Isabelle Brothers.
In fact, Olivier and his wife, Suzanne, and another couple, Horst Roetscher and his wife, Denise, all worked together as scalers for these companies. They’d work six to seven days a week from Christmas till March, the men scaling the logs while their wives were the tally men! When I pointed out that the men didn’t pay their wives the tally man salary, Olivier laughed and said that the pay went into the same wallet!
Olivier’s former boss, Alan Ruxton, said that Olivier must have been born in a barn because the cold never bothered him, and the insects didn’t bite him. Olivier was made to work in the northern forests: he loved the work and the people who worked there with him. This is clearly evident when speaking with him about his fifty years spent working in these forests: his eyes sparkled while sharing these stories! I invite you all to shake his hand during the Lumberjack Festival, and congratulate him on being a true Northern son!