near Gander, NL

Terra Nova Tel was a Newfoundland-based telecommunications company headquartered in Gander when I got the call to fix their multiplexer. The equipment had been in place a number of years, and the faulty line in question was a 56 kbps dataport, one of my firm’s newer pieces of hardware.  The year was 1985 and I was part of the Customer Engineering department in Ottawa, where one of our responsibilities was field support.  My colleague had tried all the usual things to resolve the problem over the phone, but had determined that a site visit was in order since the problem remained.   Being the newest in the group, I won the short straw to make the trip.

Connections being what they were to the island, I arrived mid-afternoon the day before scheduled, and as it was my first (in fact, only) visit to Newfoundland, made time to take my small rental car from Gander airport to Terra Nova National Park  about 60 km to the east.  It was mid-May and still a bit of snow remained on the ground.  As daylight was beginning to fade as I arrived at the park entrance, I decided to forgo entering, instead enjoying the beautiful rolling forested hills as I drove into the sun during the drive back.  It was dark as I returned to town to locate my hotel.

The next morning, loaded up with my tool box and spare hardware, I made my way over to the customer’s office, and met up with my contact there, Jerry.   He explained we’d take my car out to the Central Office (CO) where the faulty equipment was located in Grand Falls, about an hour’s drive west of Gander.  The day was cool and bright, and we made awkward small talk on the drive, attempting to pass the time.  Mostly I enjoyed the spectacular scenery along Highway 1, the Trans-Canada.

We reached Grand Falls and found the centrally located CO.  The local technician, Martin, was on-site awaiting us, and pointed me at the troublesome mux. We’d already established they were pretty lax about scheduling downtime, so it wasn’t long before I decided the best approach was to try the known-good circuit pack I’d brought with me from our factory in Gatineau; we quickly pulled out the faulty dataport and slammed in the new one.  Moments later, green lights appeared and Martin plugged in a test set to check the transmission quality.   After a few minutes it appeared that the problem was resolved, and there were delighted smiles all round.  Not that we hadn’t tried this before over the phone, with spare hardware they had on site; we chocked up the success this time to the newer revision hardware I’d brought with me.  We loitered around another ten or fifteen minutes to ensure things continued to look good, but with the Terra Nova boys giving the circuit a clean bill of health, I began to think about whether I could get an earlier flight home.  It was about 10:30 am.

It quickly became clear that a visiting vendor engineer on expenses was cause for celebration, and Martin proposed lunch.  I hid my surprise until Jerry further explained: there was a beer strike currently on in Newfoundland, and they knew of a place that still had beer.  It was however, “a bit of a drive”.

The Newfoundland beer strike of 1985, I later learned, was quite an ordeal for the islanders.  The strike started at the Labatt brewery where unionized workers, protesting the introduction of aluminum cans which they felt threatened their job security, went on strike on April 1.  The other two breweries in Newfoundland at the time had an agreement with the third, and locked out their workers the next day; as a result all the breweries in Newfoundland were on strike or locked out.  By June most bars and restaurants were out of Newfoundland-brewed beer, and had taken to importing cheap American “froth” which was not well-received by the locals.

Apparently the restaurant that was known to have beer that May was ninety minutes or more north of Grand Falls, so if we left immediately, we could make it just in time for lunch. The three of us loaded up Martin’s company truck, with me riding shotgun.  Martin, a true Newfoundland character, regaled Jerry and I with tales of everything from his father-in-law’s moose-hunting exploits to tales of others’ quests to slake their thirst in this beer-starved province.  Apparently there were some epic road trips in search of the suds.

The place we were headed to was a kind of inn on the north shore of the island, a somewhat remote outpost, hence, the two locals felt, the reason it had not yet run out of brew.   We were soon off the Trans-Canada highway and onto a slower road, picturesque with the boreal forest eventually giving way to rocky cliff formations as we got closer to the coast.  It was a fine morning and the lads couldn’t be happier – the way they saw it, it was a perfect day in which they’d fixed the lingering technical problem with the mux and were thus well-deserving of a free lunch with a rare beer or three thrown in to boot.  Not much work was being done, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone.  We arrived, immediately verifying that the beer supply rumour was indeed fact, and ordered fish and chips all round.  With beer.  When in Rome, and all that.  The men made sure to maximize their beer intake while there, a fact that had me a little worried considering our close to two hour journey required to bring me back to my car.   Of course, it would give me time to sober up, at least; I got a little giggly after my one obligatory glass.

The beer strike/lockout ended in November of that year, a full ten months later, when the union and Labatt came to an agreement after a 22 hour bargaining session. Beer sales had plummeted 15% over the previous year – a drop of almost $15 million dollars.

Terra Nova Tel no longer exists, having been acquired by Newfoundland Tel in 1988.

As for me, I still plan to return to Newfoundland to properly explore the beauty I saw during that beer strike trip.