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Power to the people: Danielle Conolly reflects on the risky life's work of her grandfather, "Frenchie" Sibilleau, who helped electrify Manitoba's rural communities.

To many people, the power lines that stretch along our endless highways are just part of the landscape. But to me, they've always represented family.

As a child, I loved climbing into Grandpa's beat-up blue Dodge pickup and driving all over the southern Manitoba countryside with him. "I remember when we did the wiring here," he'd say, filling in yet another piece of history.

My grandfather's name is Emilien Gustav Julien Sibilleau, but the work crews found it simpler to call him Frenchie. His career at Manitoba Hydro started in 1947 when he was nineteen.


In the early 1940s, most of rural Manitoba wasn't on the power grid. Towns and a few farms ran their own diesel plants. In 1946, the Manitoba Power Commission, which later became Manitoba Hydro, began an ambitious farm electrification program. By 1950, more than 20,000 farms and hundreds of rural communities were serviced with centralized electric power. The men who made this happen were people like my grandfather. Crews worked gruelling ten-hour days in every corner of the province, with pay starting at fifty cents an hour.

These early linemen faced many dangers before the days of bucket trucks and full-body safety gear. The poles were anywhere from thirty to ninety feet high -and linemen scaled them with only spurs, rubber gloves, and a safety belt.

"I did fall once," my grandfather says. "A young lady was driving a car and the wire was across the road, and I was up a pole. And when she hit the wire, I came down." He'd had the wire in his hands and didn't even have time to let go as the car pulled him from his perch.

"I was bruised, but they patched me up a little bit with first aid and I was okay I went back on the pole again," he recalls with a chuckle. "We had very few accidents. A couple people got broken arms. But otherwise, safety was very strict with Hydro."

Other times, crews faced dangerous weather, such as lightning storms. Even while storms raged, crews might be dispatched to restore power to communities in need.

On one call, lightning had hit a pole and knocked out power for the rural community of Steinbach. The top of the pole was sheared off and wires were dangling a metre or so above the ground. My grandfather and his crew arrived on the scene after the storm had passed.

"We had to make sure that nobody would come and touch the wires. So we had to dig a hole beside the old pole, set another pole, and bring all those wires back up on top." This was just another "day at the office" for Hydro linemen.

The work of Grandpa and his crew spanned the province. They installed lighting for ballparks. They put in highlines (higher voltage lines). They assembled transformers to convert dangerously high voltages to safer, lower levels for lines within communities.

A life-changing event happened in 1951, when my grandfather and his crew were in St. Norbert, southwest of Winnipeg, installing lines. The crew stayed at a nearby hotel at the company's expense. When a St. Boniface Hospital pharmacy employee walked in, Grandpa's eyes lit up. He and Jeannine Tellier were married the following year, and by the end of 1954 they were settled in St-Pierre-Jolys, expecting their first child--my mother.

That same year, a district supervisor fell ill and my grandfather was chosen to fill in. Meanwhile, the district supervisor position in another nearby town became vacant. At the end of his substitute time, Grandpa applied for and got the new position.

Grandpa retired in 1986, when I was four months old, to become the best fulltime grandfather a girl could ask for -a wonderful storyteller who taught me respect for those who built the network of weathered poles that criss-cross my prairie home.

Danielle Conolly is a Creative Communications student at Red River College in Winnipeg.
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Title Annotation:YOUR STORY
Author:Conolly, Danielle
Publication:Canada's History
Date:Aug 1, 2010
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