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The design for the replacement bridge for Champlain Bridge is shown in a 2014 artist's rendering. A handful of Mohawk ironworkers from Kahnawake are working on the project, expected to be completed in late 2018.

Champlain Bridge brings
Mohawk workers closer to home

Ironworkers leave New York jobs to work on Montreal project

Montreal's new Champlain Bridge, which will span the St. Lawrence River and replace the existing bridge, is an enormous project. The $4.25-billion project began in 2015 and is expected to be completed by December of 2018, and already employs nearly 500 people.

And continuing a tradition that stretches back generations, a small but growing number of the ironworkers involved in the huge project are Mohawks from the nearby community of Kahnawake, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River.

"We currently have close to 470 workers on the new Champlain Bridge corridor project and there will be close to 1,000 at its peak," says Véronique Richard-Charrier, the media relations advisor for Signature on the Saint Lawrence, the consortium which is overseeing the project.

Joey Barnes is one of the 10 Mohawks who are among those currently working on the bridge. He says he's doing the same thing people from his community, including close relatives, have been doing for generations, and he's helping to keep what he calls "a community tradition" going.

Ironworkers from Kahnawake like Barnes often work across Canada and in the United States, where their skills are in demand.

When work slowed down last fall in New York City, the 23-year-old returned to Kahnawake and found work on the Champlain Bridge project.

Job takes toll on community and family

For many Mohawks, becoming an ironworker is a tradition of necessity that stretches back more than 100 years. It was often the only way to make good money for community members, though that's slowly changing.

Chester Gilbert is turning 60 this year and has been an ironworker for much of his adult life. He says there are still opportunities in ironwork for people willing to make a career out of it, even though these days, many community members have found other ways to support their families.

"My father, both grandfathers, uncles, the guy across the street, my friend's fathers, it seemed like everyone needed to be an ironworker if they wanted to get ahead," Gilbert said.

He remembers being encouraged by his father to choose a different career. In the end, the money, being outside, working up in the air, and the freedom of choosing where to work attracted him, like many other Mohawks, to become an ironworker. Gilbert is also proud he'll be able to tell future generations he worked on the new bridge — much like his father before him was able to point to buildings he helped build in Montreal, like the Place Ville Marie.

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