Mental illness directly or indirectly affects all Canadians at one point in time or another. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, it is estimated that in any given year one in five Canadians will develop a mental illness or problem. If you haven’t experienced it yourself, then no doubt you have a family member, friend or colleague who has.
As explorers, we often share stories – from daring tales of discovery to funny anecdotes about camp life – but rarely do we share stories about our individual experiences or the thoughts bouncing around inside our heads. Sharing these stories is incredibly valuable and helps others feel like they are not alone. We’ve gathered three stories from brave members of the B.C. exploration community who have been through challenging situations related to their work in mineral exploration.
Recovering From Addiction
Call me Al. I am a geologist, and I am an alcoholic. Fortunately, I found a program of recovery that has helped me to stay sober for over 12 years. Given my previous crazy, drunken lifestyle, which is not uncommon in mining, I consider this a minor miracle.
In the early years of my career – from drunken northern drill camps to a beer- fuelled PhD to mining towns in Australia – booze gave me the confidence to take risks. I was a good explorer. I got lucky. I made a lot of money, and grew a massive ego. A few nights in jail, a broken nose and a crashed truck were all consequences of the game.
Moving back to Canada with a wife and daughter, property deals and financings were done over drinks. There were some more successes, but mostly failures. I almost went broke during the tech crash; my neglected wife returned home to Australia. All part of the game.
Despite a recovery in mining and an exploration success, my board of directors quietly fired me over a very inappropriate expense account. My two years of paid severance was cause for celebration and a month long binge. My shame and self-loathing was numbing. I thought about ending it; I’ve learned through my recovery that most alcoholics are a little bit suicidal.
My bottom happened in Toronto during the PDAC. I woke up after a blackout in a random room of the Royal York Hotel: no wallet, jacket or computer. Later that day, back at the conference, an old acquaintance whom I worked with as a student pulled me aside, chuckling about my antics the previous evening, which I could not recall! That night, he took me to my first meeting. Many years later, I still attend meetings. I have learned humility and kindness. I have reconnected with my daughter. And I help other alcoholics who still suffer.
Witnessing a Fatality
I was working as a geophysical technician in the remote North in the early 2000s. It was three months into the field season and we were finishing up for the day. Our Hughes 500 helicopter flew in to collect me and the two-person soil sampling crew working nearby. After landing to pick up the crew and a couple of sample caches, the machine came toward me, turned, and descended behind the hill in front of me. I heard a loud bang as the helicopter hit the ground hard and then I saw a plume of smoke on the horizon.
I ran up the hill between us and saw a ball of fire that was once our helicopter. As the first responder, I radioed for help, made my way to the crash site and assessed the situation. Realizing the pilot had not survived, I treated the burns of the two surviving passengers as best I could with what I had on hand. A colleague working nearby arrived at the scene soon after I did, and more help arrived several hours later – but not in time to save one of the two passengers. Back in camp, I told my story to the RCMP as doctors worked on the only remaining survivor and prepared him for evacuation. Company managers arrived at the site for support the next day, and the remaining crew members and I flew home the following day.
In the weeks and months that followed, there was a post-incident investigation and I told my story to the Transportation Safety Board, police, lawyers, family and colleagues. Tragically, the third patient succumbed to his injuries in hospital two weeks after the incident. The cause of the incident was determined to be “settling under power” – essentially, loss of lift.
Back at work, co-workers didn’t know what to say to me and it seemed to me that I often ended up comforting them. The company provided grief counsellors but, to be honest, I didn’t want to relive the incident over and over again by continuing to discuss it. Maybe I was being macho and really just didn’t want to talk about what was in my head. I felt I needed to move on and get back to work.
But there were tough days when I didn’t want to do anything or see anyone. My wife reached out to the company provided counsellors, which was a wise move. She took their advice and kept a close eye on me. The physical and mental recovery for everyone involved was different; other people closely involved with the incident left the industry or transitioned into roles that didn’t require field work, while I chose to stay.
After the incident, I recall wanting to gain more knowledge and upgrade my first-aid training so I would be better equipped to help others if I were ever in this type of situation again. On reflection – and on a positive note – I suspect this, in part, led to my career choice in health, safety and environmental management.
— Kim Bilquist, regional leader, health, safety and environment, North America exploration, Teck Resources Limited
I had worked with this particular driller before, so I knew there would be issues when I went out to run our next drill program. He was a big guy and wasn’t easy for anyone to get along with, but he really didn’t like having a woman in charge. His behaviour with the male geologists and my male boss was entirely different – nearly deferential – but with myself and our other female geologist he was rude, intractable and difficult.
We were running short holes, drilling in a farmer’s paddock. I was very conscious of leaving everything clean and tidy for the landowner, but as we finished a hole the driller tossed some grease into the field beside where we were working. I waited until they moved the drill up to the next hole before going to scrape up the grease.
When my field assistant and I got out of the truck at the next hole, the driller exploded over my actions clearing up the mess from the drill at the previous site. He screamed obscenities at me, called me words I won’t repeat and took off in the second drill truck, saying he was quitting. I wish he had! But somehow, we found a way to get the rest of the work done. It was a terrifying situation.
The driller didn’t quit, and he wasn’t fired. I’ve never understood why. We had other drillers who were not difficult to work with, so why keep a guy who wouldn’t follow our environmental policies or work well with female team members or leaders?
— Andrea Cade, consultant/owner, Otem Mineral Consulting