Q&A with Ken Hansen, retired board member, Birch Hills Gas Co-op

The board of Birch Hills Gas Co-op presented Ken Hansen, right, with a retirement certificate from the Federation of Alberta Gas Co-ops on Tuesday, April 12, and gave him a heartfelt thank you for what board chair Maurice Lemay, left, described as “a lifetime career in the natural gas and utility industry.” At one point or another, Hansen has been an adviser, a board member, or on standby for emergency purposes for the entire time that Birch Hills Gas Co-op has existed going back to 1973. He is joined in the presentation by his wife, Orma Joyce Hansen.

Tell us about how you first got involved in the natural gas and utility industry.
I worked in the oil-drilling rigs in my younger days. Soon, my perspective about life changed as I contemplated getting married. Life out there on the rigs did not sit well with me anymore. I preferred to be home with my wife as I set my sight to embark on family life. I recall vividly: it was a Thursday morning when I walked into the Grande Prairie office of Northland Utilities to apply for a job. My conversation with the hiring officer that morning of 1963 took on an unexpected fun twist. Things happened rather quickly. As soon as a hiring decision was made, he then asked me with a sense of urgency, “Can you start this afternoon?” When I said, “no,” he pressed further on, “How about tomorrow?” I proceeded to explain to him that the only reason I balked at starting the job right away was because my wedding was scheduled the following Saturday. But, I assured him I would be ready to work Monday. Showing great understanding, he said, “Well, you might want to take a little break after the wedding and start on Tuesday.” I prevailed, and that Monday was the beginning of a lifelong career for me in the natural gas and utility industry.

Please take us back with you, if you may, to the early days of your career.
I worked in the Grande Prairie area for the first two-and-a-half years of my employment with Northland Utilities. Then the company moved me to Spirit River. I was looking after the company’s natural gas business in Rycroft, Woking and Spirit River. At the same time, I was on the company’s apprenticeship program getting trained as a power serviceman, which involved climbing power poles. After two-and-a-half years in Spirit River, I was on the move again. The company sent me to Fort McMurray. At the time of my posting there, Fort McMurray was a town of about 3,500 people. Through a business acquisition, the company expanded to Fort McMurray and was mainly responsible for converting the town from propane to natural gas. Before natural gas was available, people in Alberta’s rural communities used coal, propane, wood and fuel oil as sources of heat. I was in charge of the construction and installation of natural gas transmission lines while continuing for a time with my apprenticeship as a power lineman. We also flew into outlying areas around Fort McMurray, especially during the wintertime, to take care of their power needs.

What was it like at Fort McMurray before it began to experience an explosive growth?
Fort McMurray was very interesting: there was as much going on at two in the morning as there was at two in the afternoon. The town bustled with activities; it was full of life throughout the whole 24 hours of each day. As for me, I worked as many days a week and as many hours a day as I physically could. As a foreman, I was on call 24 hours a day, and work pretty much consumed my life. Soon, the daily grind of work took a toll on me. I began to seek a work-life balance. So, when I learned of a foreman job opening in Grande Prairie, I immediately talked to my company for a chance at getting reassigned. The company thumbed down my request and offered me more money, literally as much money as needed to keep me in Fort McMurray. The town was just growing so fast, and so was our business. So, there was a more pressing need for staff in Fort McMurray than in Grande Prairie. However, the weight from the physical and mental stress at work grew heavier on me each day. Finally, after six years, I decided it was time to move on. When my wife and I left Fort McMurray in 1974, the town’s population had exploded four-fold to about 14,000.

So, what did you do next after Fort McMurray?
The Government of Alberta’s push to make natural gas widely available and affordable through the cooperative movement started to gain ground by then. I left Fort McMurray to work as a utility officer for the Department of Transportation and Utilities. The deputy minister who interviewed me hesitated initially to hire me, as the position paid just about one-third of my wage in Fort McMurray. But it didn’t matter to me. I loved, and still do, the idea behind the gas co-op, which, I think, was a great innovation that, to this day, has brought so much positive impact to Alberta’s rural economy.

What did your job as a utility officer for the government entail?
The job brought me back to the area to lay the groundwork for organizing the gas co-ops. I oversaw the execution of projects involving construction and installation of gas pipelines and reported the work progress to Edmonton. I was there in the infancy years of the Birch Hills Gas Co-op, Central Peace Natural Gas Co-op, North Peace Gas Co-op, and East Smoky Gas Co-op. As the provincial government hired more people, the co-ops in our area gradually became my main focus. And once the gas co-ops got going, my job also evolved to include water, wastewater and even fire protection. There was some overlap between Municipal Affairs and the Department of Transportation and Utilities in my job, so I reported back and forth between the two. I did that for about 18 years.

Tell us about the early years of the gas co-ops in our area.
In 1971, Peter Lougheed, the former premier of Alberta, won the provincial election on a campaign promise to expand the provision of natural gas to Albertans at a reasonable cost. Back then, people could borrow money on a government guarantee to pay for a co-op membership. And the men and women serving in the board of a gas co-op fulfilled a very important role: first of all, they raised awareness about the existence of the co-op. Today, when people build a house, they simply walk into a gas co-op office if they need a gas hookup. They understand what the gas co-op is there for. That was not the case when the gas co-ops first started. Heck, people did not even know what a natural gas was let alone a gas co-op. Board members were also very involved each step of the way in the whole process of getting gas pipelines installed in the district that they represent, including going around and getting easements in order for transmission lines to reach homes or farms. Basically, board members were doing the work that, in today’s co-op set-up, is being delivered by hired staff. Over time, the role of the board evolved into being solely that of a policy-formulating body for the gas co-ops. With the hiring of staff, gas co-ops have also become very efficient in service delivery as well as from an operational standpoint.

Can you share with us the process that led to your decision to hang up the gloves, so to speak, and retire from the board of Birch Hills Gas Co-op?
These past two years have been quite a challenge for me as we shifted our board meetings online via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic. First, our home is not connected with the Internet. So, the only means by which I can participate in board meetings is through our landline phone. Second, my hearing is deteriorating. We try to have as many as six regular board meetings in a year and also have special meetings in between. Our board chair, Maurice Lemay, is very good at keeping our meetings to within two hours; however, for me, it’s no fun being on the phone for that long. Other than that, I have no complaints whatsoever. It’s been a good life, and I’ve enjoyed it. You mentioned about legacy: if there’s one to speak of about myself, it’s simply that I’ve found what I love doing, and I shared it with my community. I’ve heard my wife said many times: it’s always worthwhile doing something good for the community.

What do you plan to do in your retirement?
My wife and I have talked about doing a little bit of travelling. When I was with the government, my job involved attending conferences and conventions. In a way, I’ve done some travelling. But my wife and I want to travel more even if it’s just within Alberta. I will also continue with my volunteer work.

Footnotes:

  • Northland Utilities is now part of ATCO Group.
  • Fort McMurray became a city on September 1, 1980. On April 1, 1995, the City of Fort McMurray amalgamated with Improvement District No. 143 to form the Municipality of Wood Buffalo, later renamed as the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo on August 14, 1996.
  • The Department of Transportation and Utilities dissolved in 1999 after Alberta Infrastructure was formed.