After nearly half a century, Norm McBride retires from NTPC


If you think the power corporation is stretching the truth when it blames the next outage on ravens, Norm McBride is here to tell you: it’s true.

McBride, who retired from NTPC last week after almost 46 years with the corporation, began saving photos to his phone to prove the sheer number of raven-related incidents.

The most famous took place in 2014, leading the CBC to report that a “flaming raven” had taken out power to Yellowknife. But McBride has trouble telling that one apart from the others.

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“There are so many ravens,” he said on Monday as he began retired life. “It’s like a lightning bolt, when a raven does get in contact with a conductor. It’s a big bang.

“You don’t see the raven contact. It’s very minimal. But you’ll always see the remains. We started taking pictures, just for verification. Everybody says it’s always the excuse that the power corporation gives, but I guarantee it.”

In January 1977, on the advice of a friend, McBride turned up job-hunting at the power corp’s Yellowknife office before the corporation even had the chance to advertise its latest vacancy. He was given a chance as an operator at the city’s Jackfish diesel power plant.

McBride graduated through a series of roles, from area superintendent to working on policy development and training, before his last day on Friday.

Right down to his final week, he was troubleshooting outages. With high winds blowing through Yellowknife this month, a tarp got swept up into a transmission line and cut the power locally.

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“I don’t know if I’ll miss it,” he said, asked if he enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of Yellowknife’s many outages.

“I always like calm, you know? I like to keep the lights on. I did not enjoy going down there at all hours of the night to assist in getting the power back on.”

It isn’t just ravens, either. Squirrels and ospreys also have a bad reputation at the power corp, and don’t get them started on helicopters – a military chopper hit the transmission line and took it out of action in 2012. Yellowknife had to run on diesel for two weeks while that was fixed, McBride said.

Then there’s the pressure of a sustained outage in the middle of winter, like one in late 2013 when the city went without power for three hours at -37C. He remembers observing with amazement the ability of sheer weight of frost to bring down a power line.

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An island of power

What makes the job in Yellowknife unique, said McBride, is the city’s isolated position – with no access to a provincial grid and friendly neighbours to help in a crisis.

“A lot of people from the south who move up here don’t understand that,” he said.

“We’re on an island, basically. We’ve got two sets of generation coming into the city: one from hydro and the emergency backup diesel plant at Jackfish. So if we have any problems at the hydro plant, or the transmission line fails or somebody knocks it down, there goes all our supply of power from the Snare hydro into Yellowknife.

“It’s not as easy as everybody thinks. You don’t just flick a switch and the power is back on. The guys down there are doing the best job they can to get the power on as quickly as possible, and it’ll get on when it gets on.”

McBride has done the math and believes he racked up 16,500 working days at the NWT Power Corporation. Now, he’s planning to visit his nephew in California, see friends in Las Vegas and fit in a beach holiday in the near future.

But if the power blinks out any time soon – which, given Yellowknife’s case history, is possible – will he be itching to pick up a phone and see if he’s needed?

“No, I think the guys down there are pretty-well versed on what to do,” he said. “I’ll just have to sit there like the rest of us and wait for the power to come on.

“Although if it gets too extended, I’ve got a backup generator in my house. You never know how long the power is going to be out.”