Jasper Treasures: Barry Gelfand

·7 min read

As you talk with Barry Gelfand, the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” floats by. The gregarious Gelfand has lived in Jasper since 1980 and loves the mountains, the people and the community spirit that permeates the town.

He came into the world in Toronto on Nov. 15, 1950, to Mary and Harold (Harry) Gelfand, and said he was born with genes of “positivity and eternal optimism.”

“They’re the best parents a kid could have,” Gelfand said. “I have been blessed.”

He joined his sister Sharon, who was born two years earlier.

Gelfand started school life at McMurrich Elementary where he completed Grade 8.

“I was always outside. I was one of those kids who had to be called in for dinner,” he said. “Me and my buddies were always outside exploring, having little adventures, trying to stay out of trouble.”

Then it was on to C. W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Ont.

“It was a brand new school when I started there in Grade 9,” he said. “My favorite spot in the school was the swimming pool and the library. I’m a voracious reader to this day.”

Gelfand had a taste of the mountains in his formative years. At the age of 15, he went to Banff, stayed with “a great Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Jim” and worked at Green T Texaco. He returned to Banff to work for the next four or five summers.

Gelfand said he “wasn’t too studious.”

“It took me about two years to get through Grade 13 because it was more fun to be at York University, a couple of blocks north of the school.”

He sat in on classes and some were so big that professors didn’t know he was there.

After he graduated from high school at the start of the ‘70s, Gelfand wandered around “like a free bird” for a while. Then he decided to put in an application to join the RCMP in Toronto.

“I was pretty hippy-ish and had long hair, and in comparison to today, I had a lot more,” he said.

Gelfand was relaxed during the interview for the job but afterward thought, “This isn’t for me.”

Gelfand paid rent and kept up with chores at home and did odd jobs in the Downsview area of Toronto, including painting the interior of houses.

“I was the guy pulling a wagon around full of cans of paint, rollers, paint brushes and drop cloths,” he said. “I was also a good window washer.”

His meticulous work kept him in coin for a couple of months.

“That gave me money to do more exploring,” he said. “I lived on the cheap, didn’t have a vehicle.”

Then came a turning point: Gelfand went to York Street and applied for a job at Canadian National Railway.

“They phoned me pretty quick,” he said. “They needed people and it helped that my dad worked for them. I had good references from people who I’d done work for.”

In the early ’70s, Gelfand signed on with the Great Lakes Signal Construction Gang #9. The “gang on wheels,” as Gelfand called it, worked in northern and central Ontario.

“We were in the bush country 24 hours a day, for about nine, 10 days at a time, then got a week off,” he said. “On days off, we took a passenger train to Toronto.”

The engine pulled bunk cars, a cook car, recreation car, generator car and a few box cars.

“We were a self-contained hamlet on wheels,” Gelfand said. “A train was 50, 60 cars long, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer. Compared with today, that was very short. Today, trains can get up to more than 150 cars.”

Gelfand also helped install the wiring for the signals and communication, sometimes having to take that wiring across sloughs, ponds and muskeg.

Climbing up poles was part of the job description and one day Gelfand had to cross a pond to get to one. In chest waders, spurs and snowshoes, he “started crossing the pond, gingerly feeling out this pond… It did look a little iffy… then the dreaded sound that you don’t want to hear – the sound of cracking underneath your weight, and then that ugly feeling of gravity taking over and pulling you down.”

Gelfand sunk into the water before stopping at armpit level. His hip waders were filling with cold water. He kept his cool and worked the snowshoes off his feet. By this time, the rest of the crew had seen what had happened and threw a rope to him to drag him out of the freezing pond. Gelfand sloshed back to the outfit cars, about a quarter of a mile away. A few layers of blankets and walking up and down the hallway got him warmed up.

After a couple of years, the last five or six months working in Toronto, Gelfand decided to take a break and did some more exploring in Ontario.

When money started running low Gelfand got a job with CN again, this time in the car department. He worked a lot of night shifts from 1973 to 1975 in Toronto. Then came another turning point: Gelfand was hired to work as a carman in Edmonton from midnight to 8 a.m. Five years later, Gelfand got a heads-up about a position open for a qualified carman in Jasper.

“I jumped on that job,” he said. “I was so friggin happy to come here.”

There came another turning point, and it wasn’t a comfortable one. On Nov. 22, 1984, when Gelfand was working a midnight shift at the east end of Jasper yard, there was a head-on collision between lines of cars and engines going in opposite directions. He was in a caboose sitting in the conductor’s chair. The impact broke both his legs just above the ankle.

“I knew I had to get the heck out,” Gelfand said.

He made it through a door that had been “rearranged,” dragging himself by his elbows to safety of the ground outside. Indelibly marked in his mind’s eye are his size 11s in the silhouette of the flaming caboose, which should have been pointing up but had flopped to the side.

Gelfand and the crew members made it through this calamity, and he returned to work the following summer. In 1991, he bought a house to become an even more permanent Jasperite. Gelfand worked at CN up until 1998, when “CN was whittling staff and gave me a bridging package.”

He has enjoyed life immensely since then, exploring different parts of Alberta and B.C. and visiting family and friends there. A couple of times, Gelfand took a return trip by train from Jasper to Toronto.

He drove to Ontario in 1999 and had the fortune of being with his mom before she passed away in June 2000. His dad passed away in 2003. His sister Sharon passed away in 2015.

Gelfand described people in Jasper as “phenomenal.”

“A lot of my friends and neighbors have become part of my family of friends,” he said. “It gives me a heartfelt feeling and is a very important part of my life.”

Gelfand has gone hiking and biking over the years. Both hips were replaced “because of general wear and tear,” but Gelfand does a lot of walking. His favourite little hike is Wabasso. And he’s still a voracious reader.

With Jasper being a tourist town, “Each and every one of us in Jasper are kind of like tour guides, human information centres,” Gelfand said.

“It’s a fantastic place to live. We’re friendly, we have time for each other, to speak to each other, cajol each other, go for coffee. It’s a great place.”

Joanne McQuarrie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Jasper Fitzhugh