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Death of Newfoundlander illustrates the perils of having to travel far to find work

Ches Tibbo was afraid of flying after a previous accident, but decided to continue commuting to a good-paying job.

The men of outport and rural Newfoundland and Labrador have always gone away to work. To the sea, to the ice, down to Labrador, off to Boston or New York. The economic fact hasn't changed, but the migrant patterns have. It used to be that the seal fishery, Grand Banks, or high steel sang the siren song. Now it is the Western Canadian oil and gas fields and infrastructure, B.C. mines, and Northern work camps. The jobs mean money for their families. It plays a decided role in fuelling the provincial economy. But it has its own price.

Ches Tibbo, 49, died when the First Air Boeing 737 crashed on Aug. 20 near Resolute Bay, Nunavut. It was part of his commute, bringing him from Harbour Mille, Nfld., to Resolute Bay via a four-hour flight from Yellowknife. The chartered flight, No. 6560, carried 15 people. Three passengers survived. The RCMP recovered two black boxes from the wreckage of the 35-year-old plane, which went into a hill a few kilometres from the runway. The cause is under investigation by the Transportation Safety Board.

Tibbo died on his 49th birthday, several years after another plane crash had left him afraid of flying. That one happened on Dec. 13, 2008, as he was coming home for Christmas from work building houses in Resolute Bay, and a Summit Air two-engine cargo plane overshot the runway. All 12 passengers were able to walk away from the crash landing, but they suffered from the impact and the cold, and the accident haunted him.

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In Tibbo's home of Harbour Mille, a small Fortune Bay community of about 200 on Newfoundland's south coast, the migration has two distinct cycles. Men employed in construction and roadwork, largely in Alberta in Brooks and Fort McMurray, leave in March or April, as the weather out West improves to allow for projects to start. They are gone until after Halloween.

"I'm always struck by how the houses are all empty as the moms take the kids out for candy," said Pamela Pardy-Ghent, Tibbo's friend and neighbour. "We might as well exchange treat bags on the road."

A second cycle is the turnaround, with 20 days away, and eight days home. Those families are luckier, as there may be more opportunities to be home for anniversaries, birthdays and holidays. For many families, one timetable or the other has scheduled their lives for 20 years.

Tibbo was part of the first kind of rotation, and had expected to be gone for months. But a family tragedy intervened. He had travelled home to be a pallbearer at his sister's funeral; Judy Baker had died at the age of 50. He hadn't expected to make it, but his employer, Resolute Bay businessman Aziz Kheraj, bought his ticket.

Ches was one of three children born to Angus and Virginia Tibbo. Besides Judy, he had a second sister, Ada. He graduated from Jacques Fontaine High School, and worked jack-of-all-trade jobs. The 2008 job was his first work outside the province as a carpenter.

That led to the first crash. Though Tibbo was physically hurt, he never complained about it. If someone asked him what had happened to him he would laugh and say, "Well, if you were in a plane crash, what kind of injuries do you think you'd have?"

But he was left terrified of flying. "It was so brave of him to even contemplate flying again," Pardy-Ghent said. "I can only imagine having to make that kind of decision, to make that choice because that's what was best for the family. He had the ability and strength to overcome the fear. He said, 'I know lightning doesn't strike twice. But I'm afraid.' "

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News coverage of the crash focused on how Tibbo died, but it is important to remember how he lived, Pardy-Ghent said. "It was an amazing and simple outport life."

Tibbo was a fun, lighthearted person, and an incredibly kind and helpful neighbour. He was handy; able, as the saying goes, "to put an arse in a cat." His kindnesses were constant and ranged from assembling a child's bike, to ferrying youngsters over 40 kilometres of highway for a school or sporting event, to digging up a yard to fixing a broken waterline.

He was generous with his time and in his nature. "The way we live, the houses are all on top of each other, and if someone is yelling at their kids everyone knows, if someone is yelling at their spouse everyone knows," Pardy-Ghent said. "And if you're not speaking to each other, everyone knows that, too."

Gossip and rumour can exacerbate tensions. But not for Tibbo. He never had a hard word for anyone, or anyone for him.

"He made you feel like family," his neighbour said. And he looked after his family. Putting his own dread aside, to provide for them, he got on that plane.

As if to underscore Newfoundland's dependence on this migration, another of the victims, Mike Rideout, 65, was a Newfoundlander. He was an electrician who lived just outside St. John's, and this was supposed to be his last trip before retiring. Another Newfoundland worker, mechanic Morgan Cox, was supposed to be aboard, but had stayed behind an extra week to attend his son's 12th birthday party. And all three had been on the ill-fated 2008 flight.

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Tibbo leaves his wife, Gloria (Scott), their daughter Chantal, his daughter Natasha from a previous relationship and his grandson, Brody.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Editor's Note: Ches Tibbo survived an earlier crash near Cambridge Bay. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this article, which has been corrected.

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