Paul Leger, Truck Stop Chaplain
CB handle: Highway Preacher
Past jobs: Trucker, truck service shop laborer, lumber yard delivery man, fast food worker, retail stocker, dishwasher, carpet and upholstery cleaner
In the Canadian Maritimes town of Salisbury, New Brunswick, stands the Irving Big Stop. A clean, modern truck stop with an open-concept vibe, the facility boasts such trappings as a “truckers only” section in its tiny sit-down restaurant.
It's been a decade or so since I've seen one of those back home in the states.
There was something about being seated there among the hale and hearty Maritimes truckers that compelled my wife, Jumper, and me to throw all keto caution to the wind and start our day with that most unapologetic of Canadian entrees -- breakfast poutine. If you don't know it, poutine's a French-Canadian comfort food that combines fries, cheese curds, bacon, eggs and gravy.
To paraphrase Dolly Parton, it was so wrong but so right. It's difficult to fathom how anyone can routinely engage in such culinary hedonism and remain as trim as the New Brunswickers. It must be the hardscrabble winters.
We felt we could handle any blizzard that may come along.
Our host for the day, Action Tank Lines small fleet owner Darrell Killam, insisted we go meet an old friend of his family. We swung around the back forty of the Big Stop to the Transport for Christ trailer. There we hung out with a man who, decades earlier, changed his CB handle from Diesel Fool to Highway Preacher, Paul Leger. A graying Buddha of a man in his sixties with a wry smile, undulating between cherubic piety and unspoken mischief, Leger spoke fluent trucker. He could regale you with stories of pre-logbook days in Canada and call you to prayer with equal alacrity.
A proud Acadian, who ministers in both English and French, he can pick an original gospel song on his vintage Fender flat-top with a formidable skill and style reminiscent of Dick Curless. You can catch him picking and singing one of his many gospel tunes, "God Can," for which Leger wrote the final verse, in the video below.
A trucking start from Toronto south and back
"I was interested in trucks as long as I can remember, since I was a small child," Leger recalled. "My driving career actually began with working out of Toronto and consisted almost exclusively of running U.S. lanes. In 1980, I moved back home to the Maritime area of Canada and spent the next 26 years or so driving primarily within this area. During the time, logbooks were just starting to be talked about a bit more seriously. As a result, I was able to run without keeping a log for a few years (it escapes me just how many years, though).
"The primary work I did during this time involved 'peddle runs' around the Maritimes, and I probably averaged between 85-95 hours per week. While it was manageable (at least when I was in my 20s), it did involve making sure I got the rest I would need whenever I had the opportunity. Again, the mileage was considerably less than I ran doing long-haul, but the hours mounted up significantly with the multiple stops and everything that went with that type of work.
“My thoughts on logbooks have not changed since their inception. I don't disagree with being concerned about how long professional drivers are spending at the wheel during any given period of time. Where I do disagree, however, is how the rest required for the human body can be regulated.”
Leger looks back to his hauling days and remembers "being one who had a deep longing to be the 'captain of my own ship,'" he said. "In the midst of this time, however, I began to sense the control I sought was actually slipping away. I don't remember it being a 'one moment in time' decision to radically change my life," but he felt he "should consider doing something differently. From this point, I began attending church for the first time in many years, and started to hear things that I am sure I must have heard before, but never really heard completely."
Over the course of a few months, he found himself "on a journey, seeking what was missing in my life," he said. "By this time, I was convinced that something truly was missing. Between attending church on Sundays and then talking to God (usually in the cab of my truck early on Monday mornings), I came to a place where I sensed God asking me what it was that was keeping me from asking Him to be Lord of my life. I had absolutely no response but to pull my truck to the shoulder of the road and pray the best I knew to invite Jesus into my life. Since then, God has proven over and over again that the decision I made that day was absolutely the best decision I have ever made."
A gift for lending a helping hand
Leger's current ministry involves friendships with trucking families that span generations. Later that evening, we met Paul and his wife again at the aforementioned Darrell Killam's Action Tank Lines company picnic. Killam's family has known the Highway Preacher since his youth.
"I had traveled down to Ontario to visit family, hitching a ride [south with an old Maritimer in a] B Model Mack," Leger said. "That was an adventure. I got done there and I needed a way back. Darrell's dad," Willard Killam, happening to be heading back. "He was running for Premium Lloyd Doors at the time. I caught a ride with him. I had my guitar at the time and Willard liked his country music. He said, 'Start playing and singing.' We were getting close to Montreal and he said, 'OK, it's time to shut up, now.' So I put the guitar away."
Willard Killam, who would go on to build his own fleet in Eagle Trucking Ltd., passed away in 2007. Darrell recalled the importance of Paul Leger’s ministry during his time of grief.
"I met Paul during my father's death. That's when I got to know Paul," he said. "He could see all this emotion I was going through. He would check on me to see if I was OK. [He wasn't] trying to change me. He'd just listen. He'd always say a prayer for me." Then one day he gets up, "and I say to myself, 'I'm going to take action today. All these people are being negative around me because of my father's death. There's so much negative here, I've got to stand up and take action.' And that's why my company's called Action Tank Lines."
The company picnic was heating up. Entertainment had been flown in from the U.S. In the midst of the revelers, this time with his lovely wife, Debbie, stood the Highway Preacher, not trying to change anyone, just listening to the music and anyone who wanted to visit.
"There's not a lot of money in this, I promise you that," he said. "We serve a transient congregation. [But] the fact that I get to do this with those for whom I have invested so much of my life [is] an amazing added blessing as well. I have been serving as Lead Chaplain with Transport for Christ Canada since March 1, 2000, and I treasure every moment I have to share God's love with anyone I meet, and especially with truckers."