The Tax Man
by Jim Park
Drivers, ladies and gentlemen: meet Pam and Don Wilkinson. Regular readers of highwaySTAR will recall the Wilkinsons' victory in federal tax court. As remarkable as that was, it was just a day in the life of our happy couple.
Don has been trucking pretty well his entire adult life. He's got 3.5 million accident-free miles under his belt, and at 54 years of age, he's still going strong. Pam, who says she's at least 39, runs a woman's specialty clothing business out of her home. Between them they have six kids, four of hers and two of his, eight grandchildren and a 25 year-old horse named Mack. They share a bungalow in Winnipeg, and when she's not at the library or doing some kind of research at home, she'll join Don out on the road, having earned her Class 1 licence back in 1979 just prior to meeting her man.
"She was returning from her very first trip with a mutual friend of ours, Daffy Weisner," Don recalls. "I was working for Wilson Auto Electric at the time, and she was hauling potatoes back from PEI for Burns Foods. We had both turned a corner from opposite directions when I saw her sitting there beside Daffy in his '73 Freightliner cabover. I grabbed the CB mike and told Daffy that I'd take that cute little blonde off his hands if that was okay with him."
Daffy's loss was Don's big gain. The two are obviously still very much in love. Hearing them talk across the dining room table leaves no doubt that they've shared a lot over the years. They can't seem to help finishing each other's sentences. The detail they recall is amazing and there's no end to the tales and the laughter.
They trucked together at a time when trucking was still a lot of fun. They were pranksters of the first order, and while there's more than a few tales we can never repeat, the ones we can are genuinely funny.
One night, while cruising across Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Don was caught red handed roaring through some small town in the wee hours of the morning. With the state trooper standing in a driving rain at his window, Don rolled the glass down and said to the cop, "I'll have two hamburgers and a shake to go."
As Pam tells it, the cop just burst out laughing, shook his head and walked back to his car. Like we said, that was when trucking was still fun.
The Serious Side
For all the joking and kibitzing, there's a serious side to Don as well. He's a deeply religious man who's been known to slip a hundred-dollar bill to a truckstop minister helping a destitute family. He's paid for countless meals and motel rooms for down-and-out drivers, and he's worked a miracle or two of his own for a few truly needy people.
When it comes to his own convictions, he takes a firm stand when he knows he's in the right, but he's not at all shy about saying he's done his share of praying for guidance over the years.
Don started trucking at Burns Foods, hauling for contractor Barney Osadchuk. Between then and now, he has worked the ice roads in the far north, hauled flatdecks and fuel. He ran his own truck at Trans-X for three years, then went on to Canyon Distributors out of Calgary hauling hanging beef. When Canyon went belly-up, he hired on with CR3 out of Okotoks, Alta. When they went bankrupt, Wilkinson threw in the towel. He's currently a company driver with Calgary-based Heyl Truck Lines.
"The privilege of calling myself an owner-operator was costing far too much," he says. "I've worked for one crook after another over the years, and if I've learned anything, it's never to trust a man with a bible under his arm and a set of truck keys in his hand."
Their Day in Court
Somewhere between the miles and the laughter, the ice roads and the rubber cheques, the Wilkinsons decided that they weren't going to take it lying down any more.
"I've always stood up for what I believed in, and I've never backed down," Don says. "I've had my ass kicked more times than not, but never in a court of law."
Their first victory came in the spring of 1991 at show-cause hearings for an operating authority application by a certain carrier that had dealt them a rotten hand. The Wilkinsons opposed the application, suggesting that since the carrier had a proven record of not paying its owner-operators, it wasn't fit to do business in Manitoba. The court took their assertions and documentation seriously, denying portions of the application. It was just a minor victory, but they had tasted the sweetness of success. More importantly, they realized that in court, even truck drivers are taken seriously when they're properly prepared.
Pam does most of the research and preparation for a trip to court. She spends hours at the library researching regulations, case law and other relevant information. It's not that she knows intuitively where to look for information; she just never gives up, never stops asking questions.
The next trip to court arose from a dispute over a $2000 holdback. The carrier claimed that since they hadn't removed all the identifying marks from the tractor upon quitting, the Wilkinsons had violated the contract and effectively forfeited their holdback. They had removed the name and the numbers, but hadn't painted over the old colors because, according to Pam's research on patent law, the carrier had no legal title to the paint scheme.
"Had they just given us our holdback, we'd have kept quiet and gone away," Pam says. "But they jerked us around by having our small claims court case moved to the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench, thinking that we couldn't afford a lawyer. That move cost the carrier a bundle because we just dug in even deeper."
In doing her research, Pam found plenty of discrepancies between the contract and how they had actually been dealt with. There were problems with the U.S. exchange rate the carrier was charging, with fuel pricing, and with miles for which they'd been charged fuel tax but hadn't received revenue.
"Once I realized where we stood, we decided to raise the ante," she says. "We were in the right court, so we figured, what the heck, let's go for broke."
They retained Randi Kurshnier from the Winnipeg law firm, Meyers, Weinberg, on contingency, then sat back and waited. All the while, their former co-workers were having a good laugh at their expense.
"You should have heard them," Don says. "You'll never win. You'll never work around here again. You're crazy to even try. We heard it all, but who's laughing now?"
After six and-a-half years of monkeying around with motions of discovery, delays, pre-trial motions and the like, they got a phone call from the carrier's lawyer.
"It was on the Friday afternoon before the Monday we were to proceed to trial," Pam recalls. "They offered to settle out of court for 20 grand. Not! We weren't in this for the fun of it. They called again later that night with an offer of 40 grand. Our lawyer was tempted, but we held out. Then, late Sunday night came a phone call with an offer of an out-of-court settlement for (a whole lot more)."
"It took a lot of leg work on our part," says Pam. "But we stuck to our guns and kept telling ourselves that we weren't going to let them do this to us. Our families were solidly behind us, as was our MLA, Dave Chomiak."
They've even scored a victory over small town justice, as meted out by Weyburn, Sask.. Don had a speeding ticket overturned because the judge had declared him guilty even before the trial had begun.
"I wouldn't care if you told me that your wife was pregnant and delivering at the time. We're going to find you guilty," is how Don paraphrases what the judge said to him in the courtroom.
They appealed and won, largely because of their tenacity and willingness to do the extra work. Don says the appeals court judge's remarks about small town justice alone were worth the effort. For the record, Don insists he wasn't speeding.
And then there was the now famous tax-court case about meal deductions for truck drivers.
"We just researched the Income Tax Act at the library and went after what it seemed to be saying we could claim," Pam says. "In the end, it's wrong to have to work so hard to prove you're right in the face of a system that claims it's working for you. Those folks at CCRA [Canada Customs and Revenue Agency] never cut us an inch of slack. We won, but it wasn't easy, and it's not over yet."
Pam and Don may seem like a pair of scrappers, but they're really fine and decent people. While Kurshnier maintains that he'd never sit for a hand of poker with them, as role models for standing up for what's right, he couldn't point to a better example.
Remember those drivers who were laughing at them for taking on the carrier? More than 20 of them have since settled similar claims out of court, and there are more pending.
"If you're guilty, pay the fine and get over it," Don says. "But if you're not, then fight like hell and stand up for your rights."
The Wilkinsons are living proof that justice works if you're prepared to make a stand.