Building a skilled First Nations mining workforce – by Shawn Bell (Onotassiniik Magazine – Summer 2013)

Onotassiniik, Wawatay’s Mining Quarterly, sets out to provide knowledge and information about the mining industry in northern Ontario to First Nations communities, individuals and leaders throughout the region.

Trades training, life skills education help Webequie students chase dreams

When the instructor leaves the trailer, the four young men from Webequie First Nation huddle around the heavy diesel engine. They have been instructed to put it back together, after spending the morning taking it apart.

In quick Oji-Cree, mixed with lots of laughter, there is a debate going on. The pile of nuts and bolts on the bench fit somewhere. There is no consensus where.

Eventually Simon Shewaybick grabs a foot-long combination wrench and starts tightening the bolts. The others follow suit.
When the pile of bolts is gone, the four of them pause for a moment. They are still not sure, but there is nothing left to attach. When they flip the engine upright, a single bolt falls to the floor with a crash. Everyone laughs.

The engine is flipped over again, and it is back to work. Later that day Edgar Jacob says this is the sort of hands-on experience he was looking for when he signed up for Oshki-Pimache-O-Win’s Mining Essentials Program. He wants to be a mechanic, but in Webequie his experiences working on engines are limited to snowmachines and chainsaws. Besides, he says, there are no jobs back home and everyone is gearing up to work in the Ring of Fire, including him.

“I’m learning a lot,” Jacob says. “This has been a new experience.”

Jacob is one of 16 students from Webequie taking Oshki’s first mobile training course. Originally the plan was to bring the course – which is fully contained in two semi-truck trailers – to them in Webequie. But the early winter weather played havoc with the plan to transport the trailers up the winter road, so the students ended up being flown out of Webequie to study at Constance Lake First Nation’s beautiful Eagle’s Earth Cree and Ojibway Historical Centre.

Having to leave home for the course added some challenges. Nearly all of the students – who range in age from late teens to late 50s – have children at home, and the hands-on part of the course is held over two 10-day sessions, with a four-day break in the middle when they return to Webequie to see their families. But in other ways, having to leave home adds an element of reality to the course. The students are, after all, training for jobs in the Ring of Fire mining development that will come with extended periods of time away from their community.

“In some ways it worked out better,” says Gordon Kakegamic, Oshki’s e-learning coordinator and program manager of the Mining Essentials Program. “We modelled it after the industry model, with 10 days on and four days off. Plus they were in a remote location, living in the same bunkhouse, so it was very much like what they will see on a mine site.”

Kakegamic has been working on developing the Mining Essentials Program for nearly five years, since he first heard from leaders in the Wabun Tribal Council that their youth needed training to enter the burgeoning northern Ontario mining industry. In many ways, Kakegamic says, his own experiences over the past five years mirror those of the students enrolling in the course. He had to build from scratch his own knowledge of a mining industry quickly coming to dominate the future development of the North.

“Everybody is in the same boat,” Kakegamic says of First Nations, northern Ontario cities and towns, and the education institutions of the North. “There’s a steep learning curve transitioning from forestry to mining.”

Besides Mining Essentials, Oshki is working on developing mining literacy amongst First Nation elementary and high school students through its Learning 2 Mine web portal. Work is also underway on an essential skills/life skills program for youth who have not graduated from Grade 12 but want to work in the mining industry.

Kakegamic views Oshki’s work as a ladder, starting with educating youth on mining and working up to the Mining Essentials Program that serves as an introduction to actual employment on a mine site.

“The vision is to get First Nations youth to the point where they can decide whether they want to work in the mining industry,” Kakegamic says. “Our programs are geared at getting them either into jobs, or into post-secondary education for better paying jobs.”

Fortunately for First Nations people interested in mining work, the industry is on board when it comes to training initiatives that will lead to employment in the sector.

In the case of Oshki’s Mining Essentials Program, Cliffs Natural Resources has gotten behind the course. The company, one of the biggest players in the Ring of Fire, brought the students from Webequie to its Black Thor deposit exploration site for a four-day stay to job shadow and get experience at a remote mine site.

The company also promises to give “due consideration” to graduates of the course when entry-level positions open, either during construction or operation of the mine.

“We hope that students will learn valuable employment skills needed to obtain entry-level, non-technical positions in the industry,” writes Jennifer Mihalcin, Cliffs’ public affairs representative, in an e-mail. “We are also very much looking forward to working with the students to help them realize their potential and career aspirations.”

For companies such as Cliffs, helping to develop a First Nations workforce for future northern Ontario mines is essential, considering the labour needs of the company and the labour pool in the North. Cliffs predicts it will need 1,200 workers in its construction phase, and roughly the same number once the mine opens. Noront Resources, proponent of another Ring of Fire mine, estimates it will need 600 workers for construction and another 600 during operations. According to some analysts, those are just two of what could be nine or more operating mines in the region over the next 10 to 20 years.

A report on mining in northwestern Ontario, done by the Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MIHRC), one of the partners in the Mining Essentials Program, estimated that more than 17,000 trained people are needed for employment in the mining industry. And in its most recent Aboriginal economic benchmark, the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board noted what mining companies already understand – that for Canada’s future labour pool to meet the country’s needs, the rapidly growing Aboriginal population has to be educated and involved in meeting those needs.

“We call on governments to provide more investments, as we have trained but 15 of the 17,004 potential employees that will be needed,” says Rosie Mosquito, Oshki’s executive director. “There is more work to be done.”

The Oshki program is not the only mining training initiative targeting First Nations people of northern Ontario. A recently announced multi-million dollar partnership between Matawa First Nation tribal council’s Kiikenomaga Kikenjigewen Employment and Training Services (KKETS), Noront Resources and Confederation College also aims to help members of the nine Matawa First Nations get employment in the mining sector.

“We have a vested interest in building a skilled workforce in the North,” says Leanne Hall, Noront’s vice-president of human resources. “Every community wants to be involved in getting jobs, and we understand that everybody will benefit by building a workforce in Aboriginal communities.”

Noront estimates there are more than 100 different career paths within a single mining operation – everything from underground miners to heavy-duty mechanics to accountants and environmental monitors. Through the partnership with KKETS, Hall says the company plans to utilize its construction phase to get First Nations people trained to work at its mine, once opened.

In Kakegamic’s view, the Oshki program fits well with training initiatives such as the one announced by KKETS. He sees the Mining Essentials Program as an introduction to the trades, and a starting point for students to pursue post-secondary education in mining related fields – in some ways a feeder system for programs offered at post-secondary institutions.
His vision is backed by the fact that nearly all of the Webequie students are examining post-secondary options for next year. They have earned 120 hours towards an apprenticeship through the Oshki course. If they do proceed in one of the trades, they have a head start on the 2,000 hours needed for an apprenticeship.

On top of the hands-on trades training, the students in Mining Essentials have also completed 240 hours of a job readiness program that focuses on life and workplace skills – skills that will help whether students go on to more education or go straight into the workforce.

As an added bonus to the course, the students receive a certificate of industry standard for completing the life and workplace training component, curriculum that was developed by MIHR in partnership with the Assembly of First Nations.
Back at Eagle’s Earth, Mining Essentials instructor Peter Pagnutti of Cambrian College is pushing the students to pursue further studies in the trade of their choice. Besides diesel mechanics, he has taught them introductory courses in welding and electrical circuits. Now it is up to them to follow their interests.

“Which way do you want to go?” Pagnutti asks. “It’s like any job – you get good at something you enjoy doing. But how do you know what you enjoy doing if you don’t try them out? That’s why they purchased these trailers, to bring the trades to them. Now, if the interest is there, they can continue their education or get an apprenticeship.”

For student Rudy Mekanak, the course has provided a glimpse into opportunities available for his future. It was his first time handling a welding torch, wiring a circuit board or taking apart a diesel engine. And while the 12-hour days were long and the 10 consecutive days of work took its toll, he understands that getting further education is essential for his future employment.

“I came here to learn new things,” Mekanak says. “Every training course I take, I’m learning how to handle things safely, how to do things in the proper way.”

The benefit of the training may also trickle down to the First Nation directly. While Robert Jacob came to the training course with the intention of getting a job with Cliffs or another Ring of Fire mining company in the future, he says the skills he is learning should come in handy on the reserve as well.

“Back home in Webequie we mostly deal with small engines, snowmobiles, chainsaws,” Jacob says as he takes a break from working on a heavy diesel engine. “But we’re starting to have these sorts of heavy equipment as well. And there are not many mechanics in our reserve. This might be better for us than hiring highly paid mechanics from other places.”
Meanwhile, Shewaybick, Edgar Jacob and their peers have the diesel engine back together, all pieces secure. Pagnutti gives it a pull and the gears turn like clockwork, as the students look on proudly.

“They have a good common knowledge and fantastic work ethics,” Pagnutti says of the students. “Mostly they’ve never seen these things before, it’s all new to them, and yet they’re picking it up really quickly.”

The Webequie students have not only impressed their instructor. The course has impressed Kakegamic and the folks at Oshki, who are now working to get funding to bring it to other communities across the North. And as the Ring of Fire companies such as Cliffs and Noront continue pushing towards a 2017 start date, the successful education of the Webequie students is an example of how the future mining labour force can come primarily from the North.