When Yvette Mattawashish was eight, she remembers playing in the ditches along the roads of her native Mistissini, a James Bay Cree reserve 900 kilometres northeast of Ottawa. “I used to crawl in the tunnels they’d dig to put in the big water pipes and culverts,” she says laughing now at the memory. “I’d curl right up inside them.”
Today, at 22, Yvette is one of only three James Bay Cree women trained and employed as an underground development miner. And while the path she took to get there is typical in many ways to that of other young aboriginal women in the remote north, it is also extraordinary.
According to a report by the Conference Board of Canada, the annual gross domestic product of mining in Canada’s north, which was $4.4 billion in 2011, is expected to reach $8.5 billion in 2020. A lack of infrastructure in roads and energy is frequently mentioned as the major obstacle to development in the remote north.
Given the demographics of most First Nation communities — a very young population most of whom have not completed high school — effective strategies to engage aboriginal leadership and train local aboriginals to do jobs mines will require may prove to be every bit as important as building a road to access a mine or a deep water port to ship ore. Particularly crucial are efforts to target aboriginal women like Yvette.
Yvette dropped out of school in Grade 9. She was 17 and she was pregnant and when, in her words, she got “too big,” she simply decided to stay home in the morning instead of heading to school. But she made a promise to herself to return after the baby was born. True to her word, as soon as her son had his first birthday, she was back in school. Within a year, she had finished grades 9 and 10. But then, mid-way through Grade 11, she got pregnant with her second child. And dropped out for the second time.
A single mother of two at 20, Yvette found herself in a situation faced by many other young Cree women. For some of them, it is the beginning of a difficult and often very rocky road. But for Yvette, it was a wake-up call. “I knew I needed something. I needed a way to give my kids a future,” she says.
In December 2012, Yvette was accepted into an ore extraction vocational training program, one of two women in a group of 16. The 930-hour, six-month training took place in the small town of Matagami, a seven-hour drive from her home and her two small boys.
Cree trainees typically spend several weeks at a time there, alternating between classroom work and underground training at a nearby mine. But Yvette says it wasn’t the training or workload that was hardest to bear. It was being separated from her two young children. So hard, she says, that after one, six-week period away from them, she decided to take her three-year-old back with her to Matagami. That lasted for two weeks. “He’d cry and plead with me not to go out when I’d leave early each morning,” she recalls. “It didn’t make things any easier.”
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