Commentary: Safety first for a new generation of Cree miners – by Daniel Bland (Northern Miner – June 26, 2015)

The Northern Miner, first published in 1915, during the Cobalt Silver Rush, is considered Canada’s leading authority on the mining industry.

“Working underground for me is like working in your basement for you.” That’s the first thing Marcelin Bruneau tells the 12 young Crees sitting in front of him. That gets their interest. “When I started mining in 1930,” he continues, “there were no rules about safety underground.” A wry smile, some mental math and confused looks among the Crees prompts the admission: “Bon. Maybe not 1930. But a long, long time ago!”

Marcelin Bruneau has spent more than forty years working as an underground miner. He got what he calls his first real job as a teenager in the early 1970s when he was hired by Noranda Mines as an underground helper. That was the beginning of a mining career that would take him not only across Canada — to Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and B.C. — but overseas to Australia and Indonesia and see him work with over 20 mining companies and contractors.

In 2008, Bruneau was hired as an instructor by the Centre de Formation Professionnelle in the mining town of Val-d’Or, Que. His experience made him a natural and he spent five years delivering a six-month training program in underground ore extraction to students from the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region of southwestern Quebec.

Then, with mines under construction farther north on James Bay Cree land and job opportunities for Crees on the horizon, Bruneau remembered an old friend and accepted a new challenge.

Back in 1990, Bruneau had landed a job at the Kerr-Addison gold mine near Virginiatown, just across the Ontario border from his home in Rouyn-Noranda. One of the men in his crew was a Cree named Dave, the first aboriginal Bruneau had ever worked with and a man he remembered as a “big strong guy who laughed a lot and worked hard.”

“I’ll be honest: We had some ideas about Indians in those days,” he says now. “But I tell you, working with Dave really changed my mind about all that, that’s for sure!”

For the past two and a half years, Bruneau has been delivering a 76-hour training course in underground mining safety to Crees. All miners in Quebec need the training and safety card that comes with it to work underground. Some of Bruneau’s Cree students are already employed as heavy equipment operators or labourers and need the training to work underground. Others want to improve their chances of finding work when mines now under construction begin to hire.

Bruneau has travelled to six of the nine James Bay Cree reserves to deliver his training. He spends seven days covering his material with groups in the classroom. Then he takes them to Val d’Or for two more days of underground practice. More than 200 Crees have received safety cards as a result of his work.

In a chance meeting earlier this year, Bruneau and his old friend were reunited in the northern Cree village of Chisasibi. One of Bruneau’s students had listened to his story about working with an Indian miner named Dave and made a call. After lunch, David Kitty walked into Bruneau’s class with a big smile on his face. The two hadn’t seen each other in 25 years.

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