“Staking Their Claim to A New Career”
By Darah Hansen
Vancouver Sun, 6th October 2010
Jessica Michell’s world has been full of firsts lately. The 23-year-old single mom from the small first nations community of Moricetown, northwest of Prince George, is still settling in after a move to Kamloops, where she began classes at Thompson Rivers University in mid-September.
That she’s found herself genuinely — and somewhat unexpectedly — intrigued by her studies is just icing on the cake.
“I’ve worked all over the place, but I would never have thought that I would end up in this program right now,” she said.
Michell is enrolled in a federally funded pilot project aimed at encouraging greater participation among aboriginal women in the province’s booming mining and exploration sectors.
The three-month program, which has attracted a classroom of 14 women from across the province, offers the chance for students to explore some of the most hotly demanded trades, from industrial electrician and pipefitter to heavy equipment operator and glazier.
“There are 120 occupations in the mining sector, so there is definitely no shortage [of work],” said Laurie Sterritt, head of the BC Aboriginal Mine Training Association, which helped to create the program.
Despite the growing employment demand, however, first nations members remain a minority in the workforce.
Only 8.6 per cent of students registered in apprenticeships with post-secondary programs under the Industry Training Authority are aboriginal. Only a fraction of that number are women.
Sterritt said many aboriginal students have been prevented from getting into the trades because of relatively simple issues.
Some can’t afford tuition, while others may lack a high-school diploma or perhaps a driver’s licence.
Women, particularly single mothers, have further been frightened away by the demands of shift work and the potential of being sent out to live in a camp for weeks, even months, at a time.
“It’s not, necessarily, been conducive to having the main breadwinner of the family also being the main caregiver. There’s a tension in that,” said Sterritt.
Sterritt said the pilot project was specially designed to get around many of those barriers, with the costs covered for child care, transportation, safety equipment, and even rent for those in need.
Meanwhile, many of the jobs — and potential employers — being showcased to students were selected to allow for the potential for women to continue to care for their children, while still bringing in a good salary.
“In a place like the central Interior and Kamloops … it is actually quite attractive for both women and men to be able to get on with a company that offers secure, sustainable employment and really good benefits and they can work around their family life, which is really just a 15-or 20-minute drive away,” Sterritt said.
Angeline Camille, a fourth-year commercial electrician student at Thompson, and mentor to the pilot-program students, said she’s living proof aboriginal women have a place in the trades.
It hasn’t been easy. The 37-year-old from the Kamloops Indian Band said she’s fought hard for 10 years to gain an apprenticeship and the education she needs to complete her ticket, as well as the acceptance of her predominantly non-aboriginal, male peers.
She’s endured plenty of racist and sexist comments from men who “still feel women should be in the kitchen.
“A few times, I thought about quitting,” she said. In those times, it was only the thought of her young nephews and nieces that kept her going.
“I’d think ‘I can’t quit, because then they are just going to quit,'” she said.
Just a few weeks into the program, Michell said she’s excited about what she’s learning and eager to continue her schooling in the hopes of being an electrician, like Camille.
Michell said she knows her own success will send a powerful message to her daughter, two-year-old Jorja, about what’s possible.
“By doing this, it would really brighten her future and that’s exactly what I want. I want the world for her,” she said.