An Aboriginal training program in northwestern Ontario is making strides to address a looming labour shortfall in the mining industry.
Optimism is peaking in the region that there will be a cluster of major mining camps developing over the next 10 years, but in the Thunder Bay area alone, the mining industry will require between 1,110 and 4,150 workers.
Where those workers will come from is anyone's guess.
One possible source for underground workers is from the Mining Essentials program being run through the Anishinabek Employment and Training Services (AETS) in Thunder Bay.
Mining Essentials is the only work readiness training program for Aboriginal people in Canada.
It was developed in concert with the Assembly of First Nations and the Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR), with curriculum input from educators and industry.
“Mining Essentials is a stepping stone to get entry level jobs,” said John DeGiacomo, the proposal and partnership development officer with AETS.
His organization serves nine First Nations, northeast of Thunder Bay, all in the vicinity of Barrick's Hemlo Gold complex and more advanced projects like Stillwater Mining's Marathon PGM project and Premier Gold in Geraldton.
Some mining companies are willing to assist with training with the intent on hiring locally. In some First Nation communities, about 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 25 and is looking for work.
“Industry has a chance to help First Nations that perhaps didn't have that opportunity before to further their education,” said DeGiacomo.
With government seed money, the Mining Essentials program has been run at three training sites: Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Northern College in Timmins, and at Northwest Community College in Hazelton, B.C.
In northwestern Ontario, Barrick Gold at Hemlo and North American Palladium's Lac des Iles Mine are the industry partners.
Since the program began as a pilot in 2010, AETS has graduated 22 of the 77 graduates in Canada, with more expected this April coming out of a class at Lac des Iles, north of Thunder Bay.
John Hatton, Confederation's training and development director, emphasizes this is not a job-shadowing program.
Those that complete the common core training are qualified to work underground.
The 12-week program involves two-thirds classroom work, with the rest on the job site.
“When they finish this they can start work at any mine,” said Hatton.
With a Grade 12 minimum requirement, prospective enrollees are interviewed and screened for criminal records, and drug and alcohol tested in keeping with the industry's strict zero tolerance policy.
The Lac des Iles class features two instructors, one Aboriginal educator contracted through Confederation College and a technical trainer from North Bay mine builders, Cementation.
Howard Twance, a former Pic Mobert First Nation chief, has been paired with skills trainer Gerry Connors, a 30-year mining vet, to certify the students for underground work.
Twance handles the in-class instruction while Connors introduces them to the various skills and tools underground.
Twance said his exposure to the mining industry was limited when he was younger. Barrick Gold's Hemlo complex is about a half-hour drive from his community, but many Pic Mobert residents work there, and Twance has engaged with the area mining companies on employment and impact benefit agreements.
“We were looking for someone who can relate to the students,” said Hatton. “He has a teaching background and can deliver the curriculum and show them the ropes.
“The main goal is to provide Aboriginal people with the skills and confidence needed in the mining workforce,” said Twance, “and provide industry with a local workforce.
“It's a nationally validated pre-employment program, and a course designed with the Aboriginal learner in mind. They’ve incorporated a cultural content into the program.”The content is adapted from an Aboriginal reference tool – the Medicine Wheel – in substituting the four aspects of life – the physical, mental, spirtual and emotional portions – for that of trainers, learners, the industry environment and the curriculum.
At Lac des Iles, the instructors stay with the students at the work camp as part of the regular one-week work rotation.
Over the last few weeks, Twance has observed the program has done wonders for the students’ confidence and self-esteem.
“I see them interacting with the workers, they're better able to ask questions, and they express that they’re comfortable up there.”
Hatton admits it’s not easy to train people in real world environments.
To convince mining companies to allow trainees on their properties requires some hard negotiating. But companies like Barrick-Hemlo and North American Palladium have “stepped up to the plate,” he said.“For them to have us on site is a pain in the butt. We interfere with their day-to-day work, having people underground is a safety hazard and it might interfere with production. They're also a partner in kind by providing accommodations, meals and support to run the program.”While companies do acknowledge the current and long-term shortfall in labour, not all are jumping at the chance to host students, Hatton added.
“Lac des Iles was a bit hesitant going in but they realized it was important for them to do so, so they’ve been very supportive.”
DeGiacomo said the program builds a base of education and an awareness of the industry. If some students decide they aspire to be a trainer, work in human resources or an assay lab, drive a heavy haul truck, or go to school to be a chemical engineer, then those are successes too.
While the funding pot to continue the Mining Essentials program has run dry – pending renewed provincial and federal government support – DeGiacomo said regardless of the funding puzzle, the curriculum model will constantly be updated.
“This is still a program that needs some traction...it's still new.”
He expects industry should start to see the tangible benefits with successive graduating classes over the next four to five years.
“Mining Essentials is a tool that First Nations can use to help ensure that the skills gap is narrowed. When you look at impact benefit agreements with communites and industry, employment is a feature of that agreement. This is a tool that can be used in those negotiations.”
Twance said the industry's co-operation with the program makes a “huge difference” in generating employment and educational opportunities for First Nations, a far cry from when he was chief in the mid-1990s.
Mining Essentials represents a “big turning point” for area First Nations and offers “limitless potential” for folks in the nine communities.
“It’s up to the communities to determine how they’re going to take advantage of this.”