Charlotte Tookenay is the new face of the mining industry.
The mother of two teenagers, a graduate of the Mining Essentials training program for Aboriginal people run through Confederation College, is part of an industry push to employ more First Nations people to replenish its workforce ranks.
At the Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund's Mining Ready Summit in Thunder Bay in October, she presented the 200 delegates with a video montage of photographs during her 12-week time in the program last summer.
Tookenay graduated from the program last June and landed a job with Barrick Gold at its Hemlo complex, not far from her home community, the Pic Mobert First Nation on the north shore of Lake Superior.
She was spurred into making a career change out of sheer necessity.
“Mobert has so little employment and job opportunities,” said Tookenay, who worked on highway construction jobs and as a Native language teacher.
“The economic development officer knew I was interested in looking forfull-time employment.”
Tookenay applied and was accepted to the program which is administered by the Mining Industry Human Resources Council, the Anishinabek Employment and Training Services and the Assembly of First Nations.
The program had graduated 23 as of November 2010.
With mining companies having difficulty filling their ranks as mines develop, expand and its older workers nearing retirement, the industry is increasingly looking to Aboriginal communites which are located in close proximity to these mineral properties.
A sizeable Aboriginal contingent already works at Hemlo, including Tookenay's brother and sister.
The course gives participants a snapshot of every kind of job available by allowing them to job shadow at training sites like Barrick-Hemlo and North American Palladium’s Lac des Iles Mine.
“We learned a lot from there and the instructor we got was magnificent,” said Tookenay. “We couldn’t throw a question at him that he didn’t know. It was definitely educational.”
Going underground wasn’t the least bit confining or intimidating for her.
“Actually, I loved it. I like the challenge and I’m encouraged morebecause people now are totally surprised because I’m a woman and I gounderground and work the majority of the time by myself.”
Tookenay works as a level service provider with a production crew shuttling items to various levels in the mine. She’ll be training to drive three types of vehicles.
“I was cleaning (conveyor) belts and that entailed a lot of shovelling and watering it down. It definitely had its challenges. I’m glad I got this new position which will teach me a lot of things.”
The annual Mining Summit brings together Aboriginal communities, contractors and mining supply companies to talk and take advantage of budding business opportunities. It also allows everyone to better understand how the mining industry works and the socio-economic needs of First Nation communities.
While Aboriginal communities situated near the Hemlo gold camp are more attuned to how the mining cycle works, for others in the Far North, understanding its complexity remains a work in progress.
For the isolated Far North community of Webequie, mining is still something to be fully absorbed and understood.
The community of 812 is almost surrounded by a crescent moon shape of mining claims containing chromite and base metal deposits that form the Ring of Fire. As the nearest community to the drilling camps, the deposits range from 70 to 90 kilometres away.
Webequie Chief Cornelius Wabasse had no experience dealing with exploration firms when staking started in 2005-2006. What began with 25 junior miners exploring on their traditional lands quickly jumped to 100 with the discovery of chromite.
“The companies just moved in, with no letters. They were just following theold Mining Act, moving in on a find with no consultation.”
Change was happening so fast that Wabasse led a well-publicized two-month long blockade of the winter ice strips on Koper Lake in 2008 to bring exploration drilling to a halt.
“The blockade brought industry in to meet with us and also brought the government to the table. I think it kind of set a pace where the government has to consult with the communities and industry has to be part of that process.”
Mining was never a thought in Webequie, but it was commonly known for years that valuable minerals were in the area, and someday development would come.
“I think that future is here now,” said Wabasse. Webequie has struck exploration agreements with many junior miners and stands to benefit from the economic spinoffs at the drilling camps and future mine sites.
“Noront (Resources) was one of the first companies to sit down with us to talkabout an (exploration) agreement after the blockade.”
Webequie is in the midst of a land-use planning exercise in defining its traditional territories for government and industry by identifying grave sites, areas of cultural significance and trail systems.
But even with industry becoming more prevalent in resident's daily life, Wabasse said people remain confused.
“They don’t know how to react to the development. They want to know more so that they have a base to make decisions on to how to adapt.”His community signed a co-operation agreement with the Ontario government last June, a document that Wabasse said demonstrates “good faith” toward becoming a true partner in development on their traditional territory.“We’re starting to realize there’s going to be spinoffs with whatever’s happening out there with exploration agreements. We may put a clause (on companies) to employ our people to explore in our territory and to use whatever services we have in the community.”
With a 90 per cent unemployment rate and more than than half of its population under the age of 25, “young people are starting to realize there are going to be opportunities and they have to start thinking about education and moving forward,” said Wabasse.“We’re trying to think what does mining encompass, what does it bring? Then we’ll be able to work out a plan on how we’re going to be part of the process.”