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THE DRIFT 2020: Employment program prepares Indigenous women for workforce

Traditional knowledge guides learners on new career path
The curriculum, which teaches culture, confidence, and competence, has been eight years in the making. (Supplied photo)

Traditional employment programs focus a lot of time and resources on technical training and job search skills. 

While those things are integral to getting women into the workforce in non-traditional roles, sometimes it’s not enough. 

Aboriginal Women in Mining (AWIM), a program run by the Temiskaming Native Women’s Support Group in Kirkland Lake, has developed a more holistic approach. 

Their curriculum, which teaches culture, confidence, and competence, has been eight years in the making. 

Developed in 2011 by Ann Batisse, an Indigenous mentor and founder of the Native Women’s Support Group, the program trains Indigenous women to enter the workforce. AWIM teaches traditional knowledge and values and nurtures industry partnerships to encourage success. 

Their original mandate was to offer 120 Aboriginal women mine-related training. Out of that number, they hoped that about 80 women would become employed full-time in the mining industry within two years of completing the program. 

In each cohort, about 10 to 12 women are accepted. The program also services a wider community with extended support. If women need work clothes, personal protective equipment, childcare, or anything else to remove barriers to employment, AWIM can help. 

The curriculum, which is in the process of being nationally certified, is divided into three different units. The first draws on traditional Ojibwe teachings and focuses on connecting women with their culture. 

“Our life skills course is a circle-based program,” said Kelly Lamontagne, industry liaison for literacy and essential skills on the national curriculum team. 

“We open the circle every morning and use a talking stick. The talking stick is a sacred item in Ojibwe culture that commands the respect to be listened to. We use that to focus the attention of the group on the person talking.” 

The day begins with a traditional smudging ceremony, historically performed for medicinal and practical purposes as well as spiritual ceremonies. The practice generally involves prayer and the burning of sacred medicines such as sweetgrass, sage, cedar, or tobacco. 

The women then share personal reflections, events, and gratitude with the circle before moving on to the training component. 

In this unit, educators share knowledge based on the Seven Grandfather Teachings, a set of Ojibwe teachings on human conduct towards each other. 

“In the first week, we talk about communication, values, goals and relationships. Then we do problem-solving and decision-making. All of these soft skills to be able to get them to focus on the direction that they want to go,” said Lamontagne. 

This is an integral part of the program, Lamontagne explained. Many of the participants have faced some kind of adversity in their lives. 

Some of them have been out of school for a long time, have spent years caring for their children, or have recently left abusive relationships. Some of them struggle with addiction issues, are affected by parents who went to residential schools, or saw their friends commit suicide in Far North communities. 

“They are bringing a lot more with them than just, ‘I want a job,’” said Lamontagne. “They need someone to believe in them so they can believe in themselves.” 

Following the first week of personal development, the women then learn skills related to health and wellness. This module focuses on helping women achieve balance in their lives. They are also prepared for the challenges they might face when entering the workforce, including racism and conflict.  

Participants also become certified in Mental Health First Aid, a training program designed to give people the tools to help others experiencing mental health issues. 

Week three focuses on professional development. The group engages in résumé-building activities, learns about transferable skills, and practises writing cover letters. Later, they do mock interviews and welcome guest speakers to the class. 

The final weeks of the program focus on technical training. AWIM takes the group on mine tours so they can better understand the breadth of career opportunities in the mining industry, and mining supply and service sector. 

Ken Stewart, manager of training and development at NORCAT in Timmins, travels to Kirkland Lake or AWIM’s secondary New Liskeard location and delivers a tailor-made program. In four days, the women are able to get up to eight certifications in areas like working at heights, handling tools, lock-out tag-out, and more. 

By developing industry partnerships over the years, the program has been able to secure apprenticeships and full-time positions for Indigenous women at Northern Ontario companies like The Bucket Shop and Detour Gold. 

A handful of women have gone on to attain their Level 1 welding certificate at The Bucket Shop. 

By making participants aware of the wide range of career paths available to them, they have paved the way for Aboriginal women in traditionally male-dominated fields. 

AWIM welcomes participants from across the North, including remote communities along the James Bay coast. Today, they receive so many applications, they aren’t always able to accommodate every single one of them. 

In their experience, Lamontagne said, their holistic approach to employment training – with an emphasis not only on technical skills, but also on personal development – has been more effective than traditional employment programs. 

“We tried to run it like a regular program,” she said about the early days of AWIM. “We said, here’s all these tools, now go to work! But people were failing. They were showing us what they wanted us to see, which was that they were ready, but they weren’t.” 

By focusing on personal development, women are able to discover what they want, and to move towards the future in the right placement with the right support. 

“The real goal of AWIM is to empower women to do what they want. All of the women that come through the program go away a little different. They understand more about themselves.”

The Drift magazine features profiles on the people and companies making important contributions to the Northern Ontario mining service and supply sector. It is published annually and distributed at the Northern Ontario Mining Showcase during the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) conference in Toronto.