It was what happened in Sudbury three years ago that inspired a group of women to do something that has made them the darlings of the mine rescue world.
Mine rescuer Kari Lentowicz of Saskatchewan was in Sudbury in early April and remembered it well.
“Back in 2016, we were here in Sudbury at the International Mines Rescue Competition (IMRC),” said Lentowicz, speaking at the Workplace Safety North Mining Health and Safety conference, held April 10-11 in Sudbury.
“In that competition there were 189 competitors. Five were women. That was it.”
That’s what prompted her to sit down with a group of friends and other mine rescue women to talk about creating their own all-female team of certified mine rescuers, something Lentowicz had been thinking about for several years.
Although mine rescue is a volunteer pursuit in Canada, members are drawn from the ranks of mine workers to take the intense training required provide underground firefighting and life-saving rescue work.
In 2017, Lentowicz recalled being at the 2017 National Western Regional mine rescue competition in Fernie, B.C.
“It’s where we saw the first female participating in the underground portion of the competition.”
She said she met that woman – Heather MacKenzie – a couple of days later during the awards banquet and she agreed to join the effort to build a female competition team.
“We figured, you know what, if we’re going to do this, let’s do this right,” said Lentowicz.
In 2018, the group formed as a non-profit organization and embarked on a fundraising goal so the team could participate in the IMRC event, which was being held in Russia. It was a first.
She said the group members, who work in a variety of mining roles, made the decision to take the training so they could participate.
One of the challenges was finding women, said Lentowicz, revealing the current team is made up from women across Canada. The team members include Janie Blanchette, Jodi Brasch, Renae Campbell, Naomi Fugle, Jennifer Hingston, Fanny Laporte, and Heather MacKenzie.
They come from such places as Val d’Or and Montréal, Que.; Saskatoon, Sask.; Yellowknife, N.W.T.; and Snow Lake, Man. They work for such companies as Cameco Corporation, Agnico Eagle, Levitt Safety, and Rio Tinto’s Diavik Diamond Mine.
Lentowicz reminded the Sudbury audience for that the longest time, women were not allowed to work underground in Canadian mines. That changed in the 1970s.
“In fact, for seven of the participating countries in the International Mines Rescue Competition, just in this past year, it is still illegal for women to work underground,” she said.
Lentowicz said in the early years, in the 1970s and 1980s, Canadian women were “tolerated” in mining, but there was never a lot of encouragement for women to seek a mining career. She said that has changed in recent years.
“Now we are at the point where women are needed,” she said. “And it is so great to see that there is a lot of male support out there, because without you men, we just simply couldn’t do it on our own.”
“So we want to make sure that through our platform we raise awareness. Part of that is education, and includes public speaking events like this, training programs, competition events and youth engagement.”
She added it is the team’s hope to change attitudes and to encourage more young women to seek careers in the mining industry.
For what it’s worth, the Diamonds succeeded in becoming the first ever all-female mine rescue team to participate in the international event, which was held last September in Ekaterinaburg, Russia, against 24 other teams from around the world.
The Diamonds came 15th overall and, in doing so, they beat out the only other Canadian team: the Ontario provincial mine rescue champions from the Tahoe Canada mine in Timmins.
This story originally appeared in the Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal.