While working for River Gold Mines near Wawa in the mid-1990s, Jeff Lafortune recalled, workers would flock to visiting mining suppliers in search of hats, T-shirts, or other merchandise that would identify them as a mine worker and let them express their pride in their work and the industry.
“It was something that they could wear after work or at home,” said Lafortune, who has more than 15 years of experience in the mine technical services field.
“It was something that showed their relation to the mine, or linked them to the mine, because everybody’s proud that works in mining and the trades.”
Yet, supplier-branded merchandise didn’t fully represent the work they did as miners, heavy equipment operators, engineers, or the myriad other roles and skilled trades that kept the operation humming.
That’s when Lafortune hit on the idea of a unique line of T-shirts that would identify the wearers by the work they did. He started tinkering with a series of logos – depicting load-haul-dump trucks, a prospecting pickaxe, jumbo drills, and more – and began to sell his creations on site, to great success.
But with a young family to look after, and a desire to succeed at his job, his newfound creative outlet had to temporarily take a back seat while he prioritized other areas of his life.
“I wasn’t at the mine to sell T-shirts; I was there to do a job, and I wanted to prove myself,” Lafortune said.
“There was a lot of opportunity at the mine, so I just put the focus on my profession instead of T-shirts at the time.”
Two years ago, with Lafortune's children grown and him now working as a teacher in the civil and mining technologist program at Collège Boréal in Sudbury, he and son Connor decided to revisit the idea.
They settled on a dozen designs, paired up with a local screening and embroidery company to have the shirts printed, and secured a Sudbury retailer that agreed to stock their product.
Two weeks after the shirts first hit the shelves, the retailer called Lafortune to tell him he’d sold 11 shirts in 14 days.
“‘We’re onto something here,’” Lafortune recalled thinking.
Today, the father-son duo’s products are sold in more than a dozen retail outlets across Northern Ontario, and through their website, under the My Mining Tee banner.
Lafortune estimates they’ve sold about 1,000 T-shirts to date, and they’re making plans to expand their line to include clothing representing other trades and bearing positive messages.
They also take requests, recently completing a customized order of two dozen shirts for a team of surveyors working at a mine further north. Lafortune welcomes the opportunity for similar collaborations.
“Our hope, one day, is to have a business where we can make the T-shirts here and possibly employ a couple of people that can get our product to the market,” he said.
More than just a revenue generator or a fun side hustle project, he believes the T-shirts can inspire important conversations about the mining industry and the skilled trades.
In his position as an educator, which he’s held since 2012, he’s witnessed firsthand the difficulty colleges face in recruiting new students to trades-related programs.
Despite rolling out targetted marketing and recruitment campaigns, Lafortune said, the schools aren’t attracting enough students to fill the growing number of vacancies across the industry.
He's hopeful My Mining Tee can help in some small way, by creating interest and an opportunity to educate people, he said.
“This is our contribution,” Lafortune said. “We want to help, and we believe that we have the right recipe to make it happen, just to spark that conversation so people can get more educated on what’s available, because there are a lot of good-paying jobs here in Sudbury and throughout the world.”