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Carpenters focus on Indigenous partnerships for mining sector

The Carpenters Union is working to remove barriers and promote opportunities for underrepresented groups

Mining is the lifeblood of many communities in the North but the industry has “a huge shortage” of workers, both directly in the mines and in construction trades that support the industry.

“Even though there are all kinds of jobs available it is getting harder and harder to fill those positions,” says Gilles Bisson, retained by the Carpenters District Council of Ontario (CDCO) as an outreach specialist connecting mainly with First Nations, women’s organizations and new Canadians.

The problem stems from a workforce in Northern Ontario comprised largely of First Nations youth who remain untrained for the types of high-paying skilled jobs now available or coming soon.

“The Carpenters union has realized this and it sees it as a huge opportunity to engage with First Nations members for apprentices and jobs in the mining or construction industries, whatever is connected to us as carpenters,” explains Bisson, the former MPP for the NDP in the riding of Timmins. “If you look at Sudbury, Timmins, Red Lake and other cities mining is the primary employer.”

“We want to make sure that Indigenous people – the fastest growing sector of our population – is included in our labor force,” adds Evan Reid, coordinator, Carpenters Local 1669, Thunder Bay.

Local 1669 has made steps in the past to meet that objective and this year, as in past years, has embarked on a pre-apprenticeship carpentry initiative in partnership with the Anishinabek Employment and Training Services (AETS). The 10-week carpentry course conducted at Local 1669 covers health and safety training along with basic carpentry skills. It is a necessary start to get students placed in the field.

Two cohorts of 12 students will be completing the course this year and many of them have jobs or will be landing jobs in the region.

John DeGiacomo, executive director of the AETS, calls it a step in the right direction. It brings more Indigenous youth into the trade at a time when many contractors are starting to take notice of the need to look to under-represented groups to fill the job vacancy gap.

Reid says that among the success stories from the pre-apprenticeship program is a woman from a remote First Nations community who was hired as an apprentice at the construction of Thunder Bay’s new $1.2 billion correctional facility.

“I wanted to get her placed there because she did really well in the training. It is one of the best job opportunities for a first level apprentice in our Local,” says Reid.

The Local’s coordinator adds that the union will find many job opportunities for anyone who wants to take carpentry seriously, whether they are looking for employment with contractors working in the mines or elsewhere. “Across all sectors of our work we are finding ourselves thin and it is not just our trade group, it is really all trade groups.”

He says the Carpenters union can help remove barriers that have prevented First Nations young people from getting good jobs in the past and the union will be introducing a number of measures to ensure that they have occupational health and safety training that many larger employers require for workers to even get on site. “We’re seeing some successful participants from remote First Nations communities and we believe that will continue.”

That success in part comes from a “targeted approach” by both Local 1669 and Carpenters Local 2486 in Sudbury. The two Locals emphasize outreach initiatives to First Nations communities, often going directly to leaders within the vicinity of major projects proposed or in the works, says Reid.

“It helps us to have identified potential candidates for training ahead of time to ensure they meet basic qualifications required by employers.” To that end, both of the Sudbury and Thunder Bay union locals have conducted various information events including career fairs directed at First Nations communities.

“We want Indigenous communities to know we are working towards an inclusive membership but it is more than just that,” says Reid. “They are a fast-growing part of the population and we want Indigenous communities to be aware of the opportunities for careers. We want them to succeed.”

Reid adds that the Union will find many job opportunities for anyone who wants to take carpentry seriously.

DeGiacomo says the AETS will be introducing a Mining Essentials program, built along the principles of the carpentry pre-apprenticeship model. It will prepare students with basic training for career opportunities at above- and below-ground mining operations.

He says that a lot of mining companies with projects over a wide swath of Northern Ontario use Thunder Bay as a base.

One of the benefits of hiring First Nations people is they often live near the mines, says DeGiacomo. “When you look at parachuting a number of individuals from other parts of the province, it is sometimes more cost-effective for the employer to hire people who have the skills who live within the region.”

He says that there is work for carpenters in the mines as well, sometimes building infrastructure such as housing and administration/offices. “Typically they work for a third-party contractor contracted by the mine to do the work.”

The AETS delivers employment and training programs to nine First Nations communities but will consider training Indigenous applicants outside these regions.

Learn more about opportunities with the Carpenters Union here.