It can be difficult for the mining industry to establish a solid workforce in remote areas of the Northwest Territories. Instead of the older philosophy of relocating personnel, contractors such as McCaw North Drilling & Blasting are today focused on a strategy to train employee candidates from the local workforce. This shift is possible through an initiative of the Northwest Territories Mine Training Society (MTS), now in its 11th year. (see complete article)
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Training in the NWT
James Larocque, born in Saskatchewan, but raised heart and soul in the Northwest Territories, has always been an artist. “I used to draw and paint all through high school. It was my passion and I was pretty good at it, I guess. I won first prize in some competition at school,” he says, laughing. “Can’t even remember where that painting went.”
Even with his natural abilities, school wasn’t easy for James, in part because of a strong stutter that sapped his confidence and turned minor tasks into major challenges. “I couldn’t communicate with anybody. And public speaking? There was no way I would have been able to do that.”
Despite his impediment, James finished high school and then found employment with a local diamond-cutting firm. His creative tendencies turned out to be an unexpected asset when he started as an apprentice polisher. “My artistic side helped me to see things in a different light. With diamond polishing you have to be able to see the end product, to be able to look 10 steps ahead. So working with the rough diamond and then seeing what it became in its finished state was like - Whoa! I did that?”
James even got a little second-hand brush with fame three years into his career when pop star Avril Lavigne wore a cross made with the company’s diamonds at the MuchMusic video Awards. This was just the first in a series of steps for James, who embodies the concept of continuous learning that’s key to the workforce development philosophies of NWT diamond mine companies.
For James Larocque the process of continuous learning was brought into focus when he realized that a lack of formal training was holding him back. “I had high school. And I had a couple of college courses. but not anything that would make me better than anybody else.” So he began exploring ways to improve his chances of getting a better job.
“My qualifications, and ten years of experience, didn’t seem to be really helping me. So I was like, well, what’s the issue? I have all this knowledge.”
That's when James contacted the Mine Training Society and enrolled in the Business Administration diploma program. “That was about two years ago. I’m almost done the program. And it’s opened up a lot of doors. A lot,” he says.
A foreman’s position recently came up with a diamond polishing facility in Australia, working with pink diamonds. “What a cool opportunity,” says Larocque. The interview came down to two people for the job. “The other guy had two years more experience. And he got it. but it was great! At least I had the opportunity. I feel like I’m on my way!”
The benefits of James’ commitment to continuous learning have been direct and obvious: a steady ascent up his career ladder, and a deeper understanding of the bigger picture. “And the more I learn and understand, the more confidence I get. I‘m not saying I’ll be able to go out and speak in front of 10,000 people, but communicating ideas to my coworkers, giving a presentation to a class, has helped me immensely.”
Today, James Larocque is part of the legacy of learning the diamond mines have brought to the NWT and, most likely, have made him one of the next generation of northern leaders.
Mineral Exploration Field Assistant
Mineral Exploration Field Assistant graduate Anita Jacob is just one of the people reaching new heights thanks to the work of the Mine Training Society. When soft-spoken Anita Jacob talks about her recent training as a Mineral Exploration Field Assistant, her excitement breaks through loud and clear.
“My most favourite part was when we started working in the core shack,” exclaims the 41-year-old Fort Providence resident. “It was so interesting to see the raw minerals. I mean you hear about all this stuff and what it’s used for, but to see it and be able to tell what it was – you know, wow!”
Finding Her Career Path
Jacob took a winding path to that core shack at Canadian Zinc’s Prairie Creek operations. Though her South Slavey Dene family have been in the Fort Liard area of the Northwest Territories for generations, Jacob herself was born in B.C. and raised in Victoria, the province’s capital. “I sometimes still miss the daffodils,” she laughs.
After a career spent largely in Alberta, working first in the hospitality industry and then as a camp attendant and assistant chef, she began returning to the Northwest Territories to reconnect with her extended family. Two years ago, she moved back to Fort Providence, and began to consider her next move.
“I figured I could enter the mine trade,” she says now. “But I really wasn’t getting anywhere, because I just didn’t have the experience, and enough confidence. So I happened to be looking through the phonebook, wondering ‘who can I call?’ and I actually found the Mine Training Society’s number and I phoned.”
“And then I spoke with Darlene Sibbeston, the job coach. She told me ‘I have the feeling I’m going to hear your name again’ when I was closing out the conversation with her.”
Shortly afterward, Sibbeston gave Jacob the heads-up on the mineral exploration field assistant program.
“When I first heard that I was like ‘Um, what?’ But when I started doing a little homework on my own, to find out exactly what mineral exploration was, that piqued my interest. I realized ‘Rocks. It’s dealing with rocks!’ Of course, growing up I always liked rocks. And I know there’s a science behind it, and I thought ‘You know what? All these years of cooking have given me experience with science.’ Cooking is a kind of science itself. So this is just another form of it. When the course came up I applied right away.”
Still Excited, and Ready for the Next Level
The intensive five-week training course involved three main sections, including safety training, core sample training, wilderness survival, and much more. It was an eye-opening, horizon-broadening experience for Jacobs: “The whole thing was a wow. This is something I could see myself doing or even… whoah … yeah. I just get excited still.”
After being hired by Canadian Zinc to work on its water treatment plant and act as an overall site assistant for a rotation this past year, she’s eagerly waiting, and preparing for, the next big step in her career.
And she’s grateful to the Mine Training Society and its staff for helping her reach this new level in her career: “Everybody just made me feel good and really positive. There was a lot of encouragement. I was given a lot of mentoring from Darlene Sibbeston and the Society. Even the teachers and instructors really, really helped me out and made me see my potential. I got a sense of a new door opening for me. It was very rewarding and I really hope I can continue on with the mine, and continue learning. That’s my whole goal. I’d like to continue with my education.”
She adds, laughing: “Now I can’t walk down the road without looking at all the rocks.”
Shawn Catholique is a member or the Lutsel Ke’ Dene Band. His journey started in Yellowknife with the 6 week Introduction to Underground Mining program. He finished at the top of his class in the Mine Training Society-sponsored, 12-week Underground Miner Program held at Aurora College. His 6-week course began with the Ready to Work North program, basic geology, mine life cycle and mine terminology. Upon passing with flying colors, he was selected into the 12-week Underground Miner program. He lived in a simulated camp facility, which included getting hands-on experience with a haul truck, scoop tram and standard Toyota jeep. Showing strong leadership skills, Shawn was selected leader of his group. Providing strength, guidance and knowledge, he fell into the role quite easily. Shawn graduated the program and was quickly hired on with Procon Mining and Tunnelling, a full-service mining contractor that works with the NWT's major mine operators..