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By Virginia Heffernan

Mining is already the largest private sector employer of aboriginal people in Canada, and it's poised to become even more diverse as companies implement programs to attract and retain aboriginals from the communities around their mines. About half of aboriginal people are under the age of 25 and mining is a greying industry, so it makes sense for companies to engage this local talent pool. This month I spoke to Adele Faubert, Manager of Aboriginal Affairs for Goldcorp’s Musselwhite Mine in northwestern Ontario, about the mine’s Aboriginal Mining and Skilled Trades Entry Project (AMSTEP). It's a five-month, 800-hour, FIFO training and work experience program, the first of its kind to take place at an active mine site in Canada. The students, ranging in age from 18 to 29 (some with children at home), train on a two-week on/two-week off rotation. The second class graduated in March.

Q: What was the motivation behind AMSTEP?

A: We have access to a pool of employment ready youth from our First Nations Signatory communities looking to further their education, which is a challenge up here in remote northwestern Ontario. The core training program is adapted from the Mining Industry Human Resources Council’s Mining Essentials, A Work Readiness Training Program For Aboriginal People. It has 240 hours of in-classroom learning, and we added a skilled trades entry program in partnership with Cambrian College and provided two rotations of 2-week long job shadowing.

Q: How many recruits do you take from each community?

A: We’ve had two intakes of 16 students each, with eight participants from two communities in each intake for a total of 32 participants from four communities. We’ve had 23 graduates, six of them female. We have two more intakes planned. The next will be in Mishkeegogamang First Nation, a community south of Musselwhite that has road access. Cambrian’s mobile trades trailer can access the community, and the participants will be bused in and out for job shadowing at the mine. Future deliveries will be based on the government funding available to our partner, Oshki Pimache-O-Win, and our own business needs.

Q: What are the prerequisites for recruits?

A: The Mining Essentials program was designed for a minimum grade eight education. The education of our participants ranged from grade eight to post secondary. It’s a flexible program in that way.

Q: How do you manage homesickness?

A: Many of the participants had to leave their communities for high school, so most of them have experienced being away for extended periods. Mining Essentials is designed to have Elder involvement and we have a counselor come to the site once a month who can talk to the youth. The mine site is also WIFI enabled, so it’s possible to connect with families via Skype, Facetime or other social media.

Q: What other challenges do they face?

A: There is the culture shock of being among so many strangers and living in close quarters in the bunkhouses and cafeteria. There are dietary and lifestyle changes, including having to be at work early in the morning, sometimes as early as 5 AM. Some find being back in a classroom setting and having to spend a lot of time indoors difficult.

Q: What are the chances of the graduates landing a job at Musselwhite?

A: Between Musselwhite and the fulltime contractors working at the site, four graduates were hired for full time employment and we have some short term contract employment opportunities coming up. Two of our graduates have been interviewed for Underground Common Core training that, if completed successfully, will certify them to work underground. Another graduate is registered for an Environmental Technology program and will become a summer student in May. Some graduates decide to pursue other career options, because the fly in-fly lifestyle is not for everyone.

Q: What advice do you have for Canadian aboriginal youth who wish to receive mining industry training?

A: If there is exploration or mining activity in your area, speak to your economic development person, or community contact person about training opportunities or make inquiries about organizing a Mining Essentials program with the industry partner.

On a final note: In April 2016, The First Nation of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario declared a state of emergency after several of their youth tried to kill themselves. First Nations groups say there is a "suicide pandemic" spreading through their communities as their residents succumb to despair over inadequate housing, lack of basic services and unemployment. Health Canada has sent crisis teams to Attawapiskat, but the problem requires a longer term solution involving government, aboriginal leaders and industry. It's heartening that mining companies such as Goldcorp are committed to being part of the solution.

More gems from Virginia:

Virginia Heffernan is a former exploration geologist who met her Welsh husband when they were both working on a gold project in Namibia. They live in Toronto with their teenage son. Virginia mostly stays put these days (she's now a freelance writer and member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada), but Roger continues on his global quest for the next big ore deposit. To check out Virginia's work, visit www.geopen.comc