After a year of looking at an ad she had clipped out of a newspaper and stuck on her fridge, Karen Kabatey finally worked up the nerve to take action — she applied to be a heavy equipment operator at De Beers Canada’s Victor Diamond Mine in northern Ontario. Now, two years later, Kabatey couldn’t be happier about her career choice.
“I love it here,” she avows. “It’s very challenging; definitely the best job I’ve ever had. I’m also given the opportunity to advance, to learn how to operate other equipment, and with plenty of training. I started on the trucks but currently I’m operating a D6 dozer.”
Before her job at Victor Mine, Kabatey drove a school bus outside Thunder Bay as well as tandem trucks and front-end loaders for the 10-4 Truck Driving Academy. Her previous experience also includes work in community and social services. However, nothing compares to the challenge and satisfaction she derives from working at Victor.
So, how does one go from social services to heavy equipment operation? Kabatey’s father, who had operated a Euclid at an iron ore mine, had told her that she was a good driver, and so the idea of operating heavy equipment remained in the back of her mind as something to pursue “one day.”
Despite her enthusiasm, Kabatey admits that she did have some initial stage fright. “When I first arrived at the site and saw the camp from the bus, I thought, ‘What am I getting myself into?’” she recalls. “Then, when I saw one of the trucks up close, I thought, ‘maybe I should be a cleaner instead.’ I was intimidated by their size. But once I got on a truck, I loved it.”
Kabatey says she appreciated the serious approach to training onsite, which included several days of instruction before getting behind the wheel of a truck. “The trainer did an excellent job,” she recalls. “You become familiar with the roads, the site and where the different areas and dumps are. You learn about safety, how to go up and down ramps in different types of weather, how to use the breaks, etc. The first time behind the wheel I was nervous. But by the next day, I was fine on my own.”
Equipment operators are responsible for more than moving and manipulating these gigantic machines. They are also required to know basic maintenance information about their equipment. “We do circle check inspections of the whole truck, inside and out, at shift change,” notes Kabatey.
The number of Aboriginal women operating heavy machinery in Canadian mines is certainly not large, although Kabatey hopes to see more women from her community follow in her footsteps. “When I’m back home and I see native women, I like to encourage them along the same path I’ve followed. There’s no greater place to be than where I am now,” she adds.
This determination and perseverance make Kabatey a role model for young women looking to build careers in the industry. De Beers Canada’s vice-president of human resources, Ingrid Hann, is inspired by women like Kabatey. “Coming up here to the Victor site, tackling those huge machines, and having the will to make it happen in a safe and productive way — that’s remarkable,” she explains.
Kabatey laughs when asked if being a woman poses particular challenges at Victor. “Not here,” she says. “When I was working at the 10-4 academy, I noticed more people having issues with a woman instructor; they didn’t care for it. Here, we’re equal. Sure, there’s the odd comment from people here or there, but you put them in their place and they only do it once. I’m treated equally in every aspect of the job. I get the respect.”
A self-confessed people person, Kabatey tries to maximize her time with her grandchildren and family during her two weeks off. However, she also loves being with her Victor family. “When I’m home, I can’t wait to get back here. It’s a very positive atmosphere. We have plenty of things to do, including using the gym facilities, pool games, ping pong and aerial games — not to forget the karaoke.”
Last May, Kabatey participated as a panellist in the Women in Mining Forum at the CIM Conference and Exhibition in Toronto. Once word got around Victor that she was heading south to Toronto to share her experiences, she was given the nickname of “Miss Hollywood”; even her hardhat was adorned with stickers to that effect. “It was all great fun — everyone was very supportive of me,” she laughs.
So, what’s next for Kabatey? To her, the answer is obvious, and not surprisingly, it involves another mammoth piece of equipment. “I want to operate the 992 loader,” she says with obvious enthusiasm in her voice.