November 2009

Women in Mining

Blowing a hole in the glass ceiling: A mining engineer looking for new ways of doing things

By R. Andrews

As one of Canada’s few women employed in mining explosives, Sophie Bergeron, a mining engineer at Xstrata Nickel, is a booming success. “Blasting is fun,” says Bergeron, “especially when you get good results. I was really happy with our last test at Raglan where we blasted a really big stope with 25,000 kilograms of emulsion explosive.”

The correct use, placement and choice of explosives is a specialized skill, and during a student internship, Bergeron found she had the right stuff for the job. “We didn’t learn a lot about explosives at university, but I was encouraged by a really good boss at Dyno Nobel and found I was really interested in this aspect of mining.”

It’s tempting to speculate on the early origins of such an interest, but Bergeron denies simulating mining explosions in the sand pit. “My childhood games were the usual ones. I played with Barbie dolls as well as Lego, Transformers and GI Joe. I liked many different sports and activities. At school, I was good in math and it became clear that engineering was the way for me.”

After graduating from the École Polytechnique de Montréal in 2000, Bergeron joined Xstrata Nickel’s Raglan Mine, in northern Quebec’s Nunavik region, where her skills were put to good use. “There were some issues with production in one open pit and we worked a lot on improving blasting techniques. After a few projects, I became the ‘go-to’ person for explosives.”

Bergeron spent seven years on rotation at Raglan, including two years as an underground supervisor. During that time, she also trained as a mine rescue officer. “I wanted to be able to act if something happened while I was on site. I don’t like to sit around helplessly. There were not many engineers in the mine rescue team and I felt it would be useful to have a member with technical knowledge of the mine. At first, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to carry heavy equipment such as the BG4 Mine Rescue Rebreather. However, I could, and I got my certificate.”

There’s no doubt Bergeron established her credentials at Raglan, but what was it like at the beginning for a young woman to be flown into a remote, male-dominated mining site? “The people at Raglan were really fair with women. The gender issue came up, but not a lot,” she says. “I had worked a previous summer as an underground scooper and truck operator. Knowing the job from the ground up helps when you’re new. I also knew how to work well with the guys. You don’t have to be friends. So long as you respect each other, it all goes well. However, I’m also aware that if you want to advance your career in a man’s world, you probably have to shine a bit more — not just in mining, but in many industries where there are few women.”

Bergeron believes the mining industry is changing, and Xstrata is one of the progressive leaders, having hired many professional women in the past few years. Acknowledging her skills and broad experience, the company has promoted the engineer to be Raglan’s first superintendent of continuous improvement. “It’s a big challenge,” she says. “To keep Raglan competitive in tough economic times, my mission is to find ways to decrease the cost of production by taking greater advantage of opportunities and getting people more involved in the big picture. You could say my job now is to blow apart the cost structures and find new ways of doing things.”

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