February 2010

Women in Mining

Acting on ambition: Thespian turned engineer sets stage for women managers

By H. Ednie


Côté on a visitor’s tour of the Centre d’Interprétation du Cuivre in Murdochville, where complete personal protective equipment is not required.

Last September, just five years after finishing her bachelor’s degree in mining engineering, 31-year-old Mélanie Côté was promoted to senior engineer, underground mines, at Xstrata Nickel’s Raglan Mine in Quebec’s Far North. If you have ambition, she says, at Raglan the sky’s the limit.

Côté didn’t always want to work in mining. Far from it. She studied theatre for two years at university — about as far from the world of mining as possible — before deciding to change her major. “One of the most satisfying accomplishments of my life was making the switch from theatre and doing well in science and engineering,” she says. “It showed me anything is possible.”

Still, when she was told about her promotion, Côté says she was completely dumbfounded. Used to performing on stage, for once she found herself speechless. “My brain told me to say ‘thank you’ but otherwise, I couldn’t say a word,” she recalls. “For me, being unable to speak is something new.”

Remote control

Côté joined the Raglan team in September 2005 as a junior engineer, and quickly rose through the ranks, first as a production engineer from 2005 to 2007 to her management position. She now oversees a staff of more than 15 engineers and technicians. “We’re a young team, and people don’t tend to stay here for 20 years, so there’s plenty of opportunity,” she explains.

She clearly loves her work. The Gaspésie native works a three-weeks in/two-weeks out schedule at the remote operation, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I like it a lot because you get everything done in those three weeks and then have two weeks to yourself,” she says. “You don’t need to book your vacation time to take a trip. There is so much freedom to do what you want. I knew one person who headed to Cuba every time he left here.”

But she admits that the schedule can be gruelling — especially for one’s social life. Côté has lost touch with some friends because she’s not around; she also cannot keep up with her beloved theatre pursuits because she’s away half the time. “But the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages,” she says. Being able to live where you want and to travel make it worthwhile for her.

Vertical learning

Côté’s job is varied and challenging, encompassing many fields, from production to planning engineering, as well as ventilation, longholes, etc. Côté loves this variety, because it has allowed her to get a big picture view of mining, really quickly. “At Raglan, you’re given lots of opportunities. You learn a lot very quickly working 11-hour days, 21 days in a row, as is my case.”

Xstrata is also a great place for skills development, says Côté, who jumps at every opportunity she gets. “Xstrata Nickel pushes people to pursue their professional development plans,” she explains. “I can have a coach, a mentor, take courses — whatever I need to develop my skills and advance.” Last year, she took part in the Canadian Women’s Executive Network mentoring program. This winter, she’s taking courses to help improve her English.

The motherlode

The only thing Côté imagines would make her leave Raglan is deciding to have children.

In the meantime, Côté figures when you have a good thing going, you should stick with it. And even far in the future, when it’s time to leave Raglan, she aims to continue her career with Xstrata Nickel, possibly in the long-term planning office in Laval. “I want to stay with Xstrata Nickel; I want to align everything so one day when I leave the site, I have something set up,” she says, adding with a laugh. “If I sound like I’m cheering for Raglan, I am.”

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