Sept/Oct 2010

First Nations

Scratching the surface: Aboriginal women in mining

By Lana Eagle

Women in Mining Canada and the Mining Industry Human Resources Council recently launched “Ramp-UP: A Study on the Status of Women in Canada’s Mining and Exploration Sector.” One of its primary objectives is, among other things, to increase employment opportunities for women, a group that is vastly under-represented in the mining industry. Even more affected are Aboriginal women.

Currently, training programs for Aboriginal Peoples in Canada exist on job sites and through colleges. However, in response to the increased training needs of communities and industry, Northwest Community College has developed the School of Exploration & Mining (SEM) where 65 per cent of its student body is First Nations. One of the courses offered at SEM is the Environmental Monitor Assistance Program. Students taking this course spend 25 days out in the field, followed by one week in the classroom, and then an additional 25 days in the field. For the last two-year period (2008 and 2009 field seasons) 21 per cent of SEM students were female; 15.5 per cent of SEM students identified themselves as Aboriginal females.

Of the female students that identified themselves as Aboriginal, 65 per cent found employment or returned to school. This percentage is traditionally lower than SEM’s average employment rate of 70 per cent; however, this can be attributed to the economic crisis and significant downturn in the industry last year. When asked what were the barriers for Aboriginal women entering the program, Tanya Reedy, the schools’ coordinator, said the biggest concern was “Who is going to do what I do when I am gone?" — for example, in terms of childcare, caring for elders and other extended family, as well as the daily tasks of cooking, cleaning, canning, smoking, berry picking, etc.

According to the NWT Bureau of Statistics, three per cent of people working in trades positions are women. Fewer still are Aboriginal women who face many barriers in accessing employment in the industrial and trades occupations of the mining, oil and gas industries. Such barriers include being the primary, and possibly the only, caregiver in the family. Lack of support from partners and family in pursuing rigorous training, limited education levels and opportunities, limited financial resources to further one’s development, and the perception that trades and industrial occupations are best suited to men can also pose restrictions on women. And in some cases, there are significant social issues that exponentially increase barriers: issues such as violence and substance addictions.

Together with its partners, the Status of Women Council of the NWT has designed a highly innovative pilot project — the Northern Women in Mining Oil & Gas Project (NWMOG) — where it will be determined if the number of northern women employed in skilled trades can be significantly increased through a dedicated women-only, partnership-based strategic approach to training and development.

The Native Women’s Association recently completed their Action Plan (AP). The AP is a clear and comprehensive plan that aims at reducing violence, improving economic security and achieving higher educational outcomes for Aboriginal women who, as a group, are the most socially, politically and economically marginalized in Canada. The AP identifies poverty, substandard housing, health and mental challenges, and low educational attainment as the current realities and experiences of Aboriginal women. They continue to be the most at risk group in Canada for issues related to violence and complex issues linked to intergenerational impacts of colonization and residential schools. While the AP identifies the mechanism for change to occur at the provincial, territorial and federal government levels, industry, as a key stakeholder, has a role to play as well in building partnerships with equitable outcomes between the private sector and Aboriginal Peoples. And when it comes to access to training and development, there should be opportunities that will allow individuals to stay in their home community if they so choose.

Despite the challenges that Aboriginal women face, women have proven that they can be successful in the workplace. In trades and industrial occupations, women succeed because of their concern for safety and their attention to detailed work. We have only just scratched the surface on what could prove to be a significant employee resource for mining companies. It will take companies that are both open-minded and innovative to help in removing barriers that face Aboriginal women. Certainly, government and educational institutions can play their part in affecting change as well.

Lana Eagle
Lana Eagle is vice-president of Learning Together, a national Aboriginal grassroots organization that is focused on mining relationships. She is also a consultant to mining companies and advises on relationship building between industry and Aboriginal communities.

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