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A trainer from the Manitoba Construction Sector Council talks with Berens River First Nation workers at a job-readiness training session.

Training and mentorship programs pay dividends for workers and company

A training and mentorship program undertaken by Winnipeg’s Hugh Munro Construction for workers from Manitoba’s Berens River First Nation is paying big dividends for both parties as they continue work on an all-weather road.

The 10-kilometre build, labelled R11 and valued at $12 million, is one of the last phases of a 158-kilometre gravel road project heading north along the east side of Lake Winnipeg. The owner is the East Side Road Authority (ESRA), a Manitoba crown corporation.

As part of its Aboriginal Engagement Strategy, the ESRA requires contractors to ensure that a minimum of 30 per cent of their labour force is from First Nations for road projects and 20 per cent for bridges.

Even though workers on those early builds had the requisite skills training, through programs such as Introduction to Construction, Heavy Equipment Operator and Skilled Labourer, job performance was acknowledged as unsatisfactory.

The problem was not unwillingness to work, rather it was unfamiliarity with the '9-to-5' work culture, says Ron Castel, indigenous liaison officer with the Manitoba Construction Sector Council and a member of the Mathias Colomb First Nation.

First Nations workers were more familiar with seasonal work.

"When the lake freezes over there is ice commercial fishing, and when the lake thaws there is regular commercial fishing. Then the fall comes along and they fish like a son of a gun. So there's six weeks solid work where the fishermen get up at 4 in the morning, get on the lake by 5 and they're back into camp by 4 and during that time they lift the nets and get the fish to market always so there's a big rush."

"Once they understood the concept ... they caught on pretty quick," added Castel. "They understood that this project is going to be a long-time thing, a long-term career."

The company benefits as well. They no longer have to transport much equipment or workers north and pay for accommodation. And Hugh Munro workers learn about survival at remote work camps from the Berens River workers.

Then there are broader life lessons for the Hugh Munro staff to digest. "We had aboriginal awareness training for our employees," says Munro. "We wanted to make sure that everybody has an appreciation that first of all we wouldn't have that job if we weren't partners with the First Nation.

"We're only one company but I can try to change whatever prejudice and whatever concepts people have about what's happened. It's collecting our paycheque so my guys can survive, starting to work together and stopping the prejudices on both sides."

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