Thunder Bay

First Nations power project showcases new training program

The goal of the Wataynikaneyap Transmission Project Training Program is to train as many people as possible from First Nations communities for jobs connecting 16 northwestern Ontario First Nations to the provincial power grid.

The Wataynikaneyap Transmission Project will create an estimated 769 jobs, the company says

Students in the Wataynikaneyap Transmission Project Training Program are learning bucket evacuation as part of their Line Crew Ground Support training course. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

The company that's connecting northwestern Ontario First Nations to the provincial power grid showcased its new training program Thursday.

The goal of the Wataynikaneyap Transmission Project Training Program is to prepare people from First Nations for jobs building the approximately 1,800 kilometres of lines, the company said in a news release.

The first cohort of ten students has been taking part in the line crew ground support training course for six weeks now, and students demonstrated for reporters on Thursday their skills at rappelling from bucket trucks.

"It's a blast," said Curtis Winter, a student from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, who enrolled in the program in hopes of earning a better living to support his family.  "I never operated these machines before in my life."  

Students of the Wataynikaneyap Transmission Project Training Program pose with Wataynikaneyap CEO Margaret Kenequanash, Nishnawe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, and Thunder Bay-Superior North MP Patty Hajdu.

Winter, who used to work as a housekeeper at a mine, said it's exciting to be part of a project that will bring reliable power to remote First Nations.

"In my home reserve, we have houses with no power because the diesel plant can't provide," he said. "It's going to be a good opportunity for us and all the reservations hooked up to the grid."

The power company estimates that the construction phase of the project will create 769 jobs.

It's gone through a lengthy process to prepare First Nations for it, including doing gap analysis in individual communities, obtaining money for training from government, and partnering with Opiikapawiin Services, infrastructure contractor Gridlink and the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association to deliver training.

So far, the interest level in the training courses has been encouraging, said Wataynikaneyap Power chief executive officer Margaret Kenequanash.

Wataynikaneyap Power CEO Margaret Kenequanash said she's excited by how the company's training program is going so far. (Heather Kitching/CBC)

"There's always skepticism, if you want to call it that, because people ask, 'Are we really going to be employed?  Are we really going to be part of this?' So we keep reinforcing the message that the vision of meaningful participation and involvement by our First Nations is the direction of our leadership," Kenequanash said.  "The main focus right now is to ensure that we have that capacity to be able to do it."

Wataynikaneyap is already building the first segment of the power project — a 117-kilometre line connecting Red Lake and Pikangikum.

Approximately 28 per cent of the workers currently building that segment are from First Nations, Kenequanash said.

"We never really set a target," she added, when asked if she was satisfied with that number. "I think it all depends on, like I say, the capacity that's required."  

'I'm excited'

The Wataynikaneyap Power Project is slated to connect 16 northwestern Ontario First Nations to the grid by 2023.  

The provincial and federal governments have committed more than $1.6 billion to its construction.

The training program is funded in part by a contribution of just over $2 million from the federal Ministry of Employment, Workforce, and Labour.

"I'm excited," Kenequanash said of the launch of the training component. 

"Every time we reach a milestone I feel great, because then we show that there is fruition to the work that we're doing in establishing this project, and I think it's wonderful to see that."