(L-R) Carrie Lyon, Jamie Keeash, Sophie Mekanak, Shirley King
(L-R) Carrie Lyon, Jamie Keeash, Sophie Mekanak, Shirley King

All-Women Line Crew Graduates Advance to Wataynikaneyap Power Project

June 23, 2022
The women, who came from Wataynikaneyap Power’s owner communities, are now pursuing opportunities and careers on the Wataynikaneyap Power Transmission Line.

On Nov. 19, 2021, All-Women Line Crew Ground Support (LCGS) trainees successfully graduated with 25 transferable certificates to advance in future apprenticeship opportunities and pursue careers on the Wataynikaneyap Power Transmission Line in northwestern Ontario. The Wataynikaneyap Power Project is the largest Indigenous-led infrastructure project in Canada.

The women, who came from Wataynikaneyap Power’s owner communities, North Caribou Lake, Pikangikum, and Bearskin Lake First Nations, are now pursuing opportunities and careers on the Wataynikaneyap Power Transmission Line. 

Empowering isolated communities

Wataynikaneyap Power is a licensed transmission company majority-owned by a partnership of 24 First Nations in partnership with Fortis Inc. and other private investors. The 24 First Nation communities also established Opiikapawiin Services to lead the community engagement and participation for Wataynikaneyap Power LP. Fortis Ontario Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Fortis Inc., acts as the project manager through its wholly owned subsidiary, Wataynikaneyap Power PM Inc. To connect remote First Nations communities to the electrical grid, Wataynikaneyap Power will develop, manage construction, and operate approximately 1800 km of transmission lines in northwestern Ontario.

The first-of-kind training, developed by Opiikapawiin Services, was structured from Canada’s Infrastructure Health and Safety Association to provide graduates with 25 transferable certificates and employment on the Wataynikaneyap Power Project. Class began Aug. 16—seven weeks at the Quetico Conference Centre near Atikokan, Ontario followed by seven weeks of hands-on skills, pole climbing, and equipment training at the Fort William First Nation training site near Thunder Bay, Ontario. Laura Calmwind, Opiikapawiin Services’ Training Program Manager incorporated Indigenous knowledge, land-based learning, and health and wellness workshops: “With most of our training programs, we include Traditional Knowledge and land-based skills, as well as invite speakers like local Elders to come share with the students. It is not just about certificates.”

Calmwind organized the all-women program after seeing the large discrepancy between men and women applicants for the co-ed LCGS program: “I thought it may bring in more applicants, if we offered the training for women only. It may encourage more women to think about the trades. We also looked at what barriers stopped women from applying to our training programs.” Calmwind explains, “That led to us offering childcare services, along with other supportive services, as it is a long time for parents to be away from home.” 

Jamie Keeash (above) brought her son along with her to the course: “Having childcare included with this training program has made it possible for me to pursue my career. Having my young son Kingston with me has kept me going.”

Hit The Ground Running

After graduating, the women have pursued the next step. Shirley King (below) explains, “I want to work towards an apprenticeship and keep going with my career in the powerline trades. It is encouraging to see more women being part of the construction.” 

Eliezar Mckay, chair of First Nation Limited Partnership, comments: “Congratulations to the students on their hard work and perseverance! Training opportunities like this program build up our Peoples’ capacity for long term careers on the transmission system and are an important part of meaningful participation and involvement on the Project – one of the Guiding Principles that our leadership provided.”

“Education is an important part of this Project, from training programs to apprenticeships. We are proud to work with our First Nation partners in bringing both training opportunities and reliable electricity to communities,” said Scott Hawkes, president and CEO, FortisOntario Inc. “Congratulations to the graduates and best of luck as they continue to grow their careers!”

Two of the November graduates are now working on the project, while the other two plan to start employment later in the year. “I am very proud of the success of these graduates. It is not easy to be away from your family, friends, and community while undertaking a course of this length. They took on the challenge and now they are in positions to rise up and become leaders in their communities,” remarks Frank McKay, chair of the Wataynikaneyap Power GP Inc. Board.

Top Clean 50 Award Winner

In April 2021, the Wataynikaneyap Power Project was chosen as the 2021 Clean50 Top Project. Canada’s Clean50 awards are based on innovation, ability to inform, and inspire other Canadians. The project will eliminate diesel generated energy, load restrictions and power outages with routes to Pickle Lake, 500 km north of Thunder Bay, and north of Red Lake and Pickle Lake to 17 remote First Nation communities, most of whom lack all season roads. Connecting communities to the power grid is expected to result in over 6.6 million tons of avoided greenhouse gas emissions over forty years, replace approximately 25 million litres/year of diesel usage, providing cleaner and more reliable power to the population.

Five hundred to 1200 jobs are being generated during construction of the Project, but more importantly Margaret Kenequanash, CEO of Wataynikaneyap Power, says “Indigenous people are learning valuable skills, which will allow them to find similar work once the lines are completed in 2024.”

Construction is progressing steadily despite the pandemic and 2021 forest fires. In July 2020, the first transmission tower was erected in the Sioux Lookout area near Highway 516. To date, 68% of the right of way has been cleared and more than 30% of the towers have been installed. If all goes as planned, two more communities will be connected in 2022, with all connected by mid-2024.

The new transmission lines will eliminate diesel generators as the source of local power, cutting the carbon footprint substantially - not to mention the more than US$ 90 million spent annually on fuel. As fuel prices rise over the 40-year lifecycle, consultants PwC projected more than US$ 1.3 billion in savings in diesel.

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