'I got my life back': Program working for equity

Janelle Niles had a friend point her in the right direction at her lowest moment.

While studying in Ottawa, away from her home in Yellowknife, NWT, her husband left her with nowhere to go home to.

“I called everyone I knew in Yellowknife and begged them to take me in so I could try to win my husband back,” she said. “But my one friend said ‘I could pay your way back and you could stay on my couch and you could try to win your husband back, but there’s a program in Ontario that helps women with employment and bettering their lives.'”

Niles jumped at the chance.

“I took a leap of faith and said yes, yes! I’m homeless, I’m jobless, I’ll take anything,” she said.

She took a nine-hour bus ride from Ottawa to Kirkland Lake, and lived there for nine months to learn about mining, and how to get a job in the industry.

That program was Aboriginal Women in Mining (AWIM), run through Keepers of the Circle.

Keepers of the Circle is run by the Temiskaming Native Women’s Support Group and works toward cultural, social and economic equity for Indigenous women.

The focus of AWIM was getting Indigenous women training and jobs in the mining industry.

Now, the program is expanding into other industries and other job markets, re-branding as Culture, Confidence and Competence Pre Employments Skills Training (CCC).

“It’s breaking down those barriers our women are experiencing in whatever trade they want to be in and providing support for them to succeed,” said Bertha Cormier, president of the Keepers of the Circle board of directors.

Originally started in early 2013, the program has had 676 women go through the program and 76 per cent have found work in the industries they’ve trained for, said Cormier.

She also said the program is growing slowly to ensure the companies and industries they’re working in are creating safe workplaces for Indigenous women as well.

“While we’re building those partnerships, we’re making sure they understand the trauma these women have been through and culturally sensitive work is being done,” said Cormier.

Niles said that while she’s taken a few different routes through her career, from the mining sector to security to her stand-up comedy work with Got Land?, the lessons she learned in the program have served her well.

“The things they showed me about contract work still apply now,” she said. “I am an entrepreneur now, and they helped me get the confidence to do this.”

The lessons also helped her through cultural learning.

“They teach us a lot about what our job would be as advocates for the land as well,” said Niles. “I don’t think I would have come out of the program without the cultural roots in the lessons.”

Niles’ family is both Indigenous and Black and she said she didn’t have a lot of connection to her Mi'kmaq roots before the course.

She said the community took her in, and the connections lasted, even as the mining sector jobs dried up in the mid-2010s.

“There weren’t any jobs available there, because gold fell through but they asked us, what do you want to do? We’re not going to leave you high and dry,” she said.

She received her security license with the program's help and went back to Ottawa to work as a licensed security guard.

“I got out of debt, I got into college, I got my life back, my independence, I turned my life around,” said Niles, who is working as a job coach with the program on top of her other ventures. "I wouldn't be where I am without Keepers."

The CCC program lasts for eight weeks with units on career exploration, personal wellness and development, and sector-specific training.

The program also helps participants access other certifications that might be needed on their path forward in their careers.

“We’re reaching out to build those partnerships in the trades so women have access to red seal trade apprenticeships too,” said Cormier. “We’re looking at entrepreneurship, welding, skilled trades, whatever the women are interested in doing.”

The program is offered online and in-person through Keepers of the Circle, and applications are available on the website.

Amanda Rabski-McColl, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, TimminsToday.com