After a decade of exploration and financing, new mines in B.C. are set to open over the next three years.
But as the promise of hundreds or even thousands of jobs emerges, concerns persist that labour shortages, particularly among young people, will hamper development.
Now a partnership of government and B.C.'s mining industry is working to put First Nations people on the job in remote areas and in mines closer to home.
James Isaac Jr. is a Tk'emlups Indian Band member who's worked in banking and education. Now he's among the first people enrolled with the B.C. Aboriginal Mine Training Association program to find native workers for a growing industry.
"I thought a change would be great," said Isaac Jr., who last year was employed as a special education worker with Lower Nicola Indian Band and now works at New Afton.
Laurie Sterritt, executive director of the B.C. Aboriginal Mine Training Association, said five mines have committed to placing 148 workers over three years in the program. The federal government committed $4.4 million while the industry partners will pay more than $22 million into the program.
"I anticipate we'll have a high rate of placement," said Sterrit. "One hundred and forty-eight (jobs) is our commitment for 20 months. Based on other ACEPs (aboriginal skills and employment programs) and the success rate I anticipate we'll be higher."
Locally, both New Afton and Highland Valley Copper are part of the program. Thompson Rivers University is also developing training that can be used for other mine training opportunities as the industry ramps up in B.C. to satisfy global demand for commodities like gold and copper.
James already had a friend working at New Afton mine just outside Kamloops. He had also heard about a deal between owner New Gold Corp. and the Tk'emlups and Skeetchestn Indian Bands for resource sharing and jobs for the project on their traditional territory.
He decided to work in the warehousing side. Through the training association and its partnership with TRU, he'll enrol in a journeyman warehousing trade while he works at New Afton for the next four years.
Sterritt said the program is designed to train a wide range of First Nations workers, including those like Isaac Jr. with a solid educational and work background. Some already have red seal trades certification while others need extensive help.
Leonard Jackson is a program coach based in Kamloops with BCAMTA. He estimates he's received 200-300 applications so far from aboriginal workers wanting help with placements or skills training.
"Everyone is suitable for the process," said Jackson, who assesses workers and decides where to upgrade training and how to place them.
"Many start in different stages. That's based on education and qualifications."
The association is expanding to add an office in Northern B.C. to service mines there. It is also working with TRU, British Columbia Institute of Technology and Northwest Community College on training.
In addition to work underground, jobs are anticipated in heavy equipment for open pit mines as well as in offices.
The association will also work with bands to fund training together for tuition or living expenses while in school, for example.
Jackson's role as program coach extends beyond training and job placement. He's also there to help workers if they struggle.
"If something goes off the rails the coach acts as a translator between human resources and the employee," said Sterritt. "Sometimes there's cultural issues a person wouldn't feel comfortable talking about the in workplace."
There are a handful of workers like Isaac Jr. placed already at New Afton and Highland Valley Copper. The local office is working to screen and assess other candidates and on a training curriculum that can be delivered at B.C. colleges.
© Kamloops Daily News