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Mining academy equips students with high-tech know-how

'Hands-on applied learning'

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Samantha Sewap, Clinton Crate and Dallas Mihalicz are classmates in the Exploration Technician program at the University College of the North’s Northern Manitoba Mining Academy, which opened one year ago in downtown Flin Flon

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Samantha Sewap, Clinton Crate and Dallas Mihalicz are classmates in the Exploration Technician program at the University College of the North’s Northern Manitoba Mining Academy, which opened one year ago in downtown Flin Flon Photo Store

FLIN FLON -- No, a pickaxe isn't on the list of school supplies.

Not like when Dallas Mihalicz's forebears went down into the mines.

The 18-year-old from Flin Flon wants to follow them, but she'd be operating with sophisticated technology or working the controls of a 50-ton loader two kilometres below the rugged Canadian Shield.

Though, more likely, Mihalicz wouldn't get near the underground until she'd put in her time working on the frozen tundra at an exploration camp searching for the next motherlode.

"I've been growing up around mining, my father, grandpa, uncle. My dad's a geologist," said Mihalicz, who graduated from Flin Flon's Hapnot Collegiate in June.

Most of her current 11 classmates took far more circuitous routes to University College of the North's Northern Manitoba Mining Academy, which opened only a year ago in downtown Flin Flon, next door to the hospital and practically in the shadow of the HudBay Minerals mine.

UCN president Konrad Jonasson hopes to see more such academies built throughout the north to teach northerners the specific skills the northern economy needs.

Serendipity ruled in creating the mining school, said executive director Rob Penner.

When the smelter closed at the HudBay mine in Flin Flon, the community talked to then-premier Gary Doer about future projects. Meanwhile, University of Manitoba was working on skilled needs, and the feds had their economic action plan.

"There was probably an alignment of the planets you couldn't plan," said Penner.

The mining school has 12 students this term, three of them women. The students range in age from 18 to 30 and come from places such as The Pas, Pukatawagan, Opaskweeyak Cree Nation and Norway House.

Students spend 12 weeks in a classroom, followed by work experience.

"It's training to employment, it's not guaranteed employment. We've got to get (students) ready by the end of December," Penner said.

January is when the exploration season starts -- the frozen tundra and solidified bodies of water make it much easier for exploration teams to get around.

"They don't realize a lot of the work is outdoors," he said.

The academy relies heavily on industry and government for equipment and expertise.

"Everything in the geotech industry is much more high tech," said Alan Vowles, who lectures at the academy when he isn't travelling the world performing high-tech prospecting for HudBay.

Back in the day of manual labour in tight mine shafts, "You could take a guy off the street and teach him in a few days how to do the job. That doesn't happen anymore," Vowles said. "This is hands-on applied learning.

"You learn to use a remote control scoop loader, they're like 50-ton trucks," he said. "There's almost no manual labour anymore. They pull out 1.4 to 1.6 million tons of ore out of that shaft a year."

It now takes 50 people to produce four times as much ore as 300 manual labourers would have done, he added.

Mihalicz's family lived in Snow Lake for 11 years, staying there after the mine shut down and her father had to go to Flin Flon for work.

While some students have band funding at the mining school, Mihalicz's grandfather is covering her $3,500 tuition.

Why is she determined to make it in the mines?

"I was bad. Taking this course, I'm trying to show my parents," Mihalicz said.

"As soon as I leave here (each day), straight to my job (at the pizza joint), until midnight."

Clinton Crate hated to leave behind his son, 11, and daughter, seven, in Norway House Cree Nation to go back to school, but had to seize the opportunity of a good career, with the band covering tuition, accommodation and a living allowance.

"It's hard to leave your children... we have to sacrifice to make it better," said Crate.

He left high school in 1998, Crate said.

"I was in the police, counselling, restorative justice -- it just wasn't for me.

"I've been working with CFS as a support worker, taking youth camping. I grew up with my grandparents. I was fortunate to grow up in the bush."

Thomas Ross from Sandy Bay searched for a career path, but, "Nothing sounded as exciting as this -- I liked to collect rocks."

The mining industry is looking for communicators, he pointed out: "You have to be a good people person. You can't be an angry fellow who's not talkative.

"It's travelling -- that's a good reason right there. I've never been out of Saskatchewan, except for FlinFlon," Ross said.

Samantha Sewap is from Denare Beach, just over the border, and is funded by Northern Career Quest in Saskatchewan. She had already studied forestry in Prince Albert, but, "I have a teenaged daughter, and the city (Prince Albert) was too much for her."

Math comes back pretty easily, she said, though being in class is tougher than just working flat out at a physical job.

"Most of us (the students) have families," Sewap said. "It's a model for my daughter."

Thirty years ago, teachers told local students to shape up or they'd end up in the mine, Penner said. Now, it should be a coveted job, and the industry needs skilled workers.

"Guidance counsellors in the north don't necessarily know about the trades in the north. Most have come through university, they know universities," he said.

But the academy has brought in many school groups trying to raise awareness.

"These are bright young people who are needed," Penner said.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 21, 2013 A8

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