FLIN FLON -- As northern Manitoba gears up for a mining-fuelled resurgence, an obvious question emerges. With two new mines opening and others contemplated, where will all of the workers come from?
Part of the answer, both First Nations and mining companies hope, lies in a generation of young aboriginals eager to take their place in the labour market.
Enter the Resource Rangers. This summer, the program, sponsored by Vale of Thompson and Hudbay of Flin Flon, among other organizations, gave 25 teens and young adults from across the north a taste of the mineral sector.
"There's so much mining activity happening up in the north right now, and it's kind of like a little boom," says Allison Gamblin, a program supervisor. "They're expecting it to create a lot of jobs, so the focus is to get the people involved from the (northern) communities. Instead of having to bring them from other places, let's train our own people."
Throughout four weeks, the Rangers saw first-hand how mining and its associated industries function. They toured Vale and Hudbay sites, including the latter's massive still-in-development Lalor Mine near Snow Lake.
They also visited exploration camps and gained hands-on experience with activities such as prospecting and mineral sampling.
The Rangers split almost evenly into two groups, with one staying at a camp at Liz Lake near Thompson and another at Egg Lake outside Flin Flon.
Brent Pronteau, a bright, genial 16-year-old from Pukatawagan, came to the program unaware of the many different careers accessible in mining.
"I thought it was just like underground (work), basically," he says.
Now that he knows otherwise, Pronteau, a strong science student, hopes to one day work in the chemistry side of mining.
Cormorant's Laura Knutson, 16, had been pondering life as a veterinarian but now plans to operate underground machinery.
"It's different than (any other career) I've ever thought of," she says.
Unlike last year, when the Rangers divvied their time among forestry, hydro, conservation and mining, this summer's focus was on mining.
That suited Jeremy Fenner, 18, of The Pas just fine.
"Geophysicist sounds pretty good," he says when asked about his career ambition.
Fenner, who earned a prospector's licence this summer, loves the idea of working in the wilderness and potentially travelling to other countries. And the money's not so bad, either.
Of course, the mining industry and First Nations don't always have a harmonious relationship, as evidenced by the territorial disputes that frequently grab headlines.
But Pronteau believes programs such as the Rangers go a long way toward mending those fences.
"It's great for young people to see what the mine does because some communities are not letting mining companies come into their area (even though it) would be great for youth to be working with mining companies," he says. "Because from what I hear, it's hard to get people from south to come work up north."
Having wrapped up their fourth year with graduation ceremonies last week, the Rangers are forging a solid reputation throughout the north as another tool to solve the socio-economic tribulations plaguing First Nations communities.
Over the years, the Rangers have arrived from far-flung reserves, from St. Theresa Point and Oxford House to Norway House and God's Lake. They have also come from the north's three major centres -- Thompson, The Pas and Flin Flon.
That's all good news for Hudbay, which is preparing to open its Lalor and Reed mines near Snow Lake, and Vale, which may ramp up underground activity in Thompson. All the while, junior miners are frantically scouring the north for the next big find.
For Pronteau, being a Resource Ranger has brought benefits beyond mere career preparation.
"It's great for character-building and confidence," he says.
So was Pronteau lacking in those areas beforehand?
"Just a little," he says with a laugh.
Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.