Game-Changers in Their Own Rite
There’s no dearth of clichés when it comes to the world wanting to make women believe that equality and equity exist for them, especially in professional circles.
The truth, even as we near the end of 2021, remains the opposite. So instead of highlighting the wage disparity — women still make 89 cents to a dollar men make, according to a 2018 Stats Canada report — or that the pandemic has exacerbated this, and many other socio-economic factors for women, who now have to choose between their families, and careers — not an easy choice for many — let’s introduce you to game-changers from a variety of industries who are staring the glass ceiling down, daily.
A well-known business leader, Nicole has been a local resident for 40 years. She is a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation and is the Chief Executive Officer/Co-owner of Bouchier, a leading national Indigenous and integrated site services business based in Fort McKay. After she joined Bouchier in 2004, the company grew from only 10 employees to 1,100 during peak season. And, over 400 pieces of equipment carry the company’s integrated site support services across the region.
Nicole’s business acumen, leadership skills, as well as community support has garnered her numerous national, provincial and local awards which could be an entire story unto itself. She has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Regional Aboriginal Recognition Awards (RARA) in 2016, the 2019 Indigenous Women in Leadership Award, the Esquao Award for Business from the Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women, The Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business 2019 Indigenous Women in Leadership Award, and was named a Woman of Inspiration by Girls Inc., of Northern Alberta, to name a few.
Currently, Nicole is a director on the Indspire board, an organization dedicated to Indigenous Education and serves as a Director on the Wood Buffalo 2023 Arctic Winter Games Board.
She was also the first woman president of the Northeastern Alberta Aboriginal Business Association (NAABA) and a former member of the Alberta First Nation Women’s Economic Security Council. When asked how she feels women leaders in industry have added to the success of our region? Nicole shares, “As we often see Wood Buffalo paving the path for many initiatives in Canada, females in less traditional roles has been a definite highlight specifically directly with the owner companies themselves. This leadership encourages all other businesses to set new objectives for female leadership within their respective organizations.”
Indeed, Nicole is one of our leading trailblazers.
An advocate of diversity and inclusion, Samra is a familiar local name. Whether it’s volunteering, or advocating for social justice issues, in particular, Islamophobia, Samra is a go-to community leader. She moved to town in 2007 and is a Director with the Government of Alberta’s (GoA) Ministry of Community and Social Services. She has been working with the GoA for over 10 years, providing leadership to diverse teams with oversight for the delivery of social programs and services across Northeast Alberta covering many regions.
“Our mandate is to ensure that Albertans can participate in their communities through employment and other opportunities to reach their individual potential, that Alberta’s communities provide a sense of belonging and foster resiliency for individuals and families and that Albertans are safe and have timely and consistent access to supports to meet their basic needs,” explains Samra, a Pakistani-Canadian.
As aforementioned, Samra is an avid volunteer. She sat on the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo’s (RMWB) Landlord and Tenant Advisory Board, is active with Markaz ul Islam, the local Islamic Centre, is one of the founding members of Collaboration for Religious Inclusion which is a consortium of faith/non-faith groups coming together to build a more inclusive community, which saw the group undertake important campaigns “with support from the RMWB and Alberta Human Rights Commission such as an assessment within the region to see how inclusive we are in terms of understanding of different faiths and perceptions about different groups and their beliefs. We have made recommendations to Council coming out of the needs assessment and were able to implement quiet spaces in various public spaces including the airport, and various awareness initiatives such as conversation café’s on discrimination.”
Her efforts were recognized in 2017 when she was inducted into the Girls Inc., of Northern Alberta’s Women of Inspiration series, and also named to the coveted YMM Magazine Top 50 Under 50 list.
A local resident for the last 26 years, Melanie is a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, an Indigenous business leader from Fort Chipewyan. As she completed the Aboriginal Entrepreneurship Program at Keyano College, she co-founded Antoine’s Pump and Equipment Maintenance (APE), one of the region’s leading industrial maintenance providers, along with her husband.
“The program mentored me into developing the company. My husband was a Millwright so we decided to do something together that we knew, which was trades in the oil and gas business,” recalls Melanie, the Chief Executive Officer for APE.
The duo began with one Millwright in 2008 and has since expanded to provide a variety of mechanical services to this region recently adding a 20,000 sq. ft. shop with two overhead cranes that enhance their services within the region.
“On top of the mechanical services we also expanded to offer freight services via barge along the Athabasca River to Fort Chipewyan which helps the community bring much-needed supplies during the summer months,” adds Melanie.
Melanie has volunteered for several local boards. She is a past chair for the Northern Lights Health Foundation (NLHF), has been on the NAABA board; currently volunteering on the Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development & Tourism board. Melanie and her team were integral in bringing the NLHF’s Festival of trees to Fort Chipewyan in 2018, and are hoping to bring it back this year if possible.
Last year she received the Heart of Wood Buffalo Citizen of the Year award. In 2019, she was awarded the Resource Leadership Award from the Alberta Chamber of Resources. And, has received multiple RARAs over the years.
“Women in industry continue to break barriers and I am positive that women will continue to break barriers throughout the years,” she enthuses.
Speaking of breaking barriers, Patricia, an Electrical Instructor in Keyano College’s Trades department is doing just that. One of the few women in this male-dominated field, Patricia began her electrical career in Calgary, and moved back to McMurray permanently in 2000 (she has been in town since 1981) to work for the oil sands. She completed the last two years of technical training at Keyano and became a Red Seal Journeyman Electrician in 2002.
At just over five feet tall, Patricia remembers always wanting to be an electrician, but being told by her high school guidance counsellor that she was “too small, and this was more of a man’s job.” But, she persevered and became an electrician.
“I remember walking onto a job sites and every head turning my way, not only was I female, I was just over 5 feet, and very often the only woman on site. Inside I was nervous, I felt like I had to prove to the world that I deserved to be there just as much as anyone else. I also still had that feeling inside that I wasn’t as good as a man, so I told myself I had to work harder.”
With time things got better, and more women entered the field.
“I was no longer the only woman on job sites. Companies were even starting to supply female portable toilets, for me this was huge, I was so grateful,” enthuses Patricia.
She joined Keyano in 2014 when an apprentice suggested she become an instructor.
“Working at Keyano has been a great experience. We have six instructors in the electrical department, two of us are women. We are all treated as equals. This is my little work family; I respect them all so much and I feel that same respect from all of them…which is a great environment for our female students, who can see they are on equal footing.”
Last year, during the 100-year-flood, Patricia volunteered for over seven hours daily to help restore power to several homes.
Breaking barriers with service, now that’s a leader.
At 16, Manorama is our youngest game-changer. Her resume, however, rivals that of adults twice her age. Born and raised in McMurray, Manorama is in grade 12 at Westwood Community High School. A leader both in school and in the community, she won the prestigious Heart of Wood Buffalo Youth Award this July. And, is heavily involved with computing, Robotics, and promoting coding among girls.
Manorama has been with the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council (MACOY) for the last two years, is the Financial Director for YouthComputing, a student-led group connecting students with technology. A poet, dancer, and a painter, she is the Marketing Director for Queens in Code, an all-girls STEM Westwood group, to name a few highlights.
Her passion for Robotics goes back to elementary school.
“My curiosity and passion for Robotics started at 10 in Walter and Gladys Hill Public School (WGH). Since then I have competed at local/provincial competitions and have also mentored girls for elementary school teams. Most recently, I was in charge of the Engineering Design Notebook for the Westwood Robotics team, which means recording the robot creating progress,” shares Manorama.
As the lead designer for the Engineering Notebook, she was one of the main reasons for the Design Award win at the regional Robotics competition in 2019. She advises girls to stay the course and to not be intimidated by the Robotics/tech fields still being male-dominated.
“I want girls to stick true to their desires. We are often swayed by our surroundings, and media, in particular, then things become overwhelming. If they find happiness, and satisfaction in what they are doing — I say go for it! Doing things makes you strong. The only limit truly is yourself and once you start towards what you want, anyone is unstoppable.”
Unstoppable describes Manorama. She thanks her teachers for their support over the years.
“I have come across many amazing women leaders, who inspired me during school. Annalee Nutter (then WGH Principal) was an amazing mentor. She was always kind and encouraging. Cynthia Shelley, my current Principal, helps me power through high school successfully through her insights.”
What a good segue to Annalee. The current Associate Superintendent, Education & Administration at the Fort McMurray Public School Division (FMPSD), Annalee is a known name across the region when it comes to advocating for student success, multiculturalism, Indigenous causes, environment and more.
She moved to McMurray in 2002 to start as a teacher, helped open Walter and Gladys Hill Public School (WGH) as Principal in 2014 and has been in her current position for three years. During her tenure at WGH she forged multiple partnerships for FMPSD such as starting a Cricket Club, launching a Confucius Classroom, working with the Chinese Canadian Society, and intergenerational programs with Rotary House seniors, to name a few.
“We housed the Multicultural Association in our school and educated staff with cultural awareness training, as well as providing native language speakers for our language programs – where we offered 5 languages –a first for FMPSD,” notes Annalee.
As Assistant Superintendent, Annalee helped develop partnerships with local Indigenous organizations and helped establish the Division’s first-ever land-based learning camp. This June FMPSD launched the first Elders’ Council – another initiative Annalee helped oversee.
She received the Distinguished Leadership Award in May 2013 from The Canadian Association of Principals, an RMWB Citizen Recognition Award in 2019, and many FMPSD accolades. She has been on the Girls Inc., of Northern Alberta’s board as treasurer since 2008; volunteers annually for the Festival of Trees. And, regularly volunteers for the Food Bank, in addition to the Special Olympics and many more programs.
“Women are breaking barriers more frequently now, and our numbers in leadership have grown over the last few years. As this happens, we are seeing other women become more encouraged to take on such roles and every one of these women becomes a role model to other women and girls. Truly, if this continues, we will all be able to influence the future of gender equality. As of right now, we still have a long way to go, but I am proud to sit with many women leaders at FMPSD, in the community and in the province.”
Michelle will always be known for being on the team that brought us TEDxFort McMurray. The Maintenance Coordinator for Suncor moved to town in 2006, and has been with the company for over 10 years with roles in Maintenance, Operations, Turnaround and Health/Safety.
“I have had a few positions now where I was the first woman to hold the title. So, I think that comes with a level of subtle change that shows other women with similar backgrounds that there is room for them at the table. It’s never been easy, but it’s always been worth it, and I hope that the women watching can see that.”
In 2011 Michelle was voted valedictorian of her Leadership Wood Buffalo (LWB) class. That one gesture, she recalls, brought out the community leader in her. In fact, it was her LWB group that pitched the idea for TEDxFortMcMurray, inspired by their community case study.
“We recognized early on that we shared a common love for this community, and at a time when the external noise was less than favourable, we wanted to give fellow residents an opportunity to tell the world what they loved about this region. We went on to run three events with a reach of over 30,000 people,” Michelle notes.
Speaking of reach, she has volunteered for many groups/events over the last decade like the Northern Kick Off, Alberta Winter Games, and the Regional Recreation Corporation board. She is a current Vice-Chair for the Boys and Girls Club board.
Finally, Michelle adds, “being a woman in industry is hard, no matter what your title. In fact, being a woman today is hard, no matter what you do. And the only way it will get easier is for women and our allies to be better, and to be better to each other. Today’s societal culture is so quick to shame and cancel each other instead of help each other grow; how will we ever change if we are too afraid to fail?”
The Executive Director of the Northeastern Alberta Aboriginal Business Association (NAABA), Michelle joined the organization in February 2020, three weeks before COVID changed the world. This saw her navigating the group through the pandemic, move to a new headquarter downtown, and dealing with the 100-year-flood impacts on the community, as well as move events online.
“One of the biggest changes and I believe biggest success in the past year was shifting our Annual Aboriginal Business Showcase to an online platform. Through the virtual platform, we were able to have registrants from six provinces. Also to lend to the organization’s success we are currently undergoing a membership-wide engagement to find out what services and supports members most need to best position their businesses to continue succeeding. Through funding from Prairies Economic Development, The Government of Alberta and Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo Economic Development and Tourism we are implementing a shared services project that will be built with insight from members for members,” explains Michelle.
The move to NAABA was not only a job change for her but also an “industry” one as her previous work experience has been focused on sport. She was the general manager of the 2018 Alberta Winter Games held locally. The event saw over 2000 volunteers and was successfully delivered under budget.
“The Games planning started shortly after the fire of 2016 so it was a true community reunification and celebration and a proud moment. Additionally, the grand opening of the Syncrude Sport & Wellness Centre (at Keyano) is a career highlight. The Centre continues to play a large role in my personal life.”
Michelle currently serves on the Board of the 2023 Arctic Winter Games.
“There is no shortage of female role models and leaders in our community. In a region and an industry that has been traditionally male-dominated, I think that Fort McMurray has recognized that the strong female leaders in our community bring a different perspective to the table, which allows for a better global perspective of the world.”
Local, provincial, national and global reach – our game-changers, definitely breaking barriers daily.
Kiran Malik-Khan is a national award-winning communications specialist, freelance journalist, and social media consultant. She loves telling community stories, and is a strong advocate for inclusion, diversity, women’s rights, and multiculturalism. Got story ideas? Contact her via Twitter: @KiranMK0822.