Apprentices Matthew Sheena and Wakenniosta Cooper at the Electrical Joint Training Committee facility. (Brian Howell)

Apprentices Matthew Sheena and Wakenniosta Cooper at the Electrical Joint Training Committee facility. (Brian Howell)

February 29, 2024

SOME OF WAKENNIOSTA COOPER’S earliest memories are hiding behind her grandma’s living room couch doing puzzles.

“I’ve been doing puzzles since I was a kid … it was one of my favourite things to do,” Cooper said. “I’ve always liked problem solving and I really like math, too.”

At the same time, her stepdad, an ironworker, kept her busy around the house, “doing work, whether it was tearing up floors or just painting or just building things.”

“I think he was preparing me and I didn’t know,” Cooper said with a laugh.

And as she finishes four years of schooling, among the first ever all-Indigenous apprenticeship class with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 213 (IBEW 213), it appears her stepdad’s covert training and her years of puzzle practice have paid off.

Since starting as an apprentice, Cooper won apprentice of the year at her company in 2021. She also won silver for electrical wiring in the Skills Canada provincial competition in B.C. earlier this year.

“Which was pretty exciting, because I practice lots,” she said. “That was fun.”

Cooper and fellow graduate Matthew Sheena agree that part of the draw to electrical work is its problem-solving aspect.

“Electrical is challenging for several reasons because a lot of it is … thinking quickly on your feet, and a lot of the tasks every day [are] a new challenge and a new thought process,” Sheena said.

Both Sheena and Cooper came into the Electrical Joint Training Committee (EJTC) after leaving significantly different programs in university.

For Sheena, it was a program in resource management where he was training to become either a conservation officer or fisheries inspector.

After leaving that program and coming back to Vancouver, Sheena said a family friend mentioned the Aboriginal Community Career Employment Services Society (ACCESS) program that sponsored the IBEW 213 cohort. So he applied for the program, originally hoping to become a welder.

“When I went in there for an interview … the lady actually suggested that I be an electrician instead,” Sheena said, and he followed her advice.

It turns out she was right. “I definitely picked the right trade,” he said. “One-hundred per cent.”

In Cooper’s case, she left a bachelor of science program after which she was planning to become a veterinarian.

“I was dead set on being a vet. But I actually ended up working at a vet for about a year, and I volunteered as a vet in high school, and it’s pretty depressing just euthanizing animals,” she said. “I realized after I worked as a vet … I was glad I didn’t become one because I wouldn’t have been able to handle the emotional toll.”

Her stepdad suggested she try a couple of different trades. None of them seemed to fit. But then, there was a breakthrough.

“I talked to a couple of his co-workers who are electricians and they told me it was a really good path to go down,” she said.

In retrospect, despite her early focus on becoming a vet, electrical work feels like a more natural culmination of her experiences with her stepdad, her interest in math and her childhood love of puzzles. Today, she still turns to those 1,000- piece jigsaw puzzles as a pastime.

“I’m pretty grateful for that,” Cooper says of her stepdad putting her to work early on. “I know some people go into the trades and they’ve never even held a drill before. So I’m pretty grateful that he showed me a lot of these basic skills.”

And she’s happy being kept active in her work: “I don’t think just sitting at a desk would be beneficial for me. I’d probably go a little crazy.”

Living in Vancouver, there’s some distance between both Cooper and Sheena and their families.

Sheena’s family comes from the Upper Nicola Band, a community around Douglas Lake, 50 kilometres east of Merritt, in B.C.’s southern interior.

Despite the distance from family, Sheena said he’s made new and meaningful connections in Metro Vancouver.

“I kind of made myself a home here and the people here that I met, like the Native Peoples here that I’ve met, are akin to my family as well,” he says.

Cooper, who is Mohawk and Seneca, is much more physically distant from her community. She came to Vancouver after growing up in Kanehsatake in Quebec. Her parents met there during the Oka Crisis, in which the community faced off against the military to protect their territory from development. But she grew up learning the Kanyen’kehà:ka (Mohawk) language, from which her name translates to “she makes the summer beautiful”. She retains a connection to the language and culture.

While she’s still in touch with her friends back home, it’s not always easy being so far away.

“I really liked having a class full of Indigenous kids,” she said. “It provided a sense of community that I hadn’t felt in a really long time, since I moved out here … It’s nice to get that connection back. We all have very funny senses of humour and we all just get each other, where we’re coming from.”

The Indigenous cohort got its start in 2017 to bring more Indigenous people to the EJTC and IBEW 213. EJTC managing director Phil Davis said they decided to expand it while building on previous attempts to bring more Indigenous students into the trade.

Those included designing, with BC Building Trades’ partner program SkillPlan, an eight-week entry course to help bridge knowledge gaps particularly in math and science, areas where many have struggled to meet requirements for entry, and to prepare participants for apprenticeships.

“The curriculum was developed around the specific needs of folks who may not have our pre-requisites,” said Jim Lofty, IBEW 213’s business manager. “A lot of Indigenous youth may only have a Grade 10 math and science foundation, oftentimes due to socioeconomic circumstances or their geographic location.” Cooper and Sheena have made incredible strides toward an excellent career in the unionized trades. But their work is far from over.

Both have plenty of hours left to complete their 7,300-hour apprenticeships. But for these two tradespeople, pursuing the goal of becoming an electrician is much more than a rewarding career path. For them, the trade has become a community and a calling.

By Dustin Godfrey