By Corry Anderson-Fennell – BCBT Communications Director

When Angeline Camille decided to become an electrician, one of the first people she told about her new career path was her grandmother.

Grandma had some sage words of advice for her granddaughter: “Always respect yourself, respect the job and respect the people you work with, even when they act like a horse’s butt!”

Camille has never forgotten her grandmother’s advice, and it’s served her well in the 20 years since that first day when she enrolled in a “try a trade” program at  Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops. Camille ultimately opted for the electrical program because it didn’t have a year-long waiting list.

“When I started in trade school, I was the only First Nations woman taking electrical in the six different classes that were running at that time, and the only woman in  the four different welding classes that were also going on at the same time,” recalled Camille, who was born and raised on the TK’eml’ups te Secmepmc First Nations’ land.

With women making up less than five per cent of the skilled construction workforce in B.C., they are accustomed to being “first” or “only” in a classroom or on a job site. But there is hope that’s starting to change with the establishment of programs like the BC Centre for Women in the Trades (BCCWITT), Build TogetHER: Women of the Building Trades, and a multitude of other programs and incentives for women to enter and advance in this sector.

The latest figures from the Industry Training Authority provide some measure of success for Building Trades unions. The ITA’s July 2019 quarterly report shows local union training schools exceeding – and in some cases doubling – the provincial average for women in the trades. According to the report, 12 per cent of the apprentices registered to the District Council 38 Joint Trade Society are women. Furthermore, nine per cent of DC 38’s apprentices are Indigenous, compared to 5.9 per cent in the B.C. population.

Meanwhile, 12 per cent of the apprentices registered through the Electrical Joint Training Committee of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 213, are women, and eight per cent are Indigenous. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 1598, with the BC Regional Council of Carpenters, has nine per cent women apprentices and 10 per cent Indigenous apprentices.

And Camille’s own union, IBEW Local 993, has a whopping 20 per cent women apprentices, which is four times the provincial average. But women aren’t only advancing in the trades as apprentices; they are taking on roles as union leaders, too.

Camille is her union’s Indigenous liaison and an organizer, responsible for various aspects of membership development.

Organizing is also part of KC Newman’s job with Ironworkers Local 97. As a business agent, she does everything from recruitment and organizing to letting members know about training and apprenticeship opportunities. Though she experienced plenty of harassment on the job throughout her career, Newman describes her path as “easy, compared to some,” referring to the stories she hears from other women ironworkers, now that she’s in a job that puts her in contact with women much more frequently.

“I see the harassment and bullying of my ironworker sisters much more now that I work in the union hall,” says Newman. “And it makes me both angry and sad to see these fantastic and skilled women being treated like this. So I’m very proud to see that my sisters continue to go to work and do what they love, and fight for the respect they deserve.”

IBEW Local 213 electrician Lisa Langevin is an assistant business manager with her union. In addition to negotiating collective agreements and managing member grievances, she’s also heavily engaged in the sector as an advocate of the skilled trades overall and tradeswomen in particular, sitting on the ITA board of directors and the governance committee of BCCWITT, among other roles.

She describes her journey: “With the support of my union, I began doing more advocacy for women in trades. The advocacy led to lobbying the provincial government, and we were given funding to do some research on the barriers to women in trades. I negotiated the union hiring me directly and contracting me out to do the work.”

Langevin is also president of the BC Tradeswomen Society.

Over at the BC Regional Council of Carpenters, there doesn’t seem to be a hat – or a toolbelt – that Kristine Byers doesn’t wear. Byers is a BCRCC representative, recruiter and instructor. Her work includes signing up and dispatching new members, engaging with community and employer organizations to promote the skilled trades, assisting shop stewards with job site issues, participating on panels and focus groups about the skilled trades and teaching the introduction to carpentry class at the affiliated UA Piping Industry College of B.C.

“It is not a nine-to-five, 40-hour-a week kind of job,” Byers confides. “But when you are able to accommodate or help that one person who has been struggling, it all seems worth it.”

Byers is on the executive of Build TogetHER, the women’s committee of the BC Building Trades. She and Sheet Metal Local 280’s Chelsea Blanchard recently gave a presentation on opportunities in the trades to women inmates at Fraser Valley Institution. Byers says that’s the best thing about her job: helping inspire and bring new people into the trades.