KAPUSKASING — Rosane Parent was just 18 years old when she first jumped behind the wheel of a transport truck as a driver her family's Kapuskasing trucking company.
Pulled up at a truck stop while en route to a delivery one day, she was awaiting some fellow drivers to join her for lunch when she was accosted by a man who made it clear he didn’t think she was cut out for the job.
First he suggested the truck belonged to her husband or boyfriend; then he accused her of stealing it.
Parent was left reeling when the man launched into an angry tirade denouncing women who thought they were “better” than men and stealing their jobs.
“I’m sitting there as a young kid going, ‘Whoa’. This is the first time I really felt that I was (singled out as) a woman,” Parent recalled.
“How do I defend myself, and why should I? And all of these questions are going a mile a minute while you're trying to figure out, am I safe? Am I physically safe? Because he seems upset.”
The moment passed, and Parent was able to leave the situation safely, but it wasn’t the last time she would come up against resistance to the idea of women working in industries that had traditionally employed only men.
Since those early years, Parent has transitioned to a different career path, currently serving as project management officer with Maurice Welding, a welding and fabrication shop with locations in Kapuskasing and Hearst.
She’s certified as a welding supervisor by the Canadian Welding Bureau (CWB) and as a coating inspector by the National Association of Corrosion Engineers (currently the Association for Materials Protection and Performance).
Inspired, in part, by her personal experience, she’s become a vocal proponent of gender diversity in the skilled trades, and an advocate for more training and programming catered to women and, in particular, Indigenous women.
With Canada’s skilled trades worker crisis deepening — Statistics Canada is projecting 700,000 will retire between 2019 and 2028 — Parent believes bringing more women into the trades has never been more needed. But challenges remain.
“(Women are) an undervalued resource in our trades,” she said.
“There’s still so much work to do, because we’re still operating under pretty much a command-and-control industry when it comes to trades, and when it comes to leadership, because a lot of it is still the old boys’ network.”
Too often, she said, women feel pressure to work twice as hard as their male counterparts to prove they deserve to be on the job, while simultaneously dealing with on-site challenges like harassment or a lack of access to amenities, as well as personal challenges related to childcare and family obligations.
Indigenous women face additional scrutiny when they choose to follow cultural practices that value family, leisure time, and a more balanced life, Parent said.
Yet industry is changing.
A desperate need for skilled trades workers combined with a changing societal attitude prioritizing work-life balance means that the power structure is shifting in favour of workers, Parent said.
Companies who want to succeed will have to adjust their priorities, invest more time and money in training, and set the tone for a welcoming work environment, she said.
Parent believes that responsibility lies with senior levels of management.
“If they don’t understand that, they’re going to be left in the dust,” she said. “Your cost of training a new employee every three months is a lot more than being able to pay an employee their own worth.
“If we can get owners to understand that a happy employee that is loyal and stays with you for five-plus years will cost you less than training somebody new all the time, then we can do something with that wage gap that we’re dealing with.”
For her part, Parent has been instrumental in organizing a series of sector-specific training programs that help get young women into the workforce.
In 2019, welding students at Kapuskasing District High School took part in a training and mentorship program that taught them enhanced welding protocols in preparation for certification.
That year, one of the students earned two welding tickets, marking the first time locally a female had qualified.
A year later, in partnership with Collège Boréal, an Indigenous Women in Welding program offered students training, mentorship, and hands-on practical experience. From that program, seven out of the eight students graduated.
Three of those graduates stayed on at Maurice Welding to continue their training, and one is now a ticketed, high-pressure welder.
These programs have largely been one-offs, but to see lasting change, Parent believes industry as a whole needs to shift its approach to training.
That means more mentorship for women that supports them from their schooling to their apprenticeship through to their roles in the workplace.
“I still am of the thought that we need to go one-on-one,” said Parent, who served more than a decade as a director for the board of the Kapuskasing Indian Friendship Centre.
“You need to pair up some of our Indigenous women who have the qualities to work in a certain trade with an experienced worker in that trade, male or female, to show them and move them forward.”
Parent is currently in the process of establishing her own consulting firm, Running Wolf Industries, which would help companies, big and small, navigate some of these challenges.
She sees it as her legacy to make it easier for future generations of women to find meaningful work in the skilled trades.
“I want to be able to use all the tools that I’ve gained through employment and all of the insight, so that we can teach this to people in industry,” she said.
“Not just help them out with their TSSA (Technical Standards & Safety Authority) portfolios or CWB portfolios, but also how to hire and manage women and Indigenous women so that they can become productive employees, long-term, loyal, for industry. Because I”m so passionate about it, that’s where I want to go.”