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Billie Jo Barnes wants to be the best heavy equipment operator in the world

Billie Jo Barnes can vividly remember the moment when her interest in operating heavy equipment was sparked.

Billie Jo Barnes took a six-week heavy equipment operators course in Morrisburg, Ont. as part of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association and Baffinland's Qikiqtani Skills and Training for Employment Partnership.
She has operated heavy equipment at the Mary River mine, but she's currently working in a recruitment role for Baffinland. photo courtesy of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association

She was sitting at the dinner table with her husband, Nuialea Kipanik, a Mary River mine employee for several years, and he pushed his peas and carrots around his plate with his fork as he explained how he used the massive equipment to move rock and snow.

"From that, I was like, 'I want to do that. I can do it better than you,'" she recalled, adding that Kipanik has risen to become a site services supervisor. "So all these years I've watched him excel in his job and be proud of him. I just wanted to be part of that world, I guess."

After years of working in human services for various organizations – including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – Barnes enrolled in a six-week heavy equipment operators course, held in Morrisburg, Ont. Shortly after graduating in February 2018, she started work at Baffinland Iron Mines' Mary River site, where she would climb into loaders and rock trucks.

Barnes, 40, is candid in acknowledging the challenges she's faced from some of her male co-workers who have doubted her abilities. She said her approach has been to let her work speak for itself.

"As time goes on, it's getting easier. People are starting to realize, hey, maybe she is my equal. It hasn't been that easy for me here but I still keep coming back," she said. "My dream is to be a loader operator, and probably the best loader operator in the world."
She's eager to get back to operating heavy equipment. Since November, her employer moved her to an Inuit employee engagement coordinator position.

"I kind of help (Baffinland) see what barriers we overcame and to see what was really working well for the Inuit-specific trainees that we had," she explained. "I've been talking to community-level people, trying to entice them to come work for Baffinland and take some training with us."

The work has her travelling to the communities nearest the mine as well as to Iqaluit and Baffinland's head office in Oakville, Ont.

A former Inuksuk high school student who went on to take an advanced management program offered in partnership with Saint Mary's University, Barnes now lives in Ottawa. She gets on a charter at the Mirabel Airport in Montreal, flies to Iqaluit and then directly to the mine to begin her two-week shifts. When working heavy equipment, safety comes first. A pre-operation walk-around of the huge machines is paramount to ensure the loaders and rock trucks are ready for a shift.

"I can move mountains and piles of snow," said Barnes. "Driving away and looking in the rear-view mirror and having perfectly dropped mountains (of ore) on the side where you're supposed to be dumping, I would get satisfaction out of that."

Her eldest son, 21, was also recently hired at the mine and her younger son, 13, is also talking about a career in the industry, she said.

"I have so many cousins who are working here now as well, it's almost like a little family reunion every time I come to site," Barnes said.