Even with matching goggles, work clothing and bright orange safety vest, Genevier Sullivan stands out from her classmates in the BCIT conductors’ course because of her diminutive stature. But she is the first to acknowledge there are other differences: namely, her leadership skills, her gender (she was the only female in the course that trained at the Alberni Pacific Railway last November) and the fact that she is aboriginal, from the Wet’suwet’un Nation near Smithers.
She smiles brightly and speaks proudly about the fact that the Assembly of First Nations sponsored her for the program; she graduated in late 2010.
Sullivan, 28, is not alone as an aboriginal student in the BCIT program: for the first time ever, the post-secondary institution will offer an all-aboriginal conductors’ course. Students arrive in the Alberni Valley and get to work this Saturday, Feb. 12 and they’ll be here until Sunday, Feb. 20.
“This is a very significant practicum for both BCIT and the Industrial Heritage Society because it is the first all-aboriginal conductors course for BCIT, and obviously our first all-aboriginal conductors’ program,” IHS president Kevin Hunter said in an e-mail.
The aboriginal conductors’ course is running simultaneously with another regularly scheduled course, he added; students in the aboriginal program have been in class for about two and a half months and now come to the Alberni Pacific Railway for hands-on training.
“I suspect many people are watching with great interest on how this course progresses,” Hunter said. “There is becoming an increasingly huge emphasis placed on secondary and post-secondary First Nations education and this is a good example of that initiative.”
Sullivan agrees. “I wouldn’t be where I am without the support of the First Nations Employment Centre and Vancouver Aboriginal Skills and Employment Partnership (VanAsep),” she said. “It’s an honour to have them invest in me as a person.”
VanAsep formed more than five years ago with the goal of funding urban native people to enter the construction industry in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics. Part of that program was the advent of a trades centre on the Squamish First Nation, Sullivan explained.
Sullivan has trained in carpentry, first aid, even as a pile driver barge worker. She has worked in a concrete plant supplying concrete for the Skytrain project in Vancouver. “I love working with machinery,” she said. “I seem to understand it.”
She is also deeply involved in her own culture, and participated in the Squamish First Nation community while living in Vancouver. Despite growing up in foster care (“My parents weren’t ready to have kids,” she said) Sullivan is committed as a person of her generation to “break the cycle” of power residential schools still hold on many Aboriginal Peoples.
“Our generation is changing things,” she said. “They take pride in their heritage, which is what our ancestors fought for.”
The Assembly of First Nations sponsorship is one way of embracing that change, she said. “There’s so much opportunity in the Lower Mainland for native people right now; there’s so much training going on, and sponsorship.”
Last year she received an e-mail about sponsorships for the conductor program. She had just spent time hopping trains in Mexico, fueling a passion for railways, and said the offer was too good to refuse.
Sullivan and four others were in the BCIT course in November on scholarships from the Assembly of First Nations. They were part of a group of 11 First Nations students to receive sponsorship (others were financed for January and February of this year).
“The sponsorship was a result of a partnership between Railway Association of Canada, Human Resources Development Canada and the Assembly of First Nations,” said Monica Serbanescu, chief instructor for the railway conductor program at BCIT.
“As we started looking for First Nations students—with the help of the BCIT Aboriginal Office—the word has spread, and bands and aboriginal associations have found out about our program,” she said.
The school was approached by VanAsep and FNES and decided to put together the all-aboriginal class, Serbanescu added.
For Sullivan, her journey continues on a positive track. Both CN and CP Rail expressed interest in hiring her before she had even finished her course and she eventually accepted a position with Canadian National Railway in Prince George. She is now working as a conductor.