YELLOWKNIFE, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES - Heather MacKenzie is a trail-blazer.
An instrumentation technician who lives in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, but has deep family connections to Morristown, Antigonish County (her father is Beaton MacKenzie from the community), MacKenzie is an integral part of the first all-female mine rescue team, which recently competed in an international competition in Russia.
MacKenzie, who works for Diavik Diamond Mine in the Northwest Territories, noted she was competing for a team representing her company, at the western nationals in Fernie, B.C. last year, when she was approached by one of the judges.
“I was the only female underground competitor and the judge, who was doing the underground scenario, she came up to me after our event, after we completed it, and she said she wanted to talk to me later,” MacKenzie said, in an interview with the Casket Oct. 17.
“I saw her at the banquet and I was asked if I would be interested in participating in an all-female mine rescue team. I was the first true recruit we had for this team and, from that, with just a little bit of word of mouth regarding different women we heard were in mine rescue, from across Canada, we put together a team.”
The team has been nicknamed Diamonds in the Rough and the judge MacKenzie referred to is team co-founder Kari Lentowicz, who has a Master’s in emergency response coordination.
MacKenzie noted the different professions the women come from with connections to mining, such as an underground bolter and a radiation officer, to one who deals with mining safety equipment and another who is a registered nurse.
In Russia - Ekaterinburg, a city located near the Ural Mountains - the team finished 15th overall out of 25 teams, including a fifth place finish in the underground search event, and picked up a couple of awards.
“It went exceptionally well,” MacKenzie said of the competition.
“We won the People’s Choice top team and also a special award in commemoration of our influence on mine rescue and us being the first all-female team.”
She added the results were especially pleasing since their team only had four days of practice before heading to Russia.
“It’s the top two teams from the countries, which participate, at the internationals,” she said of the event, officially titled the Worldwide Mines Rescue Competition.
“And with a lot of these countries, their teams are militia and are full-time mine rescuers. For us, it’s all volunteer, and we had only met for 10 days the month prior to competing [in Saskatoon] and had only spent four days, with the final team chosen, to practice. So our fifth time ever doing a scenario was the international competition.”
MacKenzie said the team garnered a lot of respect from their fellow competitors, including from countries where it’s actually illegal for women to even work underground.
“A lot of the countries that we competed against; Zambia, China, Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Slovakia, it’s illegal for women to work underground so there are no women who do mine rescue,” she said, noting it was “eye-opening” for these men to see the all-female team from Canada.
“We had some of the other competitors come up to us and say how they were going home and were going to tell their daughters they met women who do what they do, and do it very well,” MacKenzie, who captained the Diamonds in the Rough in the underground and firefighting events at the internationals, said.
“It was really great to have that reception and end the competition on such a high note, having received that respect from our colleagues.”
She talked about the previous international competition, in 2016 in Sudbury, Ontario, and female participation at that time.
“Three per cent of competitors [in Sudbury] were female; with our team and two women from Columbia, in Russia, we doubled those numbers,” she said, noting the international competition is held bi-annually and, in the opposite years, participating countries holds their national competition.
MacKenzie talked about having the opportunity to meet and join with other women across Canada who share her passion for mine rescue.
“There really aren’t many in my area, so it was great that we could come together to prove that not only can we compete at an international level, but also gain the respect of the competitors we are up against,” she said.
Diamonds in the Rough has registered as a non-profit organization for the purpose of not only raising funds to help them compete, but to promote jobs in their fields which have been seen as traditional male roles.
“We would like to put on training courses in the future with women who are in mine rescue and with young women throughout Canada to promote these traditional male dominant roles,” MacKenzie said.
“Just approaching different groups, like the Girl Guides, going in and talking to them about what we do and the possibilities it can open up.”