Yukon’s first underground miner: Janeane MacGillivray

Yukon Women in Mining This week Yukoners will celebrate one of our most important sectors, where the riches go far beyond the minerals in the ground to the stories that shaped our history, culture and economy.

This week Yukoners will celebrate one of our most important sectors, where the riches go far beyond the minerals in the ground to the stories that shaped our history, culture and economy.

Yukon Mining and Geology Week is a celebration of the pioneers, treasure hunters and adventure seekers who rushed to this northern frontier for gold, silver, copper, platinum, lead and zinc – and while some found it, most found adventure, challenge and a place to call home.

As part of mining week, Yukon Women in Mining is pleased to recognize the remarkable women who blazed a trail and helped to shape an industry that today is valuable, high-tech, safe, environmentally and socially responsible.

In 1975, Yukon was host to three underground mines – United Keno Hill Mines, Carmacks Coal and Whitehorse Copper – and due to the Yukon Mining Safety Ordinance, women were not able to work underground at those mines (“no female person shall be employed in underground work in any mine.”). As far as the industry and government were concerned this was still man’s work and, due in large part to hundreds of years of superstition, it was considered unlucky and dangerous for a woman to step underground.

This would all change by March 1975 when Janeane MacGillivray would apply for a job working underground, and with the help of expeditor Trudy Vanderburg, the Yukon Mining Safety Ordinance was ruled to be unconstitutional, and the Yukon would change opportunities for women to earn fair wages and participate in this vital economy in the territory.

Janeane’s struggle with workplace inequality began long before she ventured north, when she tried to seek career advancement at a Nanaimo, B.C. service station and learned that management believed there were “office girls in the world, and there were service men.” When we look back at this today, we find it hard to believe that such work situations existed and even at the time Janeane knew that this wasn’t a norm she was prepared to accept.

“So I figured out what I wanted – a fat paycheque – and I figured out how to get it. With little formal education, I would have to get dirty in the blue collar, male-dominated job. And I finally figured out where to do it – in the Yukon, where I’d heard, ‘The men are men and the women are too.’”

Like many pioneers before her, Janeane set off to find better opportunities in the Land of the Midnight Sun. Once in Whitehorse, she got a job working for Whitehorse Copper mine as a laborer making $4.25 per hour. That job, however, was small beans compared to the money that could be made working underground. She applied for the job and was rejected due to its illegality but with strong lobbying efforts, the law prohibiting women from working underground, changed in March 1975.

Trailblazing isn’t simply overcoming one barrier, or breaking through one “glass ceiling” – it is the constant battle of finding yourself faced with inequality and resistance, and choosing to take the next step up the ladder – or in this case down the elevator shaft – to find the opportunity that you want and know you deserve, regardless of gender.

In spite of newly minted legislation, Janeane still faced rejections slips as there were logistical problems of having women underground including a lack of changing rooms or women’s facilities. Finally, after more than a year of rejections, she was successful in her application to become a skiptender, simply because nobody else applied. On her first day of work, Janeane went to the manager’s office before beginning her shift. He said to her, “I don’t think anyone is going to walk off the job when you start work today, but we will just have to wait and see.”

Luckily, no bad omens occurred during Janeane’s first shift, and she eventually became somewhat accepted as a hard worker by her male coworkers. She went on to receive the first underground blasting permit given to a woman in Yukon. “To say that I was an underground miner was empowering,” said MacGillivray, who stands about 5 foot, 4 inches. “I felt two feet taller.”

Yukon Mining Week 2016 marks the 41st anniversary since the Yukon government amended an ordinance to allow women to work underground. For women who work in the industry today, or are interested in exploring a career in mining, a great deal has changed – in large part thanks to the hard work of women like Janeane. The exploration and mining industry has been a part of Yukon’s history and culture for decades, and today we can celebrate the changes that have made it an attractive and rewarding career choice for both women and men in our communities.

Thank you to Janeane MacGillvray, who said: “I won’t accept the old systems built by men before my time that keep women from participating equally in the world.”

Yukon Women In Mining was founded in 2012. Our mandate is to create awareness and attraction to the opportunities for women in the mineral and mining industry. Activities include partnering with mineral sector leaders to advocate, provide career awareness and professional networking opportunities.

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