Stories & Features

BC Hydro works with First Nations to offer driver training

Image of Elvis Metecheah
Elvis Metecheah of the Halfway River First Nation gives the thumbs up to being back behind the wheel, the result of driver training instruction supported by BC Hydro.

Classes help students get BC driver's licence, a requirement for many jobs

Sharon McLeod is regularly reminded that not everyone who applies for a job in northern B.C. has easy access to email or has a valid B.C. driver's licence. She has learned that from supporting First Nations members to apply for jobs, and in particular from offering resume prep workshops she has held in northern communities.

When she asked one resume class how many of her students had valid driver's licences, only two out of 16 people put up their hand. And then last winter, while awaiting an interview in Fort St. John with a man from Halfway River First Nation, she got a call from a woman who found the guy hitch-hiking to the appointment.

"It's like an hour and half away, it was probably 35 below, and he was hitch-hiking into town," says McLeod, an indigenous relations specialist with BC Hydro. "I had assumed he was driving or had a ride. I just didn't think about that."

The incident reinforced a message she'd heard over her career as an employment coach – that it's very difficult for job candidates living in remote communities to get the right experience and basic credentials we often take for granted in an urban setting.

If I was just at home, I wouldn't have time to read the [driver training manual], because I have the baby.

With this reminder, an idea was born. Working with several First Nations and a local driver training company, BC Hydro is leading preparation-classes for members of Halfway River, Saulteau, Blueberry River and McLeod Lake First Nations, and has held classes since June. Of the 39 students who started the training, 22 have already earned their Learner’s permit and have started in-car training in pursuit of their "N".

"For me, having the classroom with the instructors here is making it easier," says Vanessa Lilly, who has a two-year-old son and who moved back to Halfway River after a few years in Alberta, where she found the prospect of big-city driving intimidating. "If I was just at home, I wouldn't have time to read the [driver training manual], because I have the baby."

Lilly did various jobs in the Alberta oil patch for five years, but says the lack of a driver's license prevented her from some of the better jobs – even flag persons require a valid license – that were available. Now that she has passed the written test and can start practising behind the wheel, she's starting to envision the possibility of a broader range of jobs that might involve driving, such as transporting workers to various work camps.

BC Hydro works closely with indigenous people across B.C. to develop a qualified talent pool for BC Hydro employment and apprenticeship opportunities. And most BC Hydro jobs, like so many other resource sector jobs in B.C, require a valid BC Driver's License.

Out of the more than 2,000 workers on BC Hydro's Site C project earlier this year, 81% were from B.C. And 195 were Aboriginals.

"I know there are a lot of people across the Treaty 8 territories who would like to work for BC Hydro, so if there's anything we can do to create that possibility and ensure they have the qualifications to compete for these jobs, that's great," says McLeod. "It's not that they'll be handed these jobs – they have to compete for them – but they can be seriously considered for a position if they have core requirements like this. It works for us too as an employer because we want to build a local, loyal workforce in the north."

When the Doig River First Nation joined in, several students participated and are well on their way toward licencing. Carolyn Stock, indigenous relations specialist, is working with the Saulteau First Nation and McLeod Lake Indian Band. She says, "These communities have embraced the offering and have expressed a lot of gratitude toward the company for stepping up to this challenge. The issue has been alive for a very long time and it takes courage to try to solve it."

Image of Vanessa Lilly
After passing a written exam, Vanessa Lilly can start practising behind the wheel. A full license would offer the Halfway River First Nation mom a wider variety of job opportunities.

Getting a drivers licence can be challenging

The graduated licensing system in B.C. is among the most rigorous in North America, and it includes two in-car driving tests which take a minimum of 30 to 40 minutes. In advance of that though, one may need to access and pay for driver training, as well as arrange to get to a drivers licensing office to take the exams.

"The expense and lack of access to a well-maintained car pose a great barrier for many people," says BC Hydro's Stock.

This combination of hurdles has made it hard for people in remote communities, including First Nations. Both the Insurance Corporation of BC (ICBC) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have been part of the conversation and have visited classrooms and career events. They've been available to answer questions, provide encouragement, and dispel any myths the candidates may have about road safety and law enforcement.

"We understand and appreciate the effort BC Hydro is making with these remote communities, " says Sonny Senghera, ICBC's stakeholder and community relations manager. "With road safety being our number one concern, we want all of the students to get the support they need to become safe drivers and be able to get to work safely."

Image of Sherry Paul and child
Ulkatcho First Nation member Sherry Paul is from Anahim Lake, B.C., but works in the Halfway River Nation band office. She says a driver's license will give her greater flexibility in getting her child to daycare while she works.

'I missed out on a lot of jobs'

The BC Hydro-supported Halfway River Nation driver education workshops are being held in Fort St. John, and Lilly was among those who needed to take the test a second time before going the next step to behind-the-wheel driving instruction. Instructors customized the driver's education classes to the specific needs of the students, offering instruction in Halfway River's native language Dane-zaa, also known as Beaver, when necessary.

To make it more comfortable for the newbie drivers, instructors started on the quieter roads on the outskirts of Fort St. John, then slowly challenged the drivers with busier roads nearer the centre of the city.

"I did really well with the driving instructors last week," said Elvis Metecheah, an archaeology technician who has been hiring people to drive him to work or to Fort St. John whenever he needed a ride. "My weakest link was the shoulder checks. I need to practice that."

If somebody's looking for work, let's seriously look at their qualifications and see how we can get them employment.

Metecheah, 39, used to have a valid driver's license but says he lost it due to a series of fines. He recently paid those fines off and jumped at the chance of prepping for the written exam with the Halfway River class.

"I missed out on a lot of jobs because I didn't have a licence," said Metecheah, who did manage to get some work with BC Hydro over the past few years, helping with archaeology assessments at the Site C Clean Energy project.

Sherry Paul, a 29-year-old member of the Ulkatcho First Nation in Anahim Lake, B.C., works in the Halfway River Nation band office as a housing coordinator. She took the driving course to give her greater flexibility in getting her 19-month-old child to daycare while she works, for trips into Fort St. John, and to put her back on the path toward jobs she trained for in the mining industry – earning 17 trade tickets along the way – while in Williams Lake.

Paul says she tried and failed to pass the test in the past, and said she feels grateful, as a member of a different First Nation, that the Halfway River Nation extended the driver education course to her.

You can see from the smiling faces in the photos of these driver trainees that there's a great sense of pride associated with being on the road to driver certification. BC Hydro's McLeod is excited to be part of all this, and in fact, considers it a privilege to be involved.

"It's a gift, really," she says. "BC Hydro just needs to keep working with industry to give every one of them a chance. If somebody's looking for work, let's seriously look at their qualifications and see how we can get them employment."