One question that I often am asked is, “How did you pick mining as an industry?” That answer is simple: De Beers commissioned a raw diamond exhibit at the University of Alberta where I attended school. This was my first introduction to mining and the idea and complexity around mining, which I found fascinating and challenging. The second question I always get asked is: “How did you get to where you are now?” That answer is a little more complex. We all take different journeys in life and career. Some experiences are within our control, and some are not. People always joke: “If I knew what I knew now, things would be different.” But there is no journey, no growth, and no success without those experiences. They are unique to us and mold us in the unique individual we are. So, to me, the real question should be “How has your experience specific to your career helped you to get to where you are now?”
I began my first job search after graduation with enthusiasm, looking for the job opportunity that would launch my career. At the time, the market was hot with international opportunities, as well as Canadian prospects, which meant that I could be picky about the opportunities I pursued. I knew from my summer jobs doing exploration work in the Northwest Territories that I wanted a fly-in fly-out position at an operation and not field exploration work. My husband and I were married in 2007, right after my graduation, so choosing a fly-in fly-out role was a lifestyle choice we were making so that we could stay in Edmonton.
My parents were born and raised in Saskatoon, SK so I knew about Cameco Corporation, the uranium producer centered in Saskatchewan. I was excited to have an interview with them. Even during the interview, being able to talk about structurally driven deposits was thrilling. I felt good after the interview, and therefore, was disappointed when I later received a call that hiring had been frozen due to unknown circumstances. Lucky for Cameco, I was so picky during my job search that I had only applied to one other company at the time. In January 2008, I received a call asking if I was still interested and if I could start next week. I didn’t even own a pair of steel toe boots yet, so I couldn’t start the following week, but I was thrilled that I did not have to endure a second round of interviews.
The first time I flew into Rabbit Lake operation, which is situated at the edge of the Athabasca Basin in Northern Saskatchewan, I felt what I would describe as contained excitement. Contained because I didn’t want to make it obvious how “green” I really was. In other words, I did not want to stand out or get noticed. Which is very hard to do when you are a woman in a male-dominated industry, and in particular, a young woman in a male-dominated industry. I stuck out like a sore thumb, despite my cargo pants and winter coat. I was fresh meat, and everyone wanted to get to know the new girl.
Throughout my career, I have heard stories of women who feel like they made the wrong career choice and have left the industry. When I hear this, I reflect back to those first few days at Cameco. My first room at camp was not my permanent room and there was a nasty draft from the window blowing over my head. I remember wearing my toque and not being able to fall asleep, wondering what I had gotten myself into. After a few days, I moved rooms and, luckily, there was no draft in the second room.
I remember sitting around the lunch table with the geologists and engineers and hearing the story about why my hiring was delayed. There was an open historical drilled lake hole that intersected a stope (a stope is a term in mining for dugout space that contains your ore that is to be mined). It was marked as cemented, but after the blast, water started pouring into the mine – a sign you never want to see underground. But the tale was dramatic and heroic, and through teamwork the workers were able to control the situation and mitigate the water. The epic conclusion of the story involved a geologist shoving a piece of PVC pipe into the hole on the shallow lake bottom. I know we all exaggerate our stories, but at that point, I knew this was my crew and this was where I belonged.
This was 2008 and when the financial crisis hit hard I was fortunate to be at Cameco. Many of my colleagues from school found themselves without work whereas Cameco sold its product with contracts with locked-in pricing, which meant that Cameco was stable. And so was my career.
That geologist who starred in the epic conclusion of the story with the PVC pipe was Dennis Merber, who was also my first mentor in the industry. Once he became the Chief Geologist at Cameco, I learned a lot from him. He gave us the flexibility to make the position our own. He recognized that you need to incorporate fun at work if you want to improve efficiency. He also encouraged sharing of job tasks, which is the primary reason why I was not just exclusively logging core at the start my career. His job as a leader was to take care of the wellbeing of his people and sometimes that was as simple as a break with a little bit of fun. His leadership tactic stayed with me my entire career and I have used it many times, even sometimes when I had to defend my decision to add fun to the work cycle.
I stayed with Cameco for 8 years because of the people. I built many great relationships over that time, relationships that I keep to this day. Of course, it wasn’t without hardship. After returning from my first maternity leave, I was a fresh P. Geo and excited to continue my career. I had taken a few classes while on maternity leave, including improving my public speaking, just to be told I would be eased into working again. My job tasks reverted to those I had done in my early career and not what I was doing before I went on maternity leave. I recognized the problem right away. My supervisor’s wife had their first child around the same time I did, and he was using her as an analog for how to treat me. There was no ill intent, but he wasn’t listening to what I wanted. After 5 years of working with Cameco, I wanted to leave. The rock was extremely fascinating, and I loved my work, but now that I had no voice, I felt empty. If it wasn’t for those strong relationships, which made me hang on just a little longer, I would have left. The leadership of the department shifted, and I was asked if I was done being eased into working again because they needed me in my old role. After a minor outburst around the word “eased”, I was able to return to my previous role.
Three more years went by, and I came back from my second maternity leave to find out the mine was going on care and maintenance. This is a situation where the mine will no longer be in production, and you need just enough staff to potentially restart operations sometime in the future. It was a hard blow that knocked the wind right out of me, and everyone else on site. We all went through the 5 stages of grief, multiple times. The next 6 months were grueling, but I was thankful to have bonus time with my work family.
While the circumstances were tough, it turned out that leaving Cameco was the best thing for my career. By that point, I was a solid mine geologist with a varied pallet of skills. On top of this, I chaired the environment committee and was on the mine rescue team. And, in that moment, I decided to follow through on getting my Master of Business Administration.
I went to work in Washington State at Pend Oreille Mine, a zinc-lead Mississippi valley type deposit owned by Teck Resources with a long history and very short mine life. I was hired onto the Mine Life Extension Program as a Project Geologist. It did not take me long to realize that though Cameco gave me the foundation for a solid career, the leadership I was exposed to failed to see my potential and feed it. It was different at Teck, where my potential was immediately recognized by a leader who would become another mentor to me, Mike Maslowski, the Technical Services Superintendent. After only 6 short months, I was put in charge of a project, which was both exciting and nauseating. I say nauseating because the current geologist running the project had not yet been told, and in fact, couldn’t be told because he was away on jury duty. My response was, “Thank you for this opportunity, but what about him?” Because he could not be told, I was sick for days. I never admitted this at the time, but we lived in crew houses in town, and every morning until he was told, I got up and vomited behind the house. Turns out, he was good with the decision and corporate exploration moved him onto generative work. But at the time, I didn’t tell anyone I was sick every morning. I felt that my confidence, skills, and demeanor were all traits that led me here and that vulnerability was weakness I couldn’t show. I know now that we are all vulnerable and I was not true to myself by not showing it. How can I expect others to be open and honest with me, when I am not with them?
Pend Oreille Mine had a 1-year mine life, which meant that new discovered zones within the mine footprint were mined within that year. That is a rare occurrence in this industry. In comparison at Cameco, the core I was logging when I first arrived was information I was using for design and mine planning 8 years later. The price of zinc began to drop in 2018, and despite our best efforts, the site started showing signs it was heading towards being put on care and maintenance, and I had the difficult task of breaking up the team. Just as I did at Cameco, I had built strong relationships, which are still good today. The travel to and from site had become too much of a financial burden, and I really did not want to experience another transition to care and maintenance, so I felt like it was time for me to leave and seek other opportunities.
At this point I took a short term position a couple of counties over in Washington State as an Exploration Manager for Kinross Gold. By the end of that short term role, it was 2019, and I was coming to conclusion of my MBA. I can’t believe I was able to work full-time, go to school, and be with my family that entire time. I look back now and still can’t believe I did that. At that point, I decided to take some time off work to spend time with my family.
This break ended up being more long-term than originally intended, as the schools in Edmonton shut down for the pandemic in March 2020. I then found myself in a new role – a grade schoolteacher for a pair of 7- and 5-year-old boys. That year was a great experience, however, as I had a chance to find out more about my kids and how they think during this period.
In 2021, I decided to join the Board of Directors of Women in Mining Canada, a not-for-profit organization that I had been a member of for some time. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to help make this industry fully inclusive for everyone. I have not had many problems with being a woman in this industry, but I know many have. I also want to be a role model to show that you can have success in this male dominated world.
The mining industry is exciting, but also volatile. By the end of 2020, I found myself flying to Red Lake, ON and working for a company called Battle North Gold. However, in 2021 it was announced that Evolution Mining was looking to acquire us. After the acquisition, I was offered a position with the discovery team (aka exploration). They were welcoming, but there was something missing. My whole career, I had chosen the companies that I worked for. I came to Red Lake to work for Battle North Gold, a company with exciting plans to develop their exploration project into an operation. I did not choose Evolution and although it was a good company, the excitement of Battle North Gold was over. I am sure I could have made Evolution work, but I was also feeling pressure to move to Red Lake as part of a succession plan. My entire career, I have been able to choose where I live, and my family has no desire to leave Edmonton. Who was I to tell them to move? Overall, I was unhappy. If there is anything I have learned over the years, it is that happiness is the key to success. I have had a very successful career with opportunities that have been presented to me and opportunities I have made for myself. In this situation, I made an opportunity for myself in the biggest way.
A former college forwarded a posting to me – a Chief Geologist position had opened with Cameco. I did something I never did before and that many women are afraid of doing: I used my network, and I asked for help. All I was asking for was to be recognized and given an interview, and from there, I would do the rest. I eventually had to stop asking people because I was getting such a warm response from the people I had built those relationships with so long ago. They say that the mining industry is small, and they are right – everyone eventually knows everyone in the industry, and I got the interview. I got the offer at the most beautiful moment possible, just as I had decided that Evolution Mining was not the right fit for me.
I am an operations woman that loves underground mines and cherishes the relationships I have built. I am proud to say I am the Chief Geologist for Cameco Corporation’s McArthur River Operation. I am back in Saskatchewan, where my journey began. In this position, I am not only a geologist, but my voice is valued when it comes to inclusive culture, I am contributing to mine rescue and the emergency response team on site, and I am building a geology team to support the restart of the mine. I am also the Chair of Women in Canada and am reestablishing past relationships while building new ones. I know this is not the end of my career, and, while no one can really predict what comes next in this industry, right now I am happy.
I would like to dedicate this article to all my mentors. I mentioned a couple in the article, but I would also like to acknowledge Shawn Montgrand, Rob Pagnin, Richard Basnett, and Paul Burton for supporting my journey.
Melissa is a Professional Geologist with over 14 years of deep rooted operational and exploration experience in the mining industry. During this time, she has held several geology positions with multiple North American mining companies in various commodities. This type of site-based rotation work has allowed her to pursue her passion while maintaining her family’s home base in Edmonton, AB. She holds an MBA from Athabasca University and a B.Sc. from the University of Alberta. She is an active member of mine rescue and emergency response and is a dynamic part of growth and change at the companies she works for. Her current role as the Chief Geologist at one of Cameco Corporation’s northern operations allows her to lead and develop young minds along their career and leadership journeys. She is currently the Chair of Women in Mining Canada, a not-for-profit organization who’s mission is to Elevate, Educate, and Empower women in the mining industry. Her personal leadership philosophy is: support those around you and allow them to become better than you ever were!