Shining a Light on Northern Talent

Competing in the Northern Manitoba Skills Challenge boosted the confidence and self-esteem of talented students

By Lisa Gordon

The town of The Pas, Man., might be separated from the provincial capital of Winnipeg by a 6.5-hour drive, but in many respects, it’s a world away from the hustle and bustle of Manitoba’s largest city.

With a population of about 6,000 people – many of whom visit a major urban centre only a handful of times during their lives – The Pas is tucked along the south bank of the Saskatchewan River, about 625 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. Originally a Cree settlement, The Pas later became a fur-trading centre and was incorporated as a town in 1912.

Throughout the community, there has always been a realization that life in the north is different.

Nowhere is that fact more evident than in the area school system, where programming imparts critical real-world skills that allow students to compete in the global economy, while at the same time remains respectful of diverse northern and Aboriginal beliefs.

It was this framework that guided the University College of the North (UCN), a post-secondary institution with two main campuses in The Pas and Thompson, Man., to launch an annual Northern Manitoba Skills Challenge. The event was designed as a forum to showcase the skills and abilities of northern students.

Modelled on the provincial Skills Manitoba Competition, held each year in Winnipeg and attended by more than 475 high school, post-secondary and apprenticeship students who compete in 42 skilled trades and technology contests, the UCN version was designed as a springboard that would hopefully encourage northern students to compete in the provincial event.

This year, the Northern Manitoba Skills Challenge got a major boost, with five area school divisions agreeing to participate in the one-day event.

“We decided as we were working much more closely with UCN in partnership with programming, we wanted to step it up a notch to make the northern event include more competition options available to the students, as in the south,” said Kathi McConnell-Hore, principal of Margaret Barbour Collegiate Institute (MBCI) in The Pas, which is part of the Kelsey School Division.

With 420 students, MBCI is the main high school within Kelsey School Division. It offers a range of programs in both English and French, including vocational and technology courses.

Following a meeting in late 2017, UCN agreed to expand its skills competition in partnership with the Kelsey School Division and Skills Canada.

Not only would a broader event showcase UCN’s educational facilities and programming to potential students, parents and teachers, but it would also serve as a “dry run” for students from across the region who might never have contemplated competing at the provincial level.

“The goal for us in Kelsey School Division was to build a team that would compete at the provincial competition in Winnipeg in April,” said McConnell-Hore. “This gave our students and the north a chance to showcase our skills.”

With a competition date of Feb. 28, 2018, plans came together quickly.

Rolling out the event

Organizers decided to spread nine skills challenges out over three locations in The Pas: the UCN campus, MBCI and Mary Duncan School.

UCN hosted skills challenges in heavy equipment service, carpentry, welding, cooking and outdoor power and recreation equipment. MBCI welcomed competitors in public speaking and information technology software solutions for business. Meanwhile, Mary Duncan was the site of the hairstyling and job search skills challenges.

An offsite electrical skills challenge was held concurrently in Swan River, Man.

High school students in all northern Manitoba school divisions were invited to compete.

A total of 32 competitors hailing from The Pas, Thompson, Swan River, Leaf Rapids, Cranberry Portage and Gillam travelled to UCN’s main campus for the event. After picking up their delegate bags, students headed to the opening ceremonies, which got underway around 9 a.m.

A special welcome was delivered by Krystle Lynne Paskaruk, the daughter of long-time UCN automotive technician program instructor Arnie Paskaruk. A passionate supporter of northern students in the skilled trades, Paskaruk passed away in January of this year. The 2018 Northern Manitoba Skills Challenge was dedicated in his name.

Following the opening remarks, students dispersed to their challenge sites, with buses travelling to MBCI and Mary Duncan School.

McConnell-Hore said the enthusiasm during the competition was incredible.

“We had an amazing day,” she said. “Everyone came in a little nervous…but once the challenges started, you could just feel the energy from everyone involved at each school. It was fantastic!”

Russell Dobie, technical vocational coordinator for the Kelsey School Division and a woodworking teacher for grades six through 12, was one of the main organizing committee members. He also helped plan the carpentry challenge, which attracted seven competitors.

“The lead instructor involved his students in the pre-employment program at UCN,” said Dobie. “They found a project and a student drew up the blueprint. It was a small two-in-one stepstool and tool carrying device.

“Students were given a safety talk and given the task and shown the blueprints. They also saw a finished product. Then, they had about four hours to complete the project.”

Older students observed the high school contestants as the work progressed, with projects being assembled and tested upon completion.

While the welding and carpentry challenges were judged by students from the UCN pre-employment program, other competitions were evaluated by panels of community judges who were provided with an evaluation rubric by each challenge lead.

Dobie said the smaller northern competition, although modelled on the big provincial event, was simply more comfortable for students.

“Many northern Manitoba students don’t often travel to urban areas,” he said. “This was just a less intimidating scenario to help them build their confidence.”

Feedback for the future

With the goal of improving the Northern Manitoba Skills Challenge every year, the organizing team asked everyone involved to provide feedback on the event via a confidential survey.

Student participants indicated they enjoyed the chance to demonstrate their talents and abilities, while one said the competition clearly illustrated the expertise required to succeed in the workplace. Some even planned to put the competition on their resumes, hoping it would give them an edge in their summer job search.

“I do know that instructors were very pleased with the competition this year,” said McConnell-Hore. “At the closing ceremony, there were more smiles than you’ll see in any given day at school. The students really liked doing something that didn’t involve the traditional pen and paper.”

Perhaps the biggest indicator of success is the number of northern students who travelled to Winnipeg to participate in the Skills Manitoba Competition, held on April 12, 2018.

“From the Kelsey School Division we had five students that went to the provincial competition, plus five more from the Frontier School Division, six students from Thompson and 12 from Swan River,” said Dobie. “The majority of those students competed in the Northern Skills Challenge.”

McConnell-Hore says that next year, organizers will be looking to expand into new challenge areas.

Dobie agrees.

“The approach we took this year was talking to schools and divisions to see what competitions they were interested in,” said Dobie. “Next time, we’ll decide what competitions we can offer and put that information out.”

Both agreed that planning will start earlier to give the committee more time to finalize arrangements and conduct more extensive media outreach.

“This event clearly demonstrated the need for this kind of competition in the north,” said McConnell-Hore. “We are very proud of how everything went throughout the day; we know that there are some truly talented and amazing students here in the north. This just continued to prove us right, and we are looking forward to growing bigger and better with each future year.”

Organizers of the 2018 Northern Manitoba Skills Challenge sincerely thank the sponsors who made this successful event possible: Apprenticeship Manitoba, Carley Bearing and Auto, Construction Association of Rural Manitoba (CARM), Kelsey School Division, Manitoba Education & Training, Margaret Barbour Collegiate Institute, Mary Duncan School, Sally Beauty Supply, Skills Canada and University College of the North.

Photos courtesy of University College of the North