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Canadian contingent gains traction at Women Build Nations conference

Peter Caulfield
Canadian contingent gains traction at Women Build Nations conference

The 2018 Women Build Nations Conference provided an opportunity for attendees representing every craft in the building trades to network, take part in demonstrations and learn about key initiatives taking place across the U.S. and Canada.

More than 2,300 tradeswomen from around the U.S. and Canada, plus a few from Europe, attended the conference, which took place over three days in October at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle.

Attendance this year was up by 400 from the 2017 conference in Chicago. Of the total, a record number of 150 Canadian women were present. Although most of them were from B.C., they came from every Canadian province.

An annual event that takes place in different cities around the U.S., Women Build Nations (WBN) is for women of all ages and skill levels who work, or want to work, in the construction trades.

In addition to attending workshops and listening to speeches, attendees spent an afternoon building houses for the homeless and took part in a demonstration over a labour dispute. And they paraded in the streets around the convention centre, singing and waving banners. 

“It was a great opportunity for networking and building relationships with other women in construction,” said Vancouver participant Sarina Hanschke.

According to organizers, WBN “speaks to every tradeswoman’s needs, offering workshops and plenary sessions facilitated by tradeswomen and featuring union leaders, apprenticeship co-ordinators, contractors and politicians.”


Women Building Nations is the largest gathering of tradeswomen in the world

— Vicki O’Leary

Iron Workers International


Lindsay Amundsen, director of workforce development at Canada’s Building Trades Unions, is the Canadian representative on WBN’s planning committee.

“The theme of this year’s conference was the importance of getting organized to empower women in construction,” said Amundsen. 

There were six WBN workshops facilitated by Canadians, such as advancing women in the trades, networking and committees, building a movement and creating a more inclusive work environment.

In addition, there was a Canadian networking event, which all the Canadians attended.

“I’ve been going to the conference since 2013 and I’ve watched it grow and become more organized in that time,” Amundsen said.

Vicki O’Leary put the conference together. O’Leary is a Chicago-based safety and diversity organizer for Iron Workers International, and chairwoman of the women’s committee of the North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU). 

“Women Building Nations is the largest gathering of tradeswomen in the world,” said O’Leary. “It supports and mentors the sisterhood in construction who are coming up through the industry.”

Hamilton, Ont.-based ironworker and apprentice boiler maker Jamie McMillan

delivered a presentation to 150 to 200 people on how to do school and community outreach, which is one of McMillan’s specialties.

“If I’m addressing youth, I need to think differently than if I’m talking to the same number of adults,” she said. “But at Women Building Nations, my presentation was tailored to an adult audience.”

McMillan is co-founder of KickAss Careers.

“Not everyone wants to be lawyer, doctor or white-collar professional,” said McMillan. “Through school and community outreach, KickAss Careers encourages youth to consider careers in construction, as well as mechanical, industrial, technology and advanced manufacturing.”

In addition to American and Canadian participants in WBN, there was a small contingent from Ireland.

Women In Trades Network Ireland (WITNI) raised money through a crowdfunding platform and was able to finance sending five Irish tradeswomen to Seattle. 

“We had an exceptional welcome,” said WITNI founder Jen Kelly.

“The news of our efforts was circulating in the tradeswomen’s networks in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. well before our arrival.”

Kelly said WITNI’s goal in attending WBN was to learn how to retain and recruit women in Irish trades, as well as how to make the industry more inclusive and equitable.

“Our organization plans to engineer a similar event in Ireland in the near future and we are seeking partners to help bring it about,” she said.

Hanschke, founder of Surrey, B.C.-based Vanguard Road Safety Network and a consultant on roadside worker safety, made a joint presentation called Making a Movement, which expanded on this year’s WBN theme.

The 2018 WBN conference was Hanschke’s third.

“The camaraderie of all the participants was intense,” she said. “I connected with other women who are engaged in roadside work in North America, including the many traffic control personnel who were at the conference.”

WBN started on the west coast as Women Building California. In 2015, NABTU took the event national. Since then it has been held in various cities around the U.S., such as Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington. 

The 2019 WBN conference will take place Oct. 4 to 6 in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  The event will have a technology theme – Changes from linemans (a tool) to laptops.

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