Grads in western Manitoba village of St-Lazare face pull between post-secondary school, working at mine

The only student leaving the high school in the western Manitoba village of St-Lazare with a diploma this year says he’s planning to go work at a nearby mine come September — but not for long, he hopes.

Christian Simard plans to work at the potash mine in Rocanville, Sask., for a while, “to make money quickly and be able to pay for my education,” he said.

But working at the Nutrien-owned mine — just over the provincial border, less than 20 kilometres west of St-Lazare — isn’t a long-term plan for Simard.

“I’ll give myself a year at the most. I don’t want to get stuck at the mine. Most of the people who work there stay there,” he said.

An aerial shot shows several red and white buildings in a large mining operation.
Nutrien’s potash mine near Rocanville is located just west of the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border. (Nutrien)

Before making his decision, the 18-year-old considered post-secondary school — he thought about enrolling in kinesiology or physical education at university, or electrical engineering at Assiniboine Community College in Brandon, or the college’s agri-business program. He was accepted into all three programs.

But the pull between further education and working at the mine is something graduates in St-Lazare face every year, says Laura Audet, a teacher who has helped students navigate their future prospects as the guidance counsellor at École Saint-Lazar for the past 10 years.

“The most natural choice for our students is to go to work rather than to school,” said Audet. The closest university and community college to the village are in Brandon, more than 100 kilometres to the southeast.

“The mine, where several of their relatives work, offers very good wages and benefits, and they are well aware of this. They see others driving around in nice vehicles, then having lots of material things. It’s hard to fight that.”

A smiling woman sits behind her desk with colour-coded schedules on the wall behind her.
Laura Audet is the guidance counsellor at École Saint-Lazare in Manitoba. While work at the mine offers good wages, she says she wants to make sure her students know they have options after they graduate. (Catherine Moreau/Radio-Canada)

She’s clear that there’s nothing wrong with taking a job at the mine. The starting wage is around $30 an hour, she said — “a very good salary for a student, when you consider that the minimum wage is $15.30 an hour. It’s not a difficult choice for them.”

But she also wants to make sure students have options, so she encourages young people graduating from the school — which had 68 students from kindergarten to Grade 12 this year — to work toward a diploma or certification. 

“We know it can open doors for them, and if the mine closes one day, at least they won’t be left with nothing.”

St-Lazare has a population of just over 200, according to the latest census data. Just over 10 per cent of the population between the ages of 25 and 64 doesn’t have a high school diploma, Statistics Canada says, and for just over 40 per cent, the highest level of education is a high school diploma.

Among the École Saint-Lazare graduates who have gone on to post-secondary education is Noah Lemoine, the new physical education and English teacher at the school.

A young man wearing a cap and a Brandon University faculty of education sweatshirt smiles as he stands in a garden.
Noah Lemoine graduated from École Saint-Lazare, and has now returned as a teacher, after getting his education degree at Brandon University. He says he intends to encourage his students to follow their own dreams — whether that means post-secondary studies or going to work at the mine. (Catherine Moreau/Radio-Canada)

After graduating from École Saint-Lazare, he got an education degree at Brandon University. He’s fulfilling a childhood dream by landing a job at his former school, he said.

“Even when I was younger, my plan was always to go to university to become a physical education teacher,” he said.

There was a two-year gap between the end of his high school studies and his entry into university, but he never lost sight of his goal.

Several of his friends and relatives work at the Rocanville mine. Like Audet, he says there’s nothing wrong with the work, but he says he was never tempted by the wages at the mine — even though student teachers don’t get paid, he said.

“There are a lot of people who work just to make money. I know that money is important, but it’s not everything,” said Lemoine.

“My parents and friends have always supported my decision.”

He intends to do the same for his students, and encourage them to follow their dreams — whether that means post-secondary studies or going to work at the mine.

A green field in summertime, with large buildings visible in the background.
Driving along Manitoba’s only road to the village of St-Lazare, the silhouette of Nutrien’s Rocanville potash mine in Saskatchewan can be seen on the horizon. (Catherine Moreau/Radio-Canada)

Christian Simard says money did play a big part in his decision to take a job in Rocanville.

“It’s crazy how expensive houses are these days,” he said.

Still, Audet remains hopeful that Simard will continue his studies next year. And Simard says his mother will also remind him of his commitment to limit his time working at the mine.  

“She doesn’t want me to stay there, because it’s dangerous,” he said. “I’m going to be two kilometres underground.”