Caribbean-Canadian youth thriving in construction industry

By Don Procter

Paris Blackwood and Kemar Clark

Paris Blackwood was unemployed and not sure what direction to go after completing his second year of the carpentry apprenticeship program last spring when Chris Campbell, a business representative for Carpenters Local 27, told him to check out job opportunities at the light rail transit (LRT) station under construction at Dufferin and Eglinton.

The 27-year-old, whose parents are from Jamaica, took Campbell’s advice – a smart decision that landed Blackwood a good job with a solid future working for formwork contractor Avenue Building Corporation at the Fairbank (formerly Dufferin) Station.

It is one of about two dozen stations being constructed along Toronto’s new 19-kilometre Crosstown Eglinton LRT that is providing opportunities for many young people who might otherwise be stuck in dead-end jobs.  

Chris Campbell

Campbell says the big infrastructure project offers long-term employment for the new generation of carpentry apprentices. “This type of consistent employment helps establish financial stability for them and their families.”

Blackwood agrees. He did a number of short-term construction jobs prior to getting hired at the LRT project about six months ago, and says formworking on the LRT gives young apprentices like him an opportunity to grow. “I am working with a lot of steel, giant A-frames, climbing behind walls, going underground. . .”

When Kemar Clark came to Toronto from a small town in Jamaica about three years he landed low-paying work cooking in a restaurant. With no promising future, Clark turned his sights to construction.

He knew the work was physical but coming from a solid upbringing in Jamaica, Clark wasn’t afraid of hard work. He started by taking an introductory formwork course at the College of Carpenters and Allied Trades in Vaughan.

Now a second-year apprentice, Clark works for Outspan Concrete Structures Ltd. at the Crosstown Eglinton LRT’s new Kennedy Station. Like Blackwood, Clark sees a bright future in carpentry and believes the job at Kennedy Station could continue for a year or more. It might even carry him into his 4th and final year of apprenticeship.

Campbell says it is important that the big LRT project hire a percentage of people who live along the Eglinton line – giving them an opportunity for good-paying jobs and offering them a chance to see their neighborhood grow and improve.

Jim Jackman is superintendent of Structform International Ltd., the formwork contractor at the Science Centre Station at Don Mills and Eglinton. He says many of the stations along the 19-kilometre line are spurring other developments. As an example, a dozen or so mixed-use buildings are proposed within three years of the Science Centre Station’s completion.

“It is good for the city, the construction industry and the next generation of carpenters,” says Jackman.

Mike Yorke, president of the Carpenters District Council of Ontario, agrees.  He describes the big LRT project as “city-building at its best. We are building crucial transit infrastructure and the social infrastructure of our community by opening doors for young men and women and others, driving greater diversity in our union.”

Young people with no direction shouldn’t dismiss a career in construction – especially in Toronto which is expected to see an influx of up to three million people in the next 20 or so years.  Blackwood says the CCAT has been seminal to his development as a carpenter. Instructors don’t leave anyone behind. “They don’t assume everyone is on the same page (learning level). Even when one person in the class doesn’t get it (a concept or process) they will come around and explain it. It is really good for us (students) because you don’t always get that help when you are working on site.”