Barbara James is a superstar in the trades sector. A Red Seal Carpenter, BCIT Faculty, and an advocate for women in trades, she is an inspiration to many. The two-time BCIT alum is quick to credit the many mentors—informal and formal—who helped Barbara recognize her own potential and lay the foundation for a career that is built to succeed.
With a bright future ahead, Barbara says she is most excited about a personal and deeply meaningful opportunity that will reconnect her with her Indigenous roots.
“It’ll be the highlight of my career, I already know that much,” she says proudly.
Mentors guide Barbara to trades
While Barbara says she always enjoyed working with her hands growing up, her passion for specific trades was sparked by pivotal encounters with people around her.
“In high school, I had a boyfriend who was always tinkering on vehicles with his dad” says Barbara, who was also taking automotive classes at the time. “They were the first male role models who would allow me, as a young woman, to work on vehicles. And they were willing to teach me.”
As she approached high school graduation, she recalls looking forward to jumping into the workforce right away—until her school’s career counsellor suggested the BCIT Trades Discovery program. She completed the program in 2005, and then worked in different trades for a number of years before returning to BCIT for the Carpentry program, which she completed in 2023.
From trades student to teacher
As a Carpentry student at BCIT, Barbara emerged as a natural leader. She says that the inspiration to lead came, in part, from BCIT Trades Access Department Head Tamara Pongracz. Barbara says that she saw Tamara as an incredible example of an Indigenous woman succeeding as a tradesperson and teacher.
“I remember meeting Tamara,” she says. “I thought it was cool that she was a plumber and now instructing. When you can see someone like you in a position you’d like to be in, you’re more likely to see yourself in that role.”
While still a learner herself, Barbara began teaching others at BCIT. In 2021 and 2022, she taught high-performance building to students and trainers alike for the School of Construction and the Environment, participated in instructional videos with Nuxalk youth at BCIT, and was involved in the Building a Greener Future Together pilot project with the Institute. She also became a presenter for events, moderating a panel of forestry-sector leaders and sharing her cultural teachings and protocol for high-profile BCIT events.
A fierce advocate for Indigenous women and women in trades
Advocating for women like her in trades is close to her heart. While juggling school, Barbara held many volunteer roles with external advocacy groups that align with this passion. She was a speaker at the Construction Labour Relations Association panel discussing women in trades, the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum, the Sisters in the Brotherhood Conference, the Labour Network for Sustainability Young Workers Convergence on Climate, and the BC Federation of Labour Convention. Currently, Barbara serves as Vice President on the Executive Board of Directors for the BC Tradeswomen Society, and volunteers on various committees including Build TogetHer and BC Centre for Women in the Trades.
“I’m a Two-Spirit Indigenous Carpenter,” she says. “We’re not given space or opportunity to show that we exist. Because of the success and education that I’ve achieved, I have a responsibility to show others.”
The highlight of her trades career: the Big House
Of Barbara’s many successes, she is most excited to return to her hometown of Port Hardy, BC to use her skills to help the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nation—from which she descends—reclaim their future. She will be using her carpentry skills to help rebuild the nation’s Big House, where traditional Indigenous ceremonies such as potlatches are held. The original structure had been destroyed by the federal “Indian Affairs” agents in the 1960s after the entire Nation was forcibly relocated.
“I am so proud to say that I went to school, I got my Red Seal, and now I can build for the community,” she says. “I can’t put into words how it feels to be able to take the carpentry skills I learned at BCIT back to Port Hardy to help my people—the Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw nation—finally rebuild our Big House. I can give back and show others that they can do the same.”
BCIT is proud to recognize Barbara James (ancestral name: Ma̲lidzas) with a 2023 BCIT Outstanding Student Leadership Award at the awards gala on November 2, 2023.