Bricklayer Nina Widmer is no stranger to forging her own path, having gone from quick study to trades leader in the past six years.
Widmer’s fingerprints are, quite literally, on some of Manitoba’s most remarkable masonry restoration projects. With Alpha Masonry Ltd., where she’s worked with her father — German-born master craftsman, Alfred — since the age of 17, Widmer has been a part of historical restoration projects such as the University of Winnipeg’s Wesley Hall and the A.A. Heaps Building (Bank of Nova Scotia).
Recent highlights for Widmer also include an interior restoration of the ornamental ceiling in the Millennium Centre — one of the city’s finest gala venues. Another project, just outside the city, was the restoration of the perimeter defense walls and gun ports at Lower Fort Garry, one of the province’s most popular spots for taking a stroll back through time.
“It was an amazing project. It taught me a lot of old-school techniques of slaking lime and all that fun stuff — that was a really neat project to be a part of.”
Passion for the trade comes through immediately when talking to Widmer, and she credits a childhood spent with her father on different restoration projects for falling in love with all things masonry.
“Watching him replicate ornamental masonry units that were deteriorating, and reinstalling the new unit that he had made — that seamless recreation of the facade was not only intriguing but also mind-blowing at that age,” said Widmer.
“Now that I’ve learned his craft by working alongside him, restoration projects are always my favourite because I get to put my skills to the test and see if I can replicate and restore as well as he can.”
The passion came with hard work, too, as Widmer blazed her own trail in Red River College’s Masonry apprenticeship program; graduating in 2014, she is Manitoba’s first female Red Seal Mason. In 2017, she was awarded Apprenticeship Manitoba’s Journeyperson of the Year – Urban after being nominated by her trade peers.
Widmer chalks these accomplishments up to self-belief and dedication to the craft, which was certainly part of her RRC experience.
“Having to prove as a woman that women could do the trade was important,” Widmer imparted.
“It was ‘well, if she can’t do it then none of the others can’, as silly as that sounds. Having been the first female to go through the apprenticeship program, there was a lot of pressure to forge a path for future women that would come behind me, to prove that we did belong there and that we could do the trade as well as the guys could do it.”
If the experience of being the lone woman in her RRC program had an influence on Widmer, she’s the one leaving a permanent signature on the College today.
After work on the stunning exterior facade of downtown Winnipeg’s Paterson GlobalFoods Institute, Widmer and Alpha Masonry are now a critical part of building RRC’s new Innovation Centre, which opens for classes in September. Alpha has been working on the brickwork and installation of custom coloured base stones that wrap the bottom of the building — fabricated by Widmer and her partner Scott — as well as an exterior serpentine seat wall that will be part of the landscape design.
“It’s been really awesome. As an apprentice out of RRC and being able to work on the Paterson GlobalFoods Institute and now the Innovation Centre, it’s a great sense of accomplishment when you can use your experience and knowledge from school and apply it to your everyday work life.”
“I really appreciate the inventiveness that the College creates by restoring and reviving the historical buildings that we have in Winnipeg. To bring these buildings back to life and help teach and train our future generation, to me, is the perfect combination of preserving our heritage while building our future.”
Building a future for women in the trades is also something that drives Widmer. She is the chair of Build Together Manitoba, a campaign that “promotes, supports, and mentors women in the skilled construction trades.” While COVID-19 put in-person meetings on hold for the group, they’ve been able to start meeting again with relaxed public health orders and the opening of the Manitoba Building Trades Institute on McPhillips Street.
“It’s given me the experience and opportunity to be in a leadership role, which has been really amazing,” said Widmer. “I’ve always loved helping promote the trades with women, so for me it’s been an opportunity to be a part of even more programs and cool initiatives where we’re meeting with women, telling our stories, showing our trades, and having women try them out.”
“It’s just a great group of women who are able to support each other and help give others the courage to join us, go into a male-dominated environment, and excel.”
If all this isn’t enough, Widmer is also raising a daughter (“my greatest accomplishment,” Widmer said) and running her own company, Widmer Casting, with her partner and fellow bricklayer, Scott Tourond. The venture expands on the pair’s passion for masonry through the replication of ornamental masonry units and precast concrete for new building construction.
This all creates a strong foundation of influence for Widmer in the masonry industry, and she’s ardent when asked about her advice for women — including future RRC apprentices — who are thinking about getting into the trades.
“I really encourage them to be strong and go down the road less travelled because the opportunities that arise in the trades are phenomenal,” she said.
“You really feel the greatest sense of accomplishment when you can step back at the end of the day and see what you have built and the mark you’ll be leaving in history, in order to not only support yourself and be able to support your family, but to give yourself the opportunity to continuously grow and do what you’re passionate about. If you love working with your hands and you don’t want to be stuck behind a desk, then you should 110 per cent go for it, regardless of what anyone says.”
Profile by John Gaudes (Creative Communications, 2012)
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