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RRC buildings present full circle experience for Masonry grad and industry trailblazer

April 12, 2021

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.

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Building the Happy Medium

March 18, 2021

Jason Vitt co-founded Selkirk-based Mezzo Homes in 2016 to focus on providing affordable, yet high-quality, smaller-scale housing.

“We named our company Mezzo because it means ‘middle’ or ‘medium’, and that’s just what our Mezzo home is.”

After first exploring concepts as small as 200 to 300 square feet, Vitt and company came up with what is now their main model – a 764-square-foot home on a 48 by 60 foot lot, complete with generous storage space and amenities, such as in-floor heating and a deck, for $230,000.

“At the end of day, the home has to work for its environment,” Vitt said. “We live in Manitoba, we have four seasons, and homeowners need some space to store things.”

The Mezzo is making its mark as “tiny home” champions throughout North America and around the world continue to spark an architectural and social movement in response to growing concerns related to home affordability and environmental sustainability.

Vitt experienced the demand in Manitoba’s Interlake firsthand in spring 2018, when Mezzo Homes staged their first-ever Open House in Selkirk.

“We didn’t know what to expect. We planned to go from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on a Saturday. I got there early, and we started taking people through at 9 a.m. We lost count when we went over 500 people. Three people signed up to buy that day.”

Who wants a Mezzo? It seems the answer is “all kinds of people”

“We thought it would be seniors, retirees, and possibly first-time home buyers,” he said “Then we sold a home to a 40-year-old man living on his own. Some buyers are commuters to Winnipeg, others live and work in the Interlake. We realized there weren’t limits to who might be a customer.”

Mezzo Homes recently sold its 16th home in a Selkirk development. A second Mezzo development is underway in Gimli, with plans for 27 homes.

With his wife Amanda providing interior design services, Vitt says the duo keep in touch with Mezzo homeowners.

“That’s where we get great feedback. They’ve become our friends, really.”

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Patient-care courses continue to inspire Medical Radiologic Technology grad in decades-long career

March 8, 2021

It was always Hesam (Sam) Aminian’s plan to work in human health.

Back in Tehran, Iran, he studied dentistry at the National University of Iran (now Shahid Beheshti University), until shortly after the Iranian Revolution when he and his brother fled to Canada as refugees, first arriving in Toronto in July 1984.

Soon after settling in Manitoba, Aminian graduated from Red River College’s Medical Radiologic Diagnostic Technology program in 1990, and two years later, from the Diagnostic Medical Sonography program, which at the time was being taught at Health Sciences Centre (HSC). He continued his studies in ultrasound and was certified in Pediatric Echocardiography in 1993.

Aminian has since gone on to achieve an impressive near-30-year career with HSC’s Department of Pediatric Cardiology.

“[When I arrived in Canada], I thought about starting all over again from scratch in dentistry, but by then my wife and I were married, and I decided to take a shorter route to creating a career for myself,” Aminian explains.

“I looked around and one of the things that stood out to me was the Medical Radiologic program at Red River College. It was one of the main reasons we moved to Winnipeg —so I could apply and attend the course.”

The College was already a well-recognized institution in Canada by then, and the high employment rates of its graduates helped solidify Aminian’s decision to attend the program.

Throughout the program, he studied both the theoretical and practical components of the industry and completed his clinical work experience at Misericordia Health Centre (then General Hospital), where he found the training both rigorous and rewarding.

“It really was a tough program, but in retrospect, I wouldn’t wish for anything less than that. The instructors at both the College and the hospital were some of the toughest instructors I’ve come across. But through that, I found myself learning so much. The level of expectations was high, and thankfully I managed to meet them.”

Now, nearly three decades into the job, Aminian points to one particular program area that has helped him most. 

“What I will carry for the rest of my career are the patient-care courses that we took in the program. We learned how to interact with patients and people when they’re not at their best physically or emotionally. It stands out for me as something that carries over to anything I do.”

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Hospitality and Tourism grad builds comfort-food career from backbone of RRC training

March 8, 2021

It doesn’t matter whether you’re dining out, cooking at home or ordering delivery — comfort food has a way of creating conversation and bringing people together.

That’s the mantra of Laneil Smith, co-owner of Marion Street Eatery (393 Marion St.) and manager of the Marion Hotel, who, alongside her team, has been serving up the stick-to-your-bones dishes loved by Manitobans since taking over the famed location in 2014.

“We try to make everything on the menu something that people can relate to, or they can bring out a story within their table and their dining experience,” says Smith. “Whether it’s a meatloaf, a chicken pot pie or a chili, I think people within our province have grown up with those foods and they all have a story.”

While it’s true these foods have a special place at the dinner table, Marion Street Eatery has elevated the dishes from their homely roots and become a star of the St. Boniface dining scene. Whether it’s mac and cheese sweetened with honey mustard pretzels, or a spicy chicken wrap with chili lime peanuts and sriracha, there’s enough twists to keep mouths watering and bring locals back for more.

“Our motto is ‘simple food made good,’ and we really strive for that,” says Smith. “I grew up in a home where we ate a lot of meat and potatoes — home-cooked and hearty comforts that were fairly basic, but good food. Sometimes what people are looking for is for us to take something very simple, juice that up with flavour, and make that simple product good.

“So we took some basic comfort foods — foods that you would typically have at your dining room table or your grandma’s dining room table — and knocked it up a couple notches.”

Smith’s family has owned the Marion Hotel for more than 40 years and she had her eyes on the restaurant well before taking over the space seven years ago. (Before that, it had been leased to the owners of a Polish restaurant.) Smith credits her piqued interest with a love of the space — a cozy corner of the hotel’s footprint — as well as a love of food and the relationships that come through that shared experience.

“I was certainly drawn to restaurants,” she says. “I loved the diversity of the different types of foods that you can play around with, I love being able to give people an experience through food. I think so many people connect through food and drink. I think of relationships I’ve created through my past and usually they revolve around the dinner table in some form.”

She also credits her experience at Red River College — where she graduated from the Hospitality and Tourism Management program in 2006 — with turning that passion into a backbone of fundamental skills, as well as the tool belt needed to lead in a high-pressure environment like a restaurant.

“There’s a foundation that’s learned through the College. When I was in school, it was partly about creating skills, but it also built my strength and confidence to improve and excel within the industry. You see that students have that foundation now, that base and the eagerness of wanting to learn more.”

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Creative Communications grad coaches Manitoba’s businesses in diversity and inclusion

February 8, 2021

Sheila North says tapping into her natural talents has been the key to a successful decades-long career in communications and governance.

“I always tell students, ‘Keep in focus the natural abilities you have. Those are hints and clues of the things you’ll be good at that will utilize those gifts.’”

For North, those talents include creative writing and storytelling.

A 2006 graduate of Red River College’s Creative Communications program, North spent the first nine years of her career in television working as an award-winning journalist and correspondent for CBC and CTV, where she reported on issues including missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) and residential school survivors. She also worked as Chief Communications Officer at the Assembly for Manitoba Chiefs.

It was then that her career trajectory changed.

In September 2015, North was elected as the first female Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO). Although becoming a leader wasn’t her original plan, she felt called by her community to step up and take on the role.

She also quickly realized the skills she’d acquired as both a College student and journalist — researching, presenting, media relations, writing and analyzing — were instrumental in her role as Grand Chief.

“I did interviews almost daily as Grand Chief. I had to be able to assess questions coming in and be prepared with the best information on hand to make the most informed comments. That sometimes meant quickly reading, analyzing and understanding documents and budgets,” says North.

“I value my education and work experience because it boded well for what I have to do. Juggling different personalities at once is also something I learned. I had to be accommodating and respectful at all times.”

Following three years in MKO leadership, North spent a year helping to incorporate Indigenous perspectives and knowledge into programming at the University College of the North’s new Centre for Indigenous Community Development. There, she worked on a team to create a proposal that responded to the needs of First Nations with a perspective from the north.

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Civil Engineering grad holds deep RRC roots through support and certification

February 8, 2021

If anyone knows the power of an industry relationship, it’s Robert Okabe.

As CEO of the Certified Technicians and Technologists Association of Manitoba (CTTAM), Okabe leads an organization that certifies aspiring engineering and applied science technicians and technologists, while connecting them to important resources — and to each other.

It’s a role he’s been in since 2015, and one that keeps him close to his Red River College roots.

“Most of our members are graduates of the College,” says Okabe. “So I find it a really good experience for me to interact with future graduates or current students and hopefully, in some way, be able to mentor them and make it easier for them post-graduation.”

A Civil Engineering Technology grad from 1983, Okabe recognized early on in his academic life that he wanted to work in the engineering industry. By changing the path he’d initially embarked on and choosing RRC, he helped project his younger self to where he is now.

“I went to university and took the first year of sciences and found myself at a crossroads: is it about the degrees you pick up or the skills that you develop? I was thinking that the Bachelor of Science didn’t prepare me for working out there in industry, so I made the change to go to Red River College. I could see that there was a niche that I knew I could fulfill.”

After graduation, Okabe went to work at the City of Winnipeg, where he was a supervisor of public operations for 31 years.

In 2015, he joined CTTAM — an organization that’s been around for 55 years and has worked in sidestep with RRC for much of that time. Back in the mid-1960s, when the College was still the Manitoba Institute of Technology, it was the first school in the province to graduate technologists.

Both Okabe and CTTAM have generously supported the College throughout the decades. Okabe participates in all nine of the school’s Engineering Technology Advisory Committees — which provide direction and curriculum support from those working on the ground — and in 2008, established the Robert Okabe Achievement Award for Civil Engineering Technology.

His reasoning for the support is simple, as he recognizes how important that helping hand can be in propelling students from the world of academia into a lifelong career.

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Career path leads through Red River College and back again

February 8, 2021

Like many young Canadians in the early 2000s, Jaime Manness went west. After a stint working in an oil-field camp in Northern B.C., she came home to Manitoba.

Red River College has figured in her career path ever since.

“My sister was in the Health Care Aide program and that occupation appealed to me as well,” she says. “But as soon as I completed the program, I wanted to go further in health care.”

Admission to the College’s (then four-year) Bachelor of Nursing program required Manness to upgrade her high school credits. She’s grateful the College offered a 10-month preparatory course to do just that.

After graduating from RRC with a Nursing degree in 2009, Manness began her career as an Emergency nurse at Health Sciences Centre. Though Emergency is an intensely stressful area for a newly minted nurse, Manness says the program prepares grads to succeed.

“The program concentrates on practical knowledge,” she says. “It builds up students to feel comfortable asking questions.”

“After four years of structured learning, you’re equipped with a cautious, calm confidence. You know your limitations but also how to ask for help and find support.”

Manness counts several of her classmates as friends to this day, adding that College faculty and graduates form a valuable support network throughout a career.

In 2018, Manness returned to Red River College as a part-time instructor, adding an extra dimension to her nursing skill set.

“I had enjoyed mentoring a couple of students in Emergency years earlier but still never imagined coming back as an instructor. A friend thought I’d be a good teacher. It’s nice to develop a different area of my professional practice.”

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Changing the face of construction in Manitoba: Engineering and Construction grad builds on family legacy

February 8, 2021

Almost anywhere Nick Bockstael goes in Winnipeg, he can see the tangible results of his work.

Bockstael, 37, is the Vice-President of Construction for Bockstael Construction Ltd., and part of the fourth generation to lead the family business founded more than 108 years ago by his paternal great-grandfather, Theodore. (His father, John, is the CEO, and his brother, Dan, is the Vice-President of Preconstruction. His sister, Sarah Anderson, joined the company in 2020.)

The list of Bockstael’s recent accomplishments in the city includes the “urban chic” 21-storey Glasshouse Skylofts at Portage and Hargrave, the 62,000-sq.-ft. Richardson Innovation Centre on Westbrook, and the concrete core for the 42-storey residential apartments currently going up at 300 Main St.

Bockstael graduated from Red River College in 2006 with a diploma in Structural Engineering Technology. He acknowledges there was some recognition of his last name, well-known in the industry, among his peers.

“Some of my instructors were active in the design and construction community at the time. They knew my dad and uncles and would ask me about them,” he recalls.

Armed with the technical foundation provided by the diploma program, Bockstael went on to earn his engineering degree at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, after which he worked for a few years as a structural designer at Stantec.

“Most of the work that I did there was derived from the knowledge that I picked up at Red River College,” he says. “For me, the Structural Engineering Technology program really helped with the technical side of things.”

“Today when we have challenges on jobs, or we need to look at a temporary engineering solution to accommodate construction, I do still rely on what I learned at Red River College.”

Returning to the family fold in 2011, he joined Bockstael Construction as a project manager. He was subsequently promoted to the Vice-President of Construction and became a partner in the company in 2016.

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Killer concept: Grads serve up hair-raising thrills at horror-themed escape rooms

October 27, 2020

The thought of starting a business in the middle of a pandemic would send chills down anyone’s spine. But that doesn’t mean the timing can’t be eerily, utterly right.

That’s certainly how it feels for Lisa Bernstein and Chris McMillan, two Red River College grads who opened the horror-themed Killer Noob Escapes at the start of October.

Not surprisingly, Killer Noob is a perfect match for the spookiest month of the year. After their shared love of all things scary led to some business-idea brainstorming, Bernstein and McMillan served up a fresh spin on the escape-industry standard.

“We’ve always loved escape rooms,” says Bernstein, who graduated from RRC’s Creative Communications program in 2010. “Three years ago, we went to a horror-themed escape room in Las Vegas and we could not stop talking about it. We loved the aesthetics, we loved how it looked. It was like walking on to a movie set.

“But we also talked about what we would do differently, partially because we found the puzzles to be lacklustre. So that started the ball rolling of planning what types of rooms we were going to do, what our theme was — and in January 2018 we bit the bullet and created the business, and slowly started chipping away at props and puzzles.”

While Killer Noob’s room names (“The Funhouse,” “Buried Alive,” “The Chamber,” and soon “The Upstairs”) might make the squeamish nervous, the goal isn’t jump scares or dumping guests into a haunted house. Rather, the set-ups require visitors to make skillful escapes, solving all manner of puzzles to get out of stressful situations.

As long as group sizes are limited, escape rooms can provide a safe form of COVID-era entertainment — so business at Killer Noob has been steady, with over 100 bookings in the first month. Read More →

Blazing a trail for self-care: Nursing grad eases quarantine stress with new guide for local hikers

October 13, 2020

If Jaime Manness tells you to take a hike, heed the advice. After all, she wrote the book on the subject.

After graduating from Red River College with a Bachelor of Nursing degree in 2009, Manness began her career as an emergency nurse at Health Sciences Centre. While a challenging and rewarding environment for a nurse, Emergency is also intensely stressful, particularly for a recent graduate.

Manness took to the trails to de-stress. The hikes evoked fond memories of family camping trips as a youngster, complete with hot dogs roasting over the campfire.

“I was chasing that restful, tired feeling at night,” she says. “I wanted a kind of mental and physical exhaustion to a point where I would get a good night’s sleep.”

“The more I hiked, the more peaceful I felt. I started to fall in love with the idea of what I might see next.”

Manness started volunteering for Trails Manitoba in 2015, giving recommendations — and just as important, reassurance — to weekend hikers.

“I realized that what was common to me was not comfortable to others. People wanted to know a little bit more about what they might find.”

If that was the seed of an idea for a book, Manness give much credit to her then-boyfriend and now fiancé, Ed, with bringing it to fruition.

Cover of Hike Manitoba guide“He’d remind me every month or so — ‘You should write that book.’ Then it was every two weeks, then every 10 days,” she recounts with a laugh. “It’s like he had a calendar set to remind me to write the book.”

The result was Hike Manitoba, a compilation of 51 hikes, all within the province. Launched June 30 — just in time for the Canada Day long weekend — the volume is lightweight and coil-bound, designed with a hiker’s needs in mind, Manness says. It includes trail tips and etiquette, evocative photos, hand-drawn maps, and lovely watercolour cover art.

Demand for the book has far exceeded her expectations, Manness says.

“We sold our first 100 copies within a couple of days. We’ve now sold more than 2,200 copies.” Read More →