A Life By Design: Carla Chisel Builds A Career in Construction
“I knew I wasn't going to be a carpenter. I knew I wasn't going to pick up a hammer and nail. Because I learned design in high school and then continued on to college, that’s what helped my career,” Carla Chisel recounts. She is a Lac Seul First Nation member who lives in Thunder Bay and works for Matawa First Nations Management as an infrastructure projects coordinator. She coordinates buildings, funding, consultants, project teams and designs from inception to completion. She graduated with a diploma in Architectural Technology and has 22 years of experience in her field.
As part of her work, she’s done housing inspections, proposal writing, team coordinating and contract administration work. She’s been a field inspector and functions as a technical advisor in the field of infrastructure for the tribal council, guiding them through the process to get their projects built.
Her dad used to bring home design magazines and house plans that she would flip through, dreaming of building her own home. Chisel got pregnant at a young age and realized she had to go back to school to raise her child. Knowing she was still holding this vision of building her own house, she decided to pursue the architecture technology program.
Getting to graduation day wasn’t easy. “It took a lot of work and effort and it was hard, although the mindset was there to finish. We were told in that class that only three of us were going to graduate. I was one of those three from that year. It took a lot of dedication and a lot of time,” she recalls. One of the skills she learned was hand drafting, a skill she practices to this day.
Chisel faced obstacles early on in her career because people were used to women being more in office roles and she worked in the field. People were also not used to seeing many Indigenous women in her role. She went up North as a twenty year old woman to work as an inspector on a big construction site and she faced a lot of criticism for not being home with her son.
Being with her son would have made her very happy, but she knew she had to earn money to support her family and that work helped her buy her first house. She knows she faced that resistance because she was doing something women didn’t normally do. Iit was new for all of us and it was a little bit of an obstacle that way,” she admits. After watching her example, her niece works in concrete and her son wants to be a carpenter.
These days she works with people who are supportive of her and her kids are older too. Chisel has more time for herself, she plays soccer and is learning how to sew so she can make her own jingle dress. It’s a new skill for her and one she’s taking her time to learn. “I'm taking my step by step approach, where I'm not overwhelming myself and just thinking it through and picturing it,” she explains.
Chisel has been a jingle dress dancer since she was 12 and was given the opportunity to dance at a concert called Wake the Giant. She also does puzzles, colouring, exercises and enjoys her family time. She loves being outdoors, as well as sketching, camping and attending powwows. While she never considered herself a strong writer, now she writes poems on the side.
Her advice to youth considering leaving home to pursue opportunities for work or school is enthusiastic. “Enjoy it, soak it in. Appreciate the moment and appreciate the time that is there. It's exciting to be creative. Enjoy that life of having fun in your own imagination, and see what you can do,” she says. If she could say anything to her younger self it would be, ““Keep doing what you're doing. Just keep enjoying life. Just put your mind to it and let yourself flow. Just keep going. Keep enjoying.”
Growing up, she was influenced by her parents, her sister and her grandparents. Her grandfather was a construction worker, too. They taught her to apply herself and she shared a lesson she learned, “When you put your mind to it, you put yourself into it and then you just let yourself create… then you start to enjoy it. I keep doing that for myself, where it's as simple as a coloring book, or doing a puzzle, where it just sets you free.”
She took that dedication she learned from her family and she used it to finish high school after struggling initially. It took her longer to graduate because she wasn’t eating or sleeping properly. “Once that dedication and that mindset was there, that was it,” she recalls.
“When you look outside and see somebody else doing their thing, it reminds you and gives you that inspiration and the energy to do it yourself.”
Carla Chisel built this career wanting to be able to provide for her son and now he and the rest of her kids are inspiring her, living their goals. Her oldest son finished university and is going into carpentry, her seventeen year old daughter saved up to buy her own car and her twelve year old recently won a hockey tournament in Saskatchewan. Chisel also has two step children, one who is going to medical school and one who is a competitive dancer and cheerleader.
She knew she wasn’t going to pick up a hammer or a nail and she wasn’t going to be a carpenter, but she learned how design works and used that knowledge to build a career and a life that would last. Carla Chisel dreamed of building a home, but she ended up building a life, and laying the foundation for other Indigenous women in construction.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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