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In Celebration of Black History Month: Q & A with Monica Ansah-Sam

February 23, 2022

Monica Ansah-Sam, manager, Tailings & Dams, North Atlantic, pictured on site at Voisey’s Bay, NL, where she was doing an inspection of the dams. Photo: Vale Archive

February is Black History Month, and while we often think about the underground railway, it’s more than that. It’s also about those who have immigrated more recently to Canada with their families, who have made a home here, and worked hard and contributed to the cultural mosaic of this land. To help acknowledge all that Black History Month is and represents, Vale News reached out to Monica Ansah-Sam, manager, Tailings and Dams, North Atlantic, for a Q & A. Monica has been with our company for just under a year. 

Q: Tell us about your journey from Ghana, Africa to Canada

A: My husband and I first came to Canada in 2002 as permanent residents and skilled engineers. I got my master’s degree in geotechnical engineering at the University of Western Ontario and my MBA from the University of Calgary. My plan was to return home to Ghana to teach as a university professor but instead I ended up staying. I ended up working in Sudbury, ON for about five years, and then we moved to Alberta, where I worked for 13 years in Fort McMurray and Calgary. 

Q: Was there someone who played an instrumental role in your career choices? 

A: My father was an economist, and my mother was a nurse. Both believed strongly in education and heavily influenced me, in different ways. When I was quite young, I remember sitting with my father as he worked on speeches. When he travelled oversees, he would bring back books for me, which I believe helped strengthen my ability to focus. When he became head of the Ministry of Transportation, he shared stories about the women civil engineers he had met and worked with. Sometimes, he took me on the road with him to visit infrastructure projects, and this led to my interest in civil engineering. 

My mother worked at the regional hospital in the department of surgery and was on call for emergencies. Eventually, with both parents working and workloads increasing as they both progressed in their careers, my mother opted to leave nursing to start a business. Having her own business gave her flexibility to care for me and my three siblings. My mother role modelled that while changing one’s career direction takes courage, it is possible, and it’s good to do when you feel it’s in your best interest and that of your family’s. 

Q: Have you experienced challenges as a Black woman engineer? 

A: It has sometimes been challenging to be heard when you’re trying to negotiate or articulate your position. My father taught me that if you want buy-in, you need to be strategic, collaborative and patient. Through the guidance of my parents I learned about humility, hard work and faith. This approach has served me well during many years of negotiating and trying to be heard. 

Q: Have any of your experiences outside of work and school helped shape you as a leader? 

A: Coaching and managing my son’s soccer team, refereeing, and as a former player, I learned so much about strategic passes, teamwork and decision making. It has helped me immensely. I’m also the vice-chair of Black at Western Alumni (BAWA). One of the purposes of BAWA is to connect current Black students with alumni to help promote success in their academics and future careers. My role as vice-chair is to create a positive environment that encourages networking and mentoring. 

Q: Looking back over your 23-year career, what are you most proud of, and what are your hopes for the future? 

A: I’m proud to be a respected leader, author, and co-author of several technical papers. I’ve been invited to speak at various conferences on the subject of responsible tailings management, and when I was in Calgary, I led the closure of the first tailings facility in the oil sands as per the Alberta Energy Regulator’s Closure and Abandonment plan. I have gone from a mentee to mentor, and now I’m managing a group of amazing people at Vale with a focus on responsible tailings management. 

I believe that sharing my experiences as a woman in engineering will help make all women more hopeful and successful. I want to encourage others to mentor, and to support the next generation of engineers. In these trying times, guidance on strategies, patience and hard work could inspire a future generation, just as my parents and mentors did for me. The sky is the limit!

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