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In Good Company: On the right track

Meet four alumni bringing VIA Rail into a new era of travel
April 18, 2023
By Samantha Rideout, GrDip 10

A VIA Rail train locomotive travels along tracks that are surrounded by greenery with a blue sky above. Greener, more accessible and more comfortable trains will help accommodate that demand in the Quebec City–Windsor corridor. | Photo: Via Rail

Headquartered a short walk from Concordia’s Sir George Williams Campus, VIA Rail operates the national passenger rail service for the Government of Canada. The company welcomed 1.5 million passengers in 2021, a number likely to rise as the impact of COVID-19 wanes and the demand for environmentally sustainable travel grows.

Greener, more accessible and more comfortable trains will help accommodate that demand in the Quebec City–Windsor corridor. So might a new rail corridor free of freight cars, which would facilitate more frequent departures, fewer delays and shorter trip times.

Dozens of Concordia alumni employed by VIA Rail are on board with its mission to connect Canadians. Here are the stories of four who occupy senior roles with the company.

Maya Sheikh Alsouk, MA 16
Senior advisor, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion  

A woman with long straight brown hair wearing a beige thin-knit sweater poses in front of a blue curtain background “I regularly tap into what I learned at Concordia,” says Maya Sheikh Alsouk.

When Maya Sheikh Alsouk, a native of Syria who lived in Qatar, started to explore the Canadian job market in 2011, she had a bachelor’s degree in business administration and more than a decade of work experience. But because her education and employment history were limited to Doha, she struggled to find work.

“Employers wanted to see Canadian experience,” she says. “And I was like, ‘Well, if you don’t hire me, I’ll never get any!’”

Today, Sheikh Alsouk’s role at VIA Rail is to remove barriers that exclude people who can make valuable contributions to the organization.

“At VIA, we don’t look at experience from abroad as a weakness. Rather, it’s a strength,” she says. “Because people are bringing different mindsets and experiences to their work, and there’s a creativity that comes with that.”

Sheikh Alsouk is implementing a three-year strategy to increase employees’ understanding of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) principles — through both formal training and day-to-day conversations — and embed them into the company’s practices and culture. This includes recruiting a network of ambassadors — 45 employees across the company who volunteered to advocate for DEI.

“It’s humbling that they’re doing this on their own time because they believe in it,” says Sheikh Alsouk. “They know the value it brings to their workplace is priceless.”

As just one example of a DEI-informed practice, the talent acquisition team doesn’t question applicants about gaps in their resumés. “There are a lot of good reasons for taking time off,” Sheikh Alsouk remarks. “Someone might have had a child, or maybe they needed to prioritize their physical or mental health.”

When it comes to the latter in particular, companies need to walk the walk, she adds. “We keep talking about mental health, but we need to normalize it when it comes to recruitment, and not punish people for taking care of it.”

VIA Rail’s diversity efforts also focus on increasing representation among four designated groups, namely women, people with disabilities, visible minorities and members of Indigenous communities.

“When it comes to inclusion, you have to make sure they feel valued for their skills and competencies and any differences they might bring,” Sheikh Alsouk adds.

Her own competencies include an understanding of adult learning that she gained by studying educational technology at Concordia.

“It’s one thing for me to understand the theory of diversity, equity and inclusion, but if it weren’t for my master’s degree, I wouldn’t necessarily be equipped to relay it to the employees and leaders,” says Sheikh Alsouk.

“Embedding a culture into an organization means teaching people how to adopt a new mindset. You have to teach what equity means, how to tackle it and so on. I regularly tap into what I learned at Concordia.”

Sheikh Alsouk also credits her MA with finally helping her gain Canadian work experience. Her program included an internship at Bombardier, which turned into a permanent job as an operational performance improvement analyst.

“Concordia opened the door to everything I’ve been able to do since,” she remarks. “The university has a very special place in my heart.”

Andre Michaud, BComm 94
Director, Training and Skills Development

A man with short white hair and a trimmed beard wears a white shirt and a blue blazer “I like being part of a change,” says Andre Michaud.

Andre Michaud describes himself as an enthusiastic lifelong learner. In fact, he chose to study at Concordia back in 1988 because it offered the flexibility to continue working full-time while gaining important new skills and knowledge.

“It took a while to complete my degree — two night courses at a time — but it was perfect,” says the native of Chibougamau, Quebec, who accepted a tax analyst role for a large construction-supplies distributor before earning his accountancy degree.

Michaud likes working with people just as much as numbers. He went on to obtain a certified human resources professional designation, then combined both of his affinities by specializing in training.

“My accounting background helps me to understand a business, and then there’s my HR side,” he says. “I can understand both perspectives and come up with learning solutions that align with the business.”

At VIA Rail, Michaud is responsible for governing training initiatives. “That means anything that has to do with developing our leaders, the people who work with passengers on the trains, the people in the maintenance centres, the locomotive engineers who drive the trains — everyone,” he explains.

These days, a large chunk of VIA Rail’s several thousand employees need new training, because of both the new fleet and a new reservation system. “I like being part of a change,” Michaud says. “That’s why most of the companies I’ve chosen to work with have momentum.” His field of work itself has changed a lot over the years, as well.

“When I first started my training career in the late 1990s, we were dictating how people should learn,” he says. “Now, we’re trying to be much more adaptive to the needs of the learner. Some people like to follow a highly structured program, but that’s just one learning style.”

The expansion of e-learning has opened additional possibilities: For instance, it makes it easier for companies to break training down into short capsules that employees can take as needed, without feeling overloaded by a lot of information at once.

“Right now at VIA, we’re trying to find a good balance between virtual and in-person learning,” Michaud says. “Because we don’t want to entirely lose all of the relationship-building that happens in a real-world classroom.”

For Michaud, helping others grow involves doing so himself. “That’s why I enjoy my work,” he says. “It’s satisfying to be constantly getting better.”

Soliman Abusamra, PhD 19
Senior project manager, Maintenance Facilities Upgrades

A man with glasses and dark curly hair wears a white shirt, blue tie and dark suit jacket. “Concordia has high-quality professors in the Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering,” says Soliman Abusamra.

Soliman Abusamra is one of the many experts working behind the scenes at VIA Rail to make passenger journeys safe and comfortable.

A civil engineer by training, he oversees infrastructure projects such as upgrades to maintenance centres where trains are inspected, cleaned and repaired between trips. VIA Rail’s new trains differ from the older ones in ways that call for changes to the design of and procedures inherent to these facilities.

Even though he isn’t involved, Abusamra is also enthusiastic about plans for a high-frequency passenger line between Quebec City and Toronto, a project managed by a subsidiary called VIA HFR – VIA TGF Inc.

“The future of railways in North America is bright,” he says. “Let’s be honest: Planes are not environmentally friendly. It’s better to have rail infrastructure that can move people fast.”

Abusamra emphasizes that getting the best value out of assets such as railways requires thoughtful planning and management. As part of his doctoral thesis at Concordia, he proposed ways for cities to reduce tax-dollar spending — and disruptions such as Montreal’s infamous construction zones — with coordinated repairs of water pipes, sewers and roads.

Raised in Egypt, Abusamra first visited Montreal for a conference in 2013. “I met a lot of Concordians there and was impressed by their work and how it aligned with my interest in asset management,” he says.

Later, when he decided to continue his studies at Concordia, he worked with Luis Amador, a former faculty member and pavement-engineering pioneer who has since become Costa Rica’s minister of public works and transport.

“Concordia has high-quality professors in the Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering,” Abusamra remarks. “And I can’t imagine a better way of integrating into a new country than by doing a PhD. It gives you some flexibility with your time, so you can have the pleasure of getting to know the city and its people.

“You also get the opportunity to interface with different organizations through research projects. That gives you exposure to the professional world without necessarily having to make a commitment.”

Ultimately, Abusamra decided to stay. “I love Montreal — I even met my wife here,” he says.

When VIA Rail recruited him in 2020, it was the fulfillment of a goal that had been on his mind ever since his arrival. “Transportation is my passion. And VIA has infrastructure to manage all over the place. It was a no-brainer.”

Alongside his professional interests, Abusamra is a marathoner. He enjoys putting on his running shoes to explore the streets of Montreal and racked up over 9,000 kilometres in 2021.

“The work-life balance and flexibility that VIA Rail offers is great,” he says. “It allows me to run almost daily, and spend quality time with my family and friends.”

Jamie Orchard, BA 91
Senior advisor, Public Affairs

A woman with shoulder-length blonde hair and dark frame glasses wears a black blouse and a red blazer “Train people are just good people. They work really hard, and they take really good care of each other, which makes VIA an amazing place to work," says Jamie Orchard.

Jamie Orchard is a familiar face to many Montrealers: She served as an anchor at Global News Montreal for nearly two decades. Nowadays, as a senior public relations and media advisor for VIA Rail, she’s just as busy as ever.

“When you work in journalism, you think the media relations people you’re dealing with have an easier job,” she says. “But it’s a lot of work. And it has many similar elements to what you do daily as a journalist.”

From planning events to writing speeches and answering media inquiries, each day brings something different, she adds.

Orchard studied journalism at Concordia and found work in the field immediately after graduating, thanks in part to instructors who put a strong focus on practical, hands-on experiences. She fondly remembers the late Bob McDevitt, who mentored and recommended her for one of her first reporting jobs.

The broadcast veteran never thought she would switch to another line of work. But in 2020, 10 per cent of Global Montreal’s permanent positions were cut and Orchard lost her job.

“At first, I panicked,” she says. “That job had been my whole professional life.”

She soon put her journalism skills to personal use and launched a blog called the Second Act Project, which featured interviews with people in the midst of dramatic life changes.

“It was a passion project to help me deal with my own experience, and I learned that people often come out the other side of these transitions feeling happier,” she says.

When she felt ready to return to the job market, Orchard realized that her journalism background gave her lots of options. What made VIA Rail a good fit?

“I know myself,” she says. “If a job is too repetitive, I’ll get bored. And with so many forward-looking projects on the go, VIA Rail seemed like a great place to be constantly learning.”

One fun learning opportunity, but initial challenge, was train jargon.

“At the first operations call I was on, I didn’t understand anything that was happening,” she laughs. “We have a document for that: It’s got five pages of railway acronyms.”

Aside from supporting the team in its modernization goals, Orchard’s favourite aspect of working at VIA Rail is its supportive eenvironment and the people who work there.

“The people at VIA are so welcoming,” she says. “Train people are just good people. They work really hard, and they take really good care of each other, which makes VIA an amazing place to work.”

In Good Company is a series on inspiring grads who work for corporations, nonprofits or industries that employ a large number of Concordia alumni.

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