Lorrie Potvin was the first woman to join the auto body repair and refinishing program at Algonquin College in the 1980s.
As the only woman in the program, Potvin faced barriers, but she never gave up. She felt like she was at home in the shop.
“I didn’t really realize that there was this whole big thing about being the only woman at the time. Now I realize how special that is, but at the time, I was just excited to be there,” said Potvin, 62.
Potvin is one of the Algonquin College’s 2022 Alumni of Distinction Award recipients and is being awarded the Apprenticeship Award on Thursday, Sept. 29. The award is given to alumni who have graduated from an apprenticeship program and have shown leadership and excellence in the trades.
After graduating and finishing her apprenticeship in 1985, Potvin became the first woman to work for the City of Ottawa in her field. While working there, Potvin was driving different equipment around the shop and repaired equipment when needed. Other jobs at the city included replacing front ends of police vehicles and welding floor boards on fire trucks.
In the early 1990s, Potvin started teaching at Algonquin College in the women in trades and technology program and the auto body repair and refinishing program. Potvin was able to teach and empower women, but she was also challenged by male students in the shop.
“Being the only woman, as a shop teacher, you’re challenged. Even though they’re students, male students are like, ‘Oh yeah, are you sure you know how to do this, miss?’ and I’ve actually had a young woman ask me if I was a real teacher because I was so out of place,” said Potvin.
Potvin taught in the programs for 11 years until they were reorganized. Potvin then went to Queen’s University to study in the technological education program. While studying at Queen’s, Potvin was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease that affects the central nervous system in the body.
“It was scary. My first episode went from the waist down and I couldn’t quite walk and when I walked, I didn’t really know where my legs were and it was a really bizarre experience. I closed my eyes and I was afraid I would fall over. To be diagnosed with a disease where there is no cause nor is there a cure, it just really makes you grateful for all you have in this world,” said Potvin.
Potvin graduated with a special education specialist post-graduate certificate. She taught a high school shop class for eight years before retiring.
During her retirement, Potvin has been a successful author and artist. Potvin has written two books: First Gear: A Motorcycle Memoir (2015) and Horses in the Sand (2022).
First Gear: A Motorcycle Memoir took Potvin five years to write. Potvin wrote about her motorcycle journey through Northern Ontario, Manitoba and Western Quebec while telling her story about her step-father, who was controlling and violent, and her mother, who was an alcoholic.
Horses in the Sand was Potvin’s second memoir and took Potvin five-to-seven years to write. This memoir is a follow-up to Potvin’s first memoir and is filled with a collection of stories of her journey of becoming a tradeswoman and teacher. It’s also about her journey of finding her biological father and her indigenous ancestors with stories tied to self-acceptance and identity.
“I was writing as a way to understand and cope with childhood trauma. It was writing that allowed me to fully explore that trauma which lead to healing. If you really want take the steps towards healing, you need to understand what happened and what happened to you,” said Potvin.
Potvin has also written four short stories, including The 13th Dock (2009) My Tattoos Speak of Life and Loss (2009), Why I’m Thankful for Multiple Sclerosis (2009) and The Trouble with Wishes (2016).
In addition, Potvin uses harrow discs she gets from farmers and makes suns and stars out of them. She also makes ceremony pipes and sometimes does commissions to fix pipes that others have attempted to carve.
“I’ve always been a creative person. I don’t make anything until I can visualize it three dimensional and I’ve realized that it’s a gift given to be able to see things and visualize things in three dimensions and it really helped me with my art,” said Potvin.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Potvin has been working on a fictional project called Two Rivers, which follows an Indigenous community that comes together.