Joanne Millen-Mackenzie: 2016 Highway Star of the Year

Joanne Millen-Mackenzie is a woman on a mission. Many missions. A shortcut through a single hall at the Truck World trade show has to be completed in a series of stops and starts between greetings and laughs. She is quick to ask fellow drivers if she’ll see them again at Trucking for a Cure, the award-winning convoy she supports in the fight against breast cancer. Fellow female drivers are reminded to attend a reception honoring women who work behind the wheel. And that reminds her: The crowd would enjoy a snack.

She heads back to the room where a reception was just held in her honor. Millen-Mackenzie, the first woman ever to be named Highway Star of the Year, is already shifting the attention elsewhere. This time it’s to support a group representing the 3% of Canada’s drivers who are female. There’s no need to let the leftover food go to waste.

Joanne Millen-Mackenzie
Joanne Millen-Mackenzie, 2016 Highway Star of the Year.

“Women need to know we can do what we want out here, and there’s nothing we can’t be,” Mackenzie said hours before, as she hoisted a winner’s cheque for $10,000 from Newcom Business Media. “It’s not, ‘Who’s going to let you?’ It’s, ‘Who’s going to stop you?’”

Trucking for a Cure is not forgotten, either. Other prizes included a jacket from Chevron, a watch from Freightliner, and a free bunk heater from Eberspaecher. But she already had a bunk heater. Could she auction it off in the name of Trucking for a Cure? Of course, the sponsor tells her.

The annual events held in Woodstock and Prescott, Ontario are always at the top of mind. Where the first convoy featured 35 trucks, last year’s installment included 88. And they raised $85,000 in 2015 alone, bringing the total raised to an astounding $400,000 for the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. Since 2013 it has been the organization’s largest revenue-generating, third-party community event in Ontario.

“Joanne lives and breathes for the opportunity to spread the word about what the foundation is doing to find a cure for breast cancer, and does everything in her power,” said Niyousha Nejatpour, of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

Many people sitting at a desk would struggle raising that kind of money, adds her boss, Highland Transport vice president – operations Terry Gardiner. “The real heroes are the people who work hard every day and give back to their community,” he says. “She does it from behind the wheel.” Even when visiting family, some of the time is spent in the sleeper, answering emails, making fundraising pitches, and posting Facebook updates.

But there is a personal connection to honor. She saw the ravages of the disease that ultimately claimed her Auntie Anna, whose name is immortalized on the side of the pink Peterbilt – Pinkie – that she drives for Highland Transport. “She was a huge inspiration to me, and to all of us. She was our glue. She kept us together. She taught me so much about cancer and what she had gone through,” Millen-Mackenzie says. She remembers complaining about her first mammogram, but only until she heard her aunt’s familiar Scottish brogue. “She was in the other room saying, ‘Oh my God, you’re a truck driver. Suck it up.’”

She did. She does. Behind the wheel of Pinkie.

Joanne Millen-Mackenzie
Newcom Media and sponsors join together to present Joanne Millen-Mackenzie with the $10,000 cheque for being named Highway Star of the Year.

“When we go to shows like Fergus (Ontario), it was the first truck that anybody saw when they came in the gates,” she says. It leads to emotional meetings. Many approach the cab crying, and offering thanks for supporting a cause dear to their hearts. Driving a famous truck does have its challenges, like waking up first thing in the morning to find a busload of tourists taking pictures. “You got to remember to be dressed,” she adds with a smile. And there are always people taking photos to tag on Facebook. There is no sneaking into town without word reaching her mom in Brockville, Ontario, either. “I get that phone call, ‘So what are you doing?’ And I know she knows I’m there.”

The commitment to fighting breast cancer is one of the things that helped her stand apart from about 100 other applicants for HighwayStar of the Year. “HighwayStar is more than what the person does as a driver,” observes Joe Glionna, vice president and general manager of Newcom Business Media, the publishers of Today’s Trucking.

“I’m just so proud of her,” added Millen-Mackenzie’s brother, Steve Millen, between teary hugs. “If they weren’t doing this, who would be
doing this?”

There are times that Steve wishes she held a different job and lived close by so he could visit on the occasional evening or weekend. “But I know that she believes in what she does,” he says. “So her family accepts that her visits take place around the demands of her job and her Trucking for a Cure responsibilities.”

Millen-Mackenzie can’t explain exactly why she decided to become a truck driver. She remembers drivers from a local refinery and St. Lawrence Cement visiting her family’s tavern in Oakville, Ontario. And she was always fascinated by the trucks. But the connection probably had more to do with her grandfather, who owned a taxi.
“I always wanted to drive with him,” she says. Her dad, who died when she was 15, worked with ocean-going freighters. That fact is not lost on her, either. “Forty years later,” she says, “I’m going to those same ports he used to service.”

Her career behind the wheel began as a courier driver for TNT Express Worldwide, and then shifted to straight trucks for Wilson’s Stationery. The idea to earn an AZ licence came 24 years ago, when Employment Canada was running a program to place women in non-traditional roles. The extent of the gender gap was obvious as soon as she noticed that she was the only woman among a class of 50 men. “It intimidated me quite a bit,” she says. And the instructor always seemed to call on her for answers. “It made me want to study harder because I didn’t want to look like the idiot.”

It’s still one of the best decisions she ever made. Millen-Mackenzie clearly loves the job. “The office window is your windshield,” she says. “And you’re helping the economy. You know the importance of what you’re doing.” She is clearly skilled at the related gearing and steering, too. Millen-Mackenzie was the only woman in the 2008/09 Ontario Truck Driving Championships, placing third in the regional tandem-tandem division.

There are still challenges to the job. She points to the physical demands of opening the doors on intermodal containers sealed tight by the sea air. But Millen-Mackenzie is quick to stress that it’s not a problem for all female drivers. Female friends are hauling steel and logs alike. “I just got to find myself a young buck to travel with,” she says with a smirk.

Friends think she is doing just fine already. “Joanne’s life as a woman in the trucking industry is a perfect example of what women can bring to this traditionally male-dominated industry,” says Laura Horner, a co-worker.

“What sets Joanne apart is her positive attitude – toward her job, the industry, the people around her, and life in general. In the many years I have known Joanne, I have never heard her speak unkindly or disrespectfully about anyone or anything,” adds Joanne Ritchie, executive director of the Owner-Operator’s Business Association of Canada. “OK, maybe just a bit of between-us-girls grumbling and eye rolling now and again.” What truck driver doesn’t grumble from time to time?

And there are always others to draw into the cause. Al Holbrook, a driver ­trainer with Canada Building Materials, first met Millen-Mackenzie at a Truck World six years ago, when he stopped into the Trucking for a Cure booth. He wanted to discuss plans to paint one of the company’s trucks pink. “Little did I know that I would be drawn in by the human tornado that is Joanne,” he says. “I have attended every convoy with our pink mixer since. Not that Joanne has given me a choice.”

And there’s one other detail to address with her own truck. The markings on the cab will soon recognize Millen-Mackenzie as HighwayStar of the Year. Maybe with one small tweak to the logo. “We’re going to have to pink that HighwayStar out,” she says.

It will look perfect in pink.

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