‘I had to prove myself’: Sask. woman makes firefighting history

More than 20 years after she became the longest-serving woman in her firehall, Michelle Vandevord of Muskoday First Nation is the first female president of the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada (AFAC).

In an interview, Vandevord spoke about taking on the new role this summer and her plans to prioritize prevention and tackle gaps facing First Nations fire services. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why did you become a firefighter?

A: I had a friend, Randy Bair, who shoulder tapped me and said, “Hey, you should come to the meeting.”

It was all males at that time. I got pushed harder, I feel like, and I even admit that to this day. I made a point of just sticking it out. And I loved it. I instantly just really wanted to help in my community. It was something brought down to me from my grandmothers. (Volunteering) was close to my heart.

It being a small community, most of the people in the fire department were family or close friends. A lot of it was just cousins ragging each other. I remember on my first meeting them saying, “Boys, we have a girl here now, so you’re going to have to close the bathroom door.”

I had to prove myself just like anybody else did. If one of the boys were bringing one of the bigger (men) down the ladder, I was doing the same thing.

Q: How did your experience shape your priorities in AFAC?

A: It all comes back to our housing. We know housing is inadequate and we have overcrowding. On reserve, when (Ottawa) is allocating funding, a lot of that funding is directed to certain programs (like health and education).

(For fire protection,) each First Nation community has the ability to use that money any … way they want. It’s never been specific to fire services on reserve. Let’s say you don’t have a fire department; (it) may be going to help with housing or needs with the health sector.

One huge thing I would love to see changed is having those fire dollars specific to fire prevention on reserve. We’d see a huge decrease in fires.

There (also) hasn’t been fire stats or data compiled by Indigenous Services Canada since 2010, which is a huge gap. If you have a fire, what do you with that information? It just sits at the firehall or sits in the community.

Q: What’s your advice to young women who are aspiring firefighters?

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A: When I first joined, I remember there might have been one other female within all the departments of Saskatchewan in fire training. In the next years, there’d be a few more. Now I know there’s some fire departments where it’s almost (at parity). Watching that over the years really uplifts my heart, to see more girls getting into it.

The same advice (is what I give) my own daughters their whole lives: You can do and be anything you want. That goes for anything in your life.

TORONTO STAR