By Lilia Yumagulova
Michelle Vandevord (Day Star Woman) is from Muskoday First Nation, Saskatchewan. Michelle is a mother of three daughters and three adopted sons. She is also a very proud Kookum (‘Grandmother’ in Cree) to four smart, handsome and funny boys who in Michelle’s words “are the reasons I work so hard”.
Michelle is currently the Executive Director for Saskatchewan First Nation Emergency Management (SFNEM) in Prince Albert. SFNEM provides Fire and Emergency Training, Response Services to First Nation communities, and organizations. SFNEM’s mission is to build capacity on-reserve so First Nations can lead and manage their emergencies as they have planned. This capacity is built through a wide array of services and courses ranging from Structural & Wildland Fire Hall Assessments, Community Risk Assessments, Emergency Management courses, Firefighting courses and Daycare and Headstart Inspections. SFNEM also leads the Free Firefighting equipment donation program that coordinates donations of used firefighting gear within the communities that need them the most.
Saving lives as a female firefighter
Michelle’s inspiring career as a female firefighter started with her volunteering for her community. She has been an active member of the Muskoday First Nation Volunteer Fire Department for twenty one years as the longest serving female firefighter and the first female Captain in the department’s history.
In advocating and supporting fire safety and emergency management capacity on reserves, Michelle’s career has been a nationally inspiring example that has enabled a new generation to follow in her path:
“My job every day is to support First Nation emergency management training, response and fire services on-reserve in Saskatchewan. My team is creating real change and building capacity that has been recognized across Saskatchewan and Canada. This year we witnessed the first all-female team compete in the Saskatchewan First Nation Regional Firefighting Competition. My goal is to see more First Nation female’s in the fire service, in higher positions, and be a voice for them to break glass ceilings all over Saskatchewan and Canada.”
Michelle’s exceptional leadership goes beyond Canada and is recognized internationally by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Rising Star Program.
When asked about her greatest achievements Michelle shared, “It is saving lives in and around my community. It is seeing the look in a little girl’s eyes when I’m in my turnout gear. It is teaching Fire Prevention programs and hearing from parents how excited their children were to come home and make home escape plans. And, sadly, it has even been through our greatest losses such as being asked to stand in uniform for funerals of Motor Vehicle Collisions we have attended.”
“All fire calls that we attend are preventable”
When Michelle says she wants to break glass ceilings for girls and women, she speaks from experience – as a female firefighter that has accomplished many firsts, she is a national role model. In 2019, Michelle was voted in as the Saskatchewan Director for the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada (AFAC). In 2020, she was voted in as the first female AFAC President. Michelle is the first woman to hold both of these positions in the association’s history.
One of her most memorable and honourable moments was when the Assembly of First Nations passed the resolution supporting the creation of the Indigenous Fire Marshal’s (IMFO) office, during a 2017 session in Ottawa. The creation of the office is led by AFAC, which was formed to address existing gaps in fire services of First Nations communities in Canada with a core mandate to “create a new organization through Indigenous collaboration – for us, by us.” As Michelle takes on this significant national role, she emphasizes the importance of fire prevention:
“We know that fire deaths are 10 times higher on-reserve. There are many factors that play into those stats. The work that we do to build capacity means that First Nation Fire Departments can respond with the proper training and equipment. A big part of my job is teaching firefighters how to deliver fire prevention programs to the communities they serve. This is a very important part of my job and one that is close to my heart. All fire calls that we attend are preventable. If we can increase awareness of fire hazards in the home and community everyone will be safer, and firefighters will respond to less calls. Everyone in the community plays a part in fire safety.”
As we celebrate Michelle’s exceptional career of service and dedication to fire safety, we want to thank her for being an inspiring role model for little girls and women in Indigenous communities and across the country by saving lives and being the embodiment of change in this evolving and dynamic field.