Michelle Vandevord is Manager, First Nation Emergency Management, Saskatchewan Emergency Protective Services.
My name is Michelle Vandevord, and I’m from Muskoday First Nation. The most important job I’ve ever had is being a Mother. I’m very fortunate to have been given three beautiful daughters, whom I love more than anything in the world. That is, until I had grandchildren…now there is love you can only appreciate once they touch your life!
I’ve enjoyed many different jobs on the reserve over the years, but none has been more important than my volunteer work. It’s who I am, and it pushes me to be the best I can be. I do it to honor my Grandmother Delilah and Mother Lillian, whom I miss dearly. They instilled in me volunteerism and a love for my community at a very early age, and for that I will be forever grateful.
When I was asked to attend a Firefighter meeting at the Fire Hall, it was an easy decision. That was 18 years ago, and as I write this, I’m wondering—where did the time go? This summer will be my 19th year with the Muskoday Volunteer Fire Department. It’s the most important job I’ve ever had with my community.
I joined Muskoday Volunteer Fire Department because at the time, there were no women on the force. I took it as a challenge to start something new, and also to be a role model for the young girls on the reserve—especially my own daughters.
It wasn’t easy. I remember, at my first meeting, being singled out by the Fire Chief with remarks such as “Well, boys, now you’ll have to shut the bathroom door!” I’m sure he’d seen other girls come and go. But it made me mad, and is one reason I stuck out my first year.
Today I thank him for that motivation, because after my first fire I was hooked. I became a part of a big family that I trust with my life and love very much.
The challenges and losses are huge in Volunteer Fire Fighting, as you are on call 24/7 with no pay, and in some cases no insurance. Resources are limited, and budgets depend on support from your Chief and Council.
Our department has been fortunate, but that is not the case for a lot of reserves. That is no fault of the Chiefs—I wouldn’t want the responsibility of having to decide between clean water and fire equipment. These are choices that should never have to be made, but they do, all too often.
Our office is helping to change that, though. Last week, our officers found, and delivered, a used Fire Truck to a community that didn’t have one. On the delivery day, they started pumper-training firefighters. I can’t begin to describe what that truck gives to the firefighters and the community. We’re also helping First Nations draft MOUs and Service Agreements with surrounding rural municipalities to protect their communities.
My team has so much experience, knowledge, and dedication–without it, we wouldn’t be where we are today. I’m proud of the work they accomplish every day, and I’d like to thank the families they leave behind to help others in Saskatchewan.
My advice for the next generation of girls who want to join a Fire Department is: Don’t give up. Work hard and earn respect. Never be afraid of the challenges, because skills will come in time and with practice. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do it, because you can. Be a role model on and off the job.
Most importantly, don’t be scared to say when you are afraid to do something—but know your limits. It took me five years to climb a ladder and get on a roof, but eventually I did it. Be a hero in your own mind first, and then spread that spirit outward.
Currently, I work for First Nation Emergency Management, as Manager. My job is now my passion, as it allows me to help other First Nation communities in Saskatchewan with all aspects of Fire Service. How cool is that?
I love my job, and I take what I do very seriously, as peoples’ lives depend on the services we provide. We have over a hundred years experience in our office, and we use it to mentor and support First Nation communities from all over Saskatchewan. Our goal is to build resilience, capacity, and sustainability in each community we serve.
My job before becoming a manager was Fire Prevention, and it continues to be a major aspect of my work. I visit First Nations schools to deliver a Fire Safety Program to all who want the program. That is what really saves lives in all our communities—being ready for a fire before it happens. Fire Prevention is not a week we honor once a year. It’s something that needs to be done regularly and with passion. I encourage all teachers to check out NFPA.org and teach the Learn not to Burn Program regularly throughout the year. That program was made for teachers and has pre-made lesson plans. I guarantee kids will always remember the teacher who helped them make a home escape plan.
Finally, I’d like to thank a few people because without them I would not be where I am today. First, my family, because it was them I left behind whenever my radio went off.
That was hard on my girls, so it makes me sad to think what I put them through as I rushed to help others. Without their support I couldn’t have done this for as long as I have. Second, Uncle Ivan Bear, who accepted me as a member in our fire department: his leadership and love of the department will always be close to my heart. He’s the reason our department is now what every First Nation’s department should strive to reach. Third, Captain Randy Bair, who asked me to attend my first meeting: his mentorship and training has given me the skills I need to be successful and safe. I always be grateful for the day he passed me a fire hose.
Last but not least, I thank the Prince Albert Grand Council, who hired me to do the work I do today—Frank Bighead and Richard Kent especially have been mentoring me in my new role, and I’ve learned so much that some days I feel like I can change the world. They took a chance on a female firefighter, and now I work hard to prove to them they made the right decision. I love my job and I wouldn’t change where I am in my life for anything!