Photo © Courtesy of Preparing Our Home
By Raye Mocioiu
For over 25 years, Captain Randy Bair served with the Muskoday First Nation Volunteer Fire Department. A mentor to many, Bair’s work in the Fire and Rescue Service extended over 40 years, until his death from cancer on January 29, 2021, at the age of 61.
It was Bair who shoulder-tapped Michelle Vandervord to join the Muskoday First Nation Volunteer Fire Department. Twenty-three years later, Vandervord is the longest-serving female firefighter, the first female Captain in the department’s history, and the Associate Director for Saskatchewan First Nations Emergency Management (SFNEM) in Prince Albert.
Through Vandervord, Bair’s memory lives on—not just in her work to protect her community but in her passion for passing on knowledge and skills so that First Nations can lead and manage their emergencies.
“A big part of my job is teaching firefighters how to deliver fire prevention programs to the communities they serve,” Vandervord shared in a 2020 interview. “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.”
National statistics show that Indigenous peoples are ten times more likely to die in fire-related incidents, and those living on reserves are 18 times more likely to evacuate due to disasters.
Building the capacity for emergency preparedness in these communities is critical, but comes with challenges; starting a fire department, securing a building and equipment, and connecting volunteers are all essential steps that Vandervord has been working to implement nationally.
However, one program is taking on the task of empowering Indigenous youth leadership in emergency preparedness. The Preparing Our Home Program is an inclusive, people-centred community-based approach that strengthens disaster resilience capabilities in Indigenous communities by building leadership through youth training and exercises.
Founded in 2014, this global and national award-winning program has brought together participants from over 70 communities across Turtle Island, connecting youth, Elders, and community members and weaving together Traditional Knowledge and Indigenous and Western Science.
True emergency preparedness is action-oriented and experienced through practice. Preparing Our Home workshops find the intersection of traditional knowledge and emergency tactics. But perhaps the most important aspect of the Preparing Our Home Program is the role of women as leaders. Program participants are largely women; Indigenous women are foundational to family, community, governance, and societal wellbeing as life givers, water carriers, knowledge keepers, professionals, and leaders. Women are reclaiming their power in community safety by coming together and pursuing professions like firefighting and being leaders in emergency preparedness.
The “Randy’s Shoulder Tap” scholarship, organized by Preparing Our Home and administered through SFNEM, is for Indigenous female firefighters starting their careers. Just as Bair’s shoulder tap to Vandervord led her to break glass ceilings and become a national role model, this scholarship is a natural next step to support women in reclaiming their power and pursuing leadership roles.