By Emily Stonehouse
As you walk past kids’ clothing in stores, it’s always the same.
The gendered sections; butterflies and sparkles in hues of pinks and purples on one side. Dinosaurs and trucks in muted blues and greys on the other.
The racks of tiny t-shirts, telling kids their interests, their hobbies, their passions, without them even knowing.
And of course, anyone can be interested in any of those things. A gender shouldn’t define a person, nor should a shirt indicate who that person is.
But what would happen, if we stripped away the stigmas of gender, and began to look at the heroes who make a difference in our community as a whole.
In Haliburton County, there are an impressive number of women in leadership positions with the local fire departments; a professional industry that is largely dominated by men.
Across Canada, roughly 11 per cent of firefighters identify as women. And while we are fairly lucky in Haliburton County with the number of women who are on each department, they are still outnumbered by men.
“It wasn’t easy getting started,” said Jenn McGovern, the first female captain of the Minden Fire Department, “it’s definitely still a man’s world.”
McGovern became a volunteer firefighter in 2019, after being told repeatedly by her partner at the time that she couldn’t do it. “I am very dedicated to it, and very passionate about it,” she said when she sat down with the Times. After getting her foot in the door, McGovern attended recruit school to further her knowledge and skillset, and after being on the department for two years, was promoted to captain.
“We always work as a team for everything,” noted McGovern, “and yes, maybe there are some things that I may not be able to do the same way as some of the men do them, but there are some things where I have more strength than they do.”
With a background in the mental health field, McGovern noted that she carries a level of empathy that comes from her own experiences and knowledge, and is proud to be able to bring that to her team.
Logging over 500 volunteer hours a year dedicated to the department, McGovern said she has no intentions of stepping back, and is incredibly proud of her team and the people who helped her get to where she is now.
She hopes that other women enter the field of firefighting to start to change the stigma, and so young girls can have people in the industry to look up to. “If you put your mind to it, you can do it,” she said, “and us women living up here are proof of that.”
In Highlands East, Angie Grant and Sandra Dabrowski have been on the department since 2019. “What sparked the interest for me was seeing firefighters in action,” said Grant, who shared a memory from when she was a manager at Bark Lake, during a time where emergency personnel were required for a backwoods incident. She remembered that watching them work was incredible. “You can see how impactful they are,” she said, “watching heroes coming to the rescue.”
The couple shared that they made the decision together to start volunteering with Station Three out of Gooderham, and they have never looked back. They started weekly training before attending recruit school, and dedicated themselves to learning everything they could about the field.
“Across the board, it’s definitely still a male dominated field,” said Dabrowski, “but we’re lucky in our hall, because I’d say our team is close to 50/50.” “And our team is super supportive of all of us,” echoed Grant, “our chief is very into equality in every way.”
Grant and Dabrowski noted that the capacity of calls changes on a regular basis. Sometimes they will get one to two calls a week, and other times, it can be multiple calls in a single day, with the summer months being the busiest.
“But it really is the greatest job in the world,” said Grant. “There’s a rumour that says it’s the greatest job, and I can confirm, it is,” she beamed. Dabrowksi said that becoming a firefighter allowed her to embrace bravery in all its forms. “I think if you want to show you can be brave, you want to be brave, this is such a good avenue to be that brave version of yourself.”
After each interview with these women, each one suggested one more person to connect with. A person they admired, who taught them, trained them, and represented women in the field in ways they described as “upstanding” and “inspirational”. That person, is Stacey Parish.
Parish was named the deputy fire chief for Dysart et al in January, 2023, and the full time training officer in March of the same year. That comes after she was captain for seven years, and a member of the department for 20. She is the first woman to ever be named deputy in the county.
“I’ve always tried to be inclusive,” said Parish, “that’s how I have always led. A firefighter is a firefighter, and we are all a team.”
Parish credits her team with always supporting her, and notes how they are her second family, in every sense of the word. “We are a very tight knit community,” she said, referencing not only fellow women in the industry, but the county firefighters as a whole.
Parish noted that growing up, she did not have an interest in firefighting, “It was never presented to me as a job a female could do,” she said. “But my advice is that if you have any inclination to do it, just do it. The women who get into it are just as strong as men. And I am very proud of all of them, and the entire fire department community here.”
So perhaps it’s time to forget about the stigmas of gender – the clothing, the biases, the expectations – and begin to look at the real people who make a difference in our community as a whole. Because we have no shortage of heroes in Haliburton County.