Manitoba

Brandon's 1st female firefighter retires after blazing new trail in Manitoba city

The early 1990s were not always an easy time for women to climb the career ladder, but Robin Chant was doing it in full firefighter gear.

'They just wanted to really test me more than any other firefighter,' says Robin Chant

Robin Chant retired earlier this week after a 28-year career as a firefighter paramedic in Brandon. She was the city's first female firefighter when she started in 1994. (Submitted by Liam Pattison Photography)

The early 1990s were not always an easy time for women to climb the career ladder, but Robin Chant was doing it in full firefighter gear.

Chant became the first woman firefighter paramedic with the City of Brandon's emergency services back in 1994, battling flames as well as biases. But as she hung up her helmet for the final time earlier this week, she was literally in the driver's seat.

It is tradition to drive a firefighter home in the big truck after her final shift. Chant, though, had been driving the trucks for many years and had a better idea.

"I was like, I'm not going to have somebody drive me home. I'm going to drive the fire truck home myself," she said.

Before the drive, there were a lot of salutes and goodbyes from colleagues as she finished a 14-hour night shift at Station No. 2.

"They let me reminisce … about my career and stuff like that. I did most of the talking that night," Chant said with a chuckle.

Chant says she had to work a little harder to prove herself in the male-dominated career, not just to colleagues but to the public as well. (Submitted by Liam Pattison Photography)

She figured it would be a modest sendoff, since that is a smaller satellite fire hall and only accommodates a four-member crew.

But instead there was a crowd. And they came from all around.

"Half to two-thirds [of the service's squad] came to the fire hall to say goodbye to me. I didn't know the guys were going to do that," Chant said. "A lot of men came."

It wasn't always that way.

"Some men did not want to work with a female," she said, but added "most well-received me."

There were times of tension, which motivated Chant more to prove she was up to the task, she said.

"Any first day of work for any probationary firefighter is nerve-racking, whether you're male or female. Like, are you going to fit in, are you going to know your job when nerves get tight and stuff like that. Mine was just heightened another 10 or 20 per cent being a female firefighter," she said.

Her approach was to "keep plugging away" to be a better paramedic, better firefighter, "whatever that entailed."

"They just wanted to really test me more than any other firefighter," Chant said.

"There was hard moments in that first five or 10 years, but once most guys saw I could do the job, they accepted me, and the only conflicts we had were personality conflicts, not male-female conflicts."

Chant drives herself home in the big truck after her final shift. (Submitted by Liam Pattison Photography)

More surprisingly, she also had to win over the public.

"For them, it was different for them to have a woman show up. I remember running the firetruck in a back lane garbage fire and everything went perfectly, like running the fire truck and getting water to the hose — and there was probably a male firefighter on the end of the hose," Chant said.

"I knew I was being watched by the people in the back lane, whether or not everything was going to work perfectly. Once it was all well-executed, it was just like, 'Oh, she did it.'"

Another time, firefighters volunteered to carry boxes of books for a charity sale, and a member of the public did not want Chant lifting the boxes. They didn't think she should or could.

"One of my co-workers had to take them aside and say, 'You know, she passed the physical the same as we all did. We let her do the job, it would be great if you let her do her job and help you,'" she said.

Hard, rewarding work

Chant was studying anatomy and physiology in university when she decided she wanted to become a paramedic. She then went to the Manitoba Emergency Services College in Brandon and while there, she fell for firefighting as well.

"So I knew I wanted to be more … not just a paramedic," she said. "To be able to go in and put out a fire and save somebody's … life or save somebody's property, and attack it with a scientific background of how fire spreads and all that, I was just intrigued by it.

"I had no idea back then there wasn't more women in the fire service."

The culture has completely changed over the past 28 years, Chant said.

"It's more equal rights, equal opportunities. The women aren't tested anymore on the side, whether or not they can do it. Everybody's just, OK, you're part of the team, how can we make you a better team member?" she said.

By the time Chant retired, there were three other women working alongside her. There had been another but she relocated to Calgary and now works for that city's fire department.

Jason Potter, current deputy chief of Brandon Fire and Emergency Services, started about five years after Chant, who was one of the first people to train him and show him around the fire hall. He said it will be hard to fill the void she'll leave.

"Robin had a really good working relationship with all of her co-workers around here. She had a really kind heart and had lots of compassion, and a lot of people looked up to her," he said, adding she was a mentor to the other female staff.

"She will definitely be missed around here, for sure."

Potter acknowledged "it was a different time and a different environment" when Chant started, but credits her for helping change that.

"The biggest thing with Robin … is that she was very good at her job. A lot of our staff had a lot of respect for her."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Cory Funk

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