Indigenous

Cree woman becomes 1st female deputy fire chief in Thompson, Man.

Ashling Sweeny started her firefighting career as a volunteer in Pimicikamak Cree Nation. She is now the deputy fire chief of Thompson's fire department.

Ashling Sweeny started out as a volunteer firefighter in Pimicikimak Cree Nation

Pimicikamak Cree Nation's Ashling Sweeny is the first female deputy fire chief in Thompson, Man. From left, Steve Molloy, Ashling Sweeny, and Mayor Colleen Smook. (Kacper Antoszewski/City of Thompson)

In a first for the northern Manitoba city of Thompson, a woman will be second-in-command of the fire department.

Ashling Sweeny, who started as a volunteer firefighter in her home community of Pimicikamak Cree Nation, has taken on the title of deputy fire chief for the city of 13,000 located about 650 kilometres north of Winnipeg. 

"When I started volunteering in my community, I just loved it. I fell in love with it right away," she said.

Sweeny, who is Cree-Irish, began her new job on Monday. Sweeny has been working with Thompson's fire department for 12 years. 

Ashling Sweeny says she is looking forward to the community engagement part of her job. She volunteers on a number of committees and boards in the city. (Pam Davis)

She started her career as an emergency medical responder and volunteer firefighter with her First Nation in 2004 and was one of the first people from her community to attend the fire college in Brandon, Man.

"When I first applied for fire college, we had to do a physical and obviously the testing is tough," said Sweeny.

"I was a second off [a passing time], so I failed. I had to wait another year."

When Sweeny was accepted the following year, there were only two women out of 32 participants and she was the only person from the north.

"Sometimes you just gotta pick yourself back up and then keep going," she said. 

"And obviously having that support around you too, for someone to help pick you up, because you have days where you will need that support." 

Looking forward to talking to students

Sweeny is a fluent Cree speaker and grew up in Pimicikamak, about 120 kilometres south of Thompson, where she spent a lot of time with her mother on the family trapline.

Part of her new duties as deputy vice-chief will include overseeing some of the day-to-day operations, as well as an increased role in community engagement.

She said her new role will get her in classrooms, where young Indigenous people from the north can see someone that looks like them succeeding in the profession.

Alysse Russell, who is Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, has been a fire paramedic with Thompson's fire department for six months and said firefighting is still a male-dominated industry.

"She's obviously proof that females are breaking these barriers and we can do it," said Russell.

"We can succeed . . .  and give back to the community in those ways and there is a need for it." 

Pimicikamak Chief David Monias said Sweeny is "Pimicikimak proud."

"We have talented and successful and smart people and hard-working people from Cross Lake," said Monias.

"I think our people, as they accomplish something and are successful in something, it is always important to make note of it so they become role models for our youth."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1

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