As a union, we represent many workplaces that have historically been male-dominated spaces. It’s perhaps for this reason that women still make up only 37% of our membership at a time when they occupy 55% of jobs in the federal public service.
Airport firehalls are one workplace in particular where women still represent a minority group. On this International Women’s Day, we bring you the story of one of our former members: Christine Janes, Canada’s first woman to hold the designation of aircraft firefighter.
In 1982, fresh out of high school, Janes took an office job at the Deer Lake Airport in Newfoundland and Labrador. Like many of us, she had no idea airports had firehalls.
“I thought that was pretty cool,” said Janes. “The more I used to visit over there, the more I liked it.”
During these many visits, she learned to drive, earning her driver’s license behind the wheel of a firetruck. Soon thereafter, Janes competed for an aircraft firefighter position and got the job, beating candidates from across the country for one of three positions.
From the get-go, Janes understood that entering a male-dominated profession would come with its share of challenges. During her first training session, the 115-pound 18-year-old received her share of skeptical looks from her fellow trainees.
When the opportunity presented itself, Janes was quick to volunteer for the first practice drill.
“As fast as I could, I raised my hand,” she said. “Everyone there had respect for me afterwards. They all took me aside, one at a time, to tell me how much respect they had for me.”
“They couldn’t believe I had volunteered. But I did it on purpose; I had to show them what I could do.”
Back at the firehall, Janes was also met with skepticism. Because of her gender, she was treated as an intruder and an outsider. In addition to constantly having to prove her worth, she also had to contend with superiors who were determined to break her spirit.
On one of her first days on the job, a fellow firefighter cornered her and told her he would make it as hard as he could for her to stay. Another had a curious propensity for showing off his speedo in her presence. Superiors often made her work twice as hard as her counterparts.
“If this had taken place in this day and age, there would have been many harassment charges.”
The systematic gendered harassment she endured on the job led to both physical injuries and emotional exhaustion. One day, she was made to work until her fingers were raw. Too often, she went home after work and cried over what had transpired earlier that day.
Still, she persisted. Janes credits her father for her poise.
“He told me: ‘The harder they are on you, the more you have to keep trying.’”
Despite the bullying and harassment that permeated the job, Janes still recalls her time as a firefighter with great fondness.
“It was difficult, but I would never take it back,” she said. “I don’t regret it. I loved it.”
“The thrill of going into – and being surrounded by – fire was unbelievable.”
After five years in the job, Janes left and started a family. She credits her time as an aircraft firefighter for building up her confidence. She could lift people, pull heavy objects, climb three storeys up a ladder. These feats helped her recognize her own strength, both physical and mental.
To this day, she feels great pride in knowing that she went into – and excelled at – a traditionally male-dominated profession.
And she’s not the only one who’s proud. Whenever her sons meet someone new, her time as an aircraft firefighter has a way of popping up in conversation.
“Do you know what my mom used to do?”