It is an honour and a privilege to present this year’s President ‘s Trailblazer Award to 26-year veteran Oakville firefighter and Assistant Platoon Chief, Joanne Blanchette. Chief Blanchette is a true trailblazer for many women in the fire service having showed great leadership and perseverance in taking on legal challenges to ensure her employer and union met their legal obligations to protect her rights as a pregnant woman in the workforce and the fire service.
When Joanne was pregnant with her first daughter, Grace, she struggled with managing modified duties on straight days. Her collective agreement had a provision for on-shift modified duties, but she did not have the support of her union to move forward with a grievance. Under her own steam and with her own finances, Joanne proceeded with a hearing at the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. Her struggle started in 2005 and didn’t end until after the birth of her second daughter, Lucy, in 2009. But Jo didn’t stop there. She continued to advocate for pregnant firefighters in her own and other departments. She travelled and attended many days of arbitration to support other firefighters.
Monique Belair, Deputy Fire Chief of Oakville Fire, has this to say about Joanne: “It is important to note that earlier in Joanne’s career regardless of the possible backlash from her peers/colleagues she engaged in the onerous task of challenging the paternity policy of the day. The outcome was groundbreaking for future women in the fire service that would face this same issue.”
Natalie Badame, a firefighter from Ajax, also describes Joanne as an incredible person and leader. She describes how Joanne supported her through her arbitration. Even though they had never met, Joanne stood behind her during one of the worst times in her life and career. Natalie said the following: “Joanne is a true leader and genuinely cares about the best interest of fellow women in the fire service. I don’t know whether the service would be the same without women like her. She is beyond deserving of this award and I will always remember her as one of the strongest women I’ve ever met.”
FSWO Director and Toronto Fire Services firefighter Julie Petruzzellis describes Chief Blanchette as a long-time friend and mentor. Meeting in a prenatal class in 2006, Joanne took Julie under her wing when she was still a recruit, offering invaluable information about firefighter culture. Julie said the following about Joanne: “She made me feel like it was inevitable that I would fit in and learn how to be successful in my career. I found I could come to her for honest advice whenever I questioned my decision to become a firefighter or had concerns about what was going on in my workplace.”
Joanne continues to pave the way for other women and is now an Assistant Platoon Chief with Oakville Fire. Chief Belair says this of Joanne: “Joanne always immerses herself in whatever role she undertakes. Her career progression from Firefighter to Assistant Platoon Chief has seen her develop and expand her skills and knowledge as a proactive fire service leader.” According to Chief Belair, Chief Blanchette consistently provides input into Departmental Policies and Procedures that enhances the level of service Oakville delivers and ensures the health and safety of its firefighters. She routinely reaches out to connect with new female recruits offering them her support and mentorship.
Also in support of her nomination, Carmen Santoro, retired President of the Oakville Professional Firefighters’ Association, noted that Joanne was the first female firefighter in Oakville. He notes that she quickly earned the respect of her fellow firefighters by demonstrating her determination to be the best at her profession. She has inspired other female firefighters by mentoring and inspiring them by using her strong leadership skills.
FSWO sincerely congratulates Chief Joanne Blanchette on her achievement as this year’s President’s Trailblazer Award winter.
Nominators: FSWO Director, Julie Petruzzellis, Toronto Fire Services