I became the first female uniformed emergency management field officer in Ontario. I’m proud to say I paved the way for other young women in this field...
She has a diminutive stature and a smile that could span an ocean. After speaking with her for approximately 10 minutes, it’s impossible to overlook how much Suzanne Bernier loves her life. She admits her career path would not suit everyone – long hours and lots of travel during times of crisis – but for Bernier, life as an emergency management and business continuity consultant and instructor means there is rarely a dull moment. “My family includes incredible people from all over the world, who’ve come together to rebuild communities and to help save lives,” she says. “To me, that’s an incredible family to have.”
In 2015, she released her first book, Disaster Heroes: Invisible Champions of Help, Hope and Healing, and with that, she has added the role of author to her CV. “It’s about ordinary people who’ve done extraordinary things to help respond, rebuild, and recover after some of the world’s most significant modern disasters,” she says. “I’m lucky to be involved enough to see what really happens during disasters – the other side of disaster. It’s not just about what you see in the media – the deaths and destruction and devastation – but what you don’t see. It’s also about all the great things that happen in the aftermath, like communities coming together and individuals pulling together to help their fellow neighbours.”
Bernier was raised in North Bay and graduated from Cambrian College’s journalism program in 1988. She was hired at the age of 19 by a local radio station. After two years, she was lured away from broadcast journalism and offered a job at Queen’s Park as communications advisor for the (then) Minister of Northern Development and Mines, and then for the Attorney General’s office. In 1997, she joined Emergency Management Ontario (EMO) as their Communications Advisor. But almost as soon as she started, Suzanne knew she didn’t want to just talk about all the great work EMO and their Field Officers did, she wanted to become one.
“At first, they didn’t want to hire me as a Field Officer because I was a female,” she recalls. “But I fought for it, and in the end I won. I became the first female uniformed emergency management field officer in Ontario. I’m proud to say I paved the way for other young women in this field.”
Over the course of her career, Bernier has responded to disasters throughout North America, including the 1998 ‘Ice Storm of the Century’, 9/11, the 2003 Northeast Blackout, SARS, Hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Sandy (2012), and many other disasters or crises. In the months following Hurricane Katrina, Bernier was part of a team of crisis consultants who rebuilt fire halls, homes, community gardens, schools and other critical infrastructure throughout the city of New Orleans. She returns on a regular basis to help recover and rebuild her ‘second home’ of New Orleans.
While the number of women working in emergency management has increased over the past 25 years, Bernier contends it remains a male-dominated field; however, she says women should not feel dissuaded from pursuing such a career.
“It’s still challenging, but as long as you know your stuff and you can go in and show people that you know what you’re talking about, and can act responsibly and fairly, you’ll gain people’s respect,” she says. “Be strong, but understand you’re not there to lead or to be the number one person. Emergency management is all about teamwork. No single person has ever saved a community from disaster.”
Bernier admits she has made sacrifices to sculpt her life. She has missed weddings and birthdays, births and funerals. She says she has likely lost a friend or two along the way. She is not married, and has never had children. But she would have it no other way and encourages young people, especially female students, to “do what makes you happy and life will work out.”
Hers is a life lived uniquely, exuberantly and fully complete.
“I cry with joy regularly when I have the time to reflect and to look back on my life. I think about how lucky I’ve been to help, and to meet such amazing, incredible leaders from across the world. I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything. I think my path has led me to this place, because I was meant to be here,” Bernier muses. “The fulfillment I get makes me feel so fortunate. That’s worth more than any pay cheque could offer.”