The union representing the city’s firefighters says four Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service members taken off active duty over a racism allegation have been unfairly “tried and convicted” in the court of public opinion.
United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest said Friday he intends to defend four firefighters removed from active duty, after allegations they refused to help a paramedic while responding to a call involving an Indigenous patient in October.
An investigation made public this week concluded firefighters displayed an implicit bias and a lack of concern for the emotional and physical well-being of the seriously injured patient.
“Our members and our department have been tried and convicted before the full facts were dealt with,” Forrest said in a written statement.
“We ask all the citizens of Winnipeg to not make any conclusions until you are made aware of all of the facts and circumstances of this issue.”
Forrest made the statement one hour after Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman called out the union leader for his silence on the issue and implored Forrest to condemn systemic racism.
Forrest called racism “a very serious issue” but insisted his members have the right to defend themselves as part of a disciplinary process.
“Unlike the mayor, we will respond at the appropriate time in a professional manner so that it does not prejudice the ability of our members to defend themselves from these accusations,” Forrest said.
“We will be defending our members to the fullest extent possible and we believe that our members will be vindicated.”
The disciplinary process involves a hearing.
Bowman declined to say whether he believes the firefighters in question should be dismissed. The mayor deferred to the disciplinary process.
The mayor said he is not involved in that process and could not say why the four firefighters were taken off active duty after the results of the investigation were made public.
In the report into the October incident, investigator Laurelle Harris concluded racism played a role in how the Indigenous patient was treated at the scene.
The complaint came from a paramedic who alleged he was delayed in transporting the patient to hospital because a firefighter “blatantly refused” to help.
Harris found that it was “more likely than not” that the firefighter refused to help the paramedic with the badly injured patient because the paramedic had previously raised concerns about racist Facebook posts made by members of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service.
Harris also concluded another firefighter who did not help the paramedic was likely motivated by the “racial animus he bore towards the complainant.”
Bowman said the city has attempted to mitigate racism since 2017 by educating every employee about the intergenerational effects of residential schools on Indigenous people.
Prior to Forrest’s statement, the mayor asked the union leader — who had not commented on the issue all week — to recognize the existence of systemic racism.
“Our community has expectations for emergency services and the level of service that’s provided to each person who calls Winnipeg home,” Bowman said. “That level of expectation has been challenged and we as leaders need to be accountable and work together to fix this.”
Forrest said his union worked at combating racism “years before the City of Winnipeg put forth any policies preventing systemic racism.”
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