In case you were wondering, this is what happens when “systemic” meets “racism.”

Opinion

In case you were wondering, this is what happens when "systemic" meets "racism."

The Free Press recently revealed the findings of an independent investigation into an October 2020 incident, involving four Winnipeg firefighters who refused to assist a paramedic in providing medical attention to an Indigenous woman who had stabbed herself in the neck.

The review determined the firefighters demonstrated "an implicit racial bias" towards the patient, and "racial animus" towards the paramedic in question, who is a person of colour and had lodged previous complaints about racism within the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service.

Incidents such as this resonate deeply with Indigenous people and, in fact, all people of colour. They are also the source of outrage because, as is often the case, the people who claim to be the enemies of systemic racism tend to spend more time making excuses for the incidents than punishing them.

Initially, that seemed to be exactly what WFPS Chief John Lane and Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman had in mind on this file.

In memos written by Lane before the investigator’s report was leaked to the Free Press, and after, at a Wednesday news conference, the WFPS chief and the mayor were prepared to explain away what had happened, with no real consequences.

That changed suddenly Thursday night, as the Free Press learned the firefighters involved, who had been allowed to continue working since the incident last October, had been removed from active duty.

That certainly wasn’t the way things appeared to be heading.

After receiving the final report, Lane sent a memo Jan. 27 to WFPS members, confirming "implicit bias" was involved, but indicating it was more likely the firefighters would be subject to education rather than disciplinary action.

On other issues of possible misconduct, Lane refused to discuss what, if anything, he was prepared to do.

The fire chief also seemed to be much more concerned with the fact the report had been leaked than the behaviour of his firefighters. After the Free Press published details of the review, Lane sent another memo to all WFPS staff, expressing concern the "confidentiality" of the review process had been compromised. 

It was a deliberate effort to steer attention away from the allegations of racism.

It continued Wednesday at a news conference, when Lane leaned into one of the most tried and true institutional rationalizations for racism: the one bad apple argument. The firefighters involved in this incident do not represent the "values and principles" of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, the chief asserted.

With respect, Lane is in no position to make that claim.

His insistence incidents such as this are normally "confidential" means there is no way to know how many similar events have occurred. Lane essentially admitted, even if there were other incidents, he would not tell anyone about them as a matter of policy.

Throughout this whole ugly episode, Bowman has appeared positively pedestrian.

As is his style, he looked and sounded concerned about what had happened. At the news conference, he acknowledged "racism exists in a systemic way" in every level of government, and the report’s findings "are disturbing and they should offend everyone."

Yet, in a moment when the mayor needed to demonstrate some leadership, he was oddly quiet. 

It should also be mentioned the same week Lane received the internal review, the mayor announced there would be mandatory anti-racism training for city councillors and senior bureaucrats. "We have to combat racism in all its forms," he said.

It is more than a little odd and disturbing Bowman could pledge himself to fighting racism "in all its forms" — with the knowledge the WFPS was in the process of excusing an incident of "implicit racial bias."

Systemic racism is, by definition, built on a foundation of implicit, sometimes unconscious but almost always deeply ingrained, attitudes and behaviours. Systemic racism is allowed to grow in institutions because implied or unconscious acts of racism are tolerated and excused as less serious forms of racism.

Initially, at least, Lane used the review’s finding of "implicit bias" as a trump card to absolve his firefighters of responsibility and give them a pass on punishment.

It’s quite likely the removal from duty had nothing to do with the implicit racial bias, and more to do with some other form of misconduct. Refusing orders from the paramedic, the senior medical professional at the scene, and then refusing to provide care to a patient are grounds for severe discipline.

However, Lane and Bowman must understand the reasons why the firefighters refused to provide care to an Indigenous woman are rooted in the implicit bias.

You simply cannot separate this into two different categories of transgression. 

Neither Lane nor Bowman is a true enemy of systemic racism. Rather, they are living, breathing examples of how it is allowed to thrive.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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