Winnipeg firefighters implicated in a racist incident in which they refused to treat an Indigenous woman last fall continue to be dispatched to medical calls.

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This article was published 3/2/2021 (253 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Winnipeg firefighters implicated in a racist incident in which they refused to treat an Indigenous woman last fall continue to be dispatched to medical calls.

The City of Winnipeg won't say what disciplinary action, if any, has been taken against the four firefighters, but three sources have told the Free Press they continue to be sent to calls despite a damning report last week.

An independent probe concluded there was a failure to provide proper medical care to the 23-year-old woman who had stabbed herself in the throat, and ensure timely transportation to hospital during the Oct. 7, 2020, call in the North End.

The investigator concluded the firefighters were guilty of ignoring the instructions of a paramedic, who was the chief medical authority at the scene. They failed to prioritize patient care, delayed the patient’s transportation to the hospital, and then colluded to obstruct the probe into their conduct.

Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service Chief John Lane says some aspects of the report  will be dealt with internally and are not for public discussion. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service Chief John Lane says some aspects of the report will be dealt with internally and are not for public discussion. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Those actions, the investigator said, were likely motivated by a combination of "implicit racial bias" against the patient and "racial animus" against a paramedic on the call, who was also a person of colour.

In addition, the firefighters were likely retaliating against the paramedic, since he was known to have filed repeated complaints about racism within the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, including against one of the firefighters on the call.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman and Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief John Lane addressed the issue at a news conference Wednesday, following publication of the Free Press story that reported the investigation’s findings.

"It’s disappointing any time you hear of situations where racism is being alleged or described, but it shouldn’t surprise us. Sadly, we know racism exists in a systemic way throughout Canada and through every level of government," Bowman said.

"Clearly, this kind of investigation was warranted… Obviously, the findings that are being reported are disturbing and they should offend everyone. Let’s not shy away from that."

Lane refused to discuss certain findings made by the investigator, Laurelle Harris of Equitable Solutions, while placing emphasis upon others, such as the fact the incident wasn’t considered to be an example of "explicit anti-Indigenous racism," but rather "implicit bias."

Mayor Brian Bowman says the contents of the report should offend everyone. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Mayor Brian Bowman says the contents of the report should offend everyone. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

When asked why he would only publicly discuss certain aspects of the report, Lane said, "Those findings will be dealt with in the disciplinary process and are not a matter for public discussion."

The fire chief stressed the report was meant to be confidential. He also said the WFPS responds to more than 90,000 medical calls annually and while one case like this is "too many," it’s not reflective of the department’s work as a whole.

"This type of behaviour is not in line with the values and principles of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service. There is absolutely no tolerance for racism or discrimination of any kind at the WFPS or the City of Winnipeg, either among co-workers or while serving the public," Lane said.

"The patient did not suffer any adverse outcome as a result of what occurred on the scene. Was there potential for that? Yes. …The whole point of the patient safety review… is to ensure that it never happens again."

Lane repeatedly declined to provide information on what disciplinary action, if any, has been taken against the firefighters, and whether they remain employed with the department. He also refused to say if the case has been flagged for the College of Paramedics of Manitoba, since one of the implicated firefighters is certified as a primary care paramedic.

The Free Press obtained a Jan. 27, 2021, internal memo from Lane, sent shortly after the external report was finalized.

Mayor Brian Bowman listens as Chief John Lane addresses reports of racism within the fire department. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

Mayor Brian Bowman listens as Chief John Lane addresses reports of racism within the fire department. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

In it, he discussed some findings of the investigation, telling his members that "implicit bias" was found to have affected patient care on the call, but that the offending parties would be dealt with through education, not discipline.

On Wednesday, the morning after the Free Press story was published, Lane sent another memo to his staff, which began: "The topic of racism within our service is in the media again."

"In regard to the public release of the confidential internal investigation, we have remained committed to keeping these details confidential. It is concerning that someone related to the investigation has made the decision to not respect the confidentiality," Lane wrote.

"We know (confidentiality) is vital to the effectiveness of the investigation, to the people involved feeling comfortable speaking openly about their experiences, and the delivery of outcomes."

Political leaders weigh in

“Imagine calling 911 and wondering whether they will actually help. Many Manitobans don’t have to. This is a deep and dangerous problem that has to be addressed. It’s not just that racist attitudes are unacceptable — people who have them are bad at their jobs and people get hurt and die because of them.

“Imagine calling 911 and wondering whether they will actually help. Many Manitobans don’t have to. This is a deep and dangerous problem that has to be addressed. It’s not just that racist attitudes are unacceptable — people who have them are bad at their jobs and people get hurt and die because of them.

“Changing culture should mean if a first responder thinks they get to pick and choose who to help, they have no business working as a first responder. If they think that protecting a reckless co-worker’s job is more important than protecting public lives, they should be fired. The other big change in culture should be consequences, from being disciplined to being charged. If people are not held to account for misconduct, too many innocent people pay a heavy price.”

Dougald Lamont, Manitoba Liberal leader

“It would be an understatement to say that I am beyond upset by the state of blatant and overt racism in Manitoba towards First Nations people… It seems that nearly every day, every week and every month, we see more and more overt examples of systemic and overt racism being displayed from those we hope and expect to trust the most.

“It goes without saying, that anyone in the fields of care, be in medical field, law enforcement or otherwise, should begin every act by remembering that they are dealing with fellow human beings. Paramedics and firefighters are first responders. Their actions determine life or death. To deny care or life-saving measures is inhumane. What is even more concerning is that they tried to lie about what they did and cover up their racially motivated actions.”

— Arlen Dumas, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs grand chief

“Resistance to even the notion that there is systemic racism in the City of Winnipeg and within Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service is a pernicious problem… We know, most of us know, that racial inequality leads to really different levels of access to health-care services.

“This is well researched and it is well known that stigma kills. We should be reflecting on the Brian Sinclair report and how that kind of implicit racial bias leads to death. Hearing from a lot of community members, that that’s what is at stake when you see this kind of fragility that there is no problem at all.”

— Sherri Rollins, city councillor, chairwoman of the protection committee

That memo, in which he spoke against leaks within the department, was quickly leaked to the Free Press.

Bowman said he would like to see leaders of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, which represents city paramedics, and the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg publicly state that implicit bias and systemic racism is a real issue within the WFPS.

The MGEU has publicly addressed this case and concerns about racism in the department. The UFFW did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday and has not yet publicly addressed the findings of the investigation into its members.

"(Implicit racism) is more insidious. It’s more challenging. If someone comes right out and says something that you know is just full-on racist, discipline is a lot easier. It’s easier to identify and to combat it. It’s that unconscious bias, that implicit bias, that is a lot more challenging," Bowman said.

At the tail end of the news conference, Lane was asked if the WFPS or the city had reached out to the patient to apologize.

"The investigator reached out to the patient as part of the investigation," Lane said.

"The City of Winnipeg has not yet done that."

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
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Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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