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A city paramedic has accused two of his firefighter colleagues of refusing to treat an Indigenous woman who’d been stabbed in the throat — an incident described by the complainant as "racially motivated."
For at least five months, members of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service have raised concerns over online activity by firefighters that’s been characterized as racist. The complaints have sparked a City of Winnipeg investigation and at least two internal memos from WFPS Chief John Lane.
But the pattern of alleged racist conduct reached new heights earlier this month when two city firefighters were accused of refusing emergency treatment to an Indigenous woman during a critical care call.
The accusation — detailed in internal department communications obtained by the Free Press — comes to light amid a society-wide racial reckoning and recent high-profile incidents of alleged discrimination in Canadian health care.
The leaked internal emails are between a department whistleblower and Lane. They begin with an Aug. 31 email from the whistleblower, who complains department brass has failed to address racist behaviour by WFPS members.
In a follow-up email on Sept. 22, the whistleblower said five firefighters who had previously been reported for racist social media posts had not faced any discipline. The whistleblower alleged their racist conduct continued and the members were "recently promoted."
"I brought forward a number of examples of racist posts made by different members of the WFPS and names of those who liked it, shared it and condoned these posts. I mentioned how one in particular was from a white supremacist website," the whistleblower wrote.
City probes racist, sexist social media posts by fire-paramedic staffClick to Expand
Posted: 5:35 PM Sep. 23, 2020
The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service is investigating social media posts by employees that allegedly contained racist and sexist content, offences the service says could trigger penalties that range up to termination.
"I had mentioned that I would seek other employment if this could not be handled in a timely fashion. It appears to me that this complaint is not being handled appropriately and it seems that the WFPS hopes that this complaint will go away."
The city acknowledged last month it had launched an investigation into "unacceptable" behaviour on social media by WFPS members. That probe is ongoing, and it remains unclear what — if any — disciplinary action has been taken.
In June, Lane sent the first of two internal memos to his members to address complaints of racist conduct. When the complaints continued, the fire-paramedic chief issued a second internal memo in September.
But on Oct. 8, the whistleblower again reached out to Lane, this time reporting the alleged racist conduct in the department had begun to affect patient care. Earlier that month, a "racially motivated" incident on a critical care call had left him "angered, shocked, embarrassed and deeply offended."
The whistleblower alleged two city firefighters refused emergency treatment to an Indigenous woman who’d been stabbed in the neck.
One of the accused is a member of the executive board of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, the union representing city firefighters, according to the leaked documents. The other is a firefighter who had previously been reported for racist social media posts.
"It is my belief that I was purposefully left alone with a critical patient and no assistance was provided to me due to (the) recent racial complaints I have brought forward to the WFPS," the whistleblower wrote in an email to Lane.
"Moreover, the patient was aboriginal, and… (one of the firefighters) has spoken negatively about aboriginals, immigrants and minorities in his online posts. I strongly believe this incident was racially motivated."
It remains unclear what — if any — response the whistleblower received from Lane.
The allegation comes on the heels of multiple high-profile accusations of racism in Canadian hospitals.
On Friday, Sadie North, the mother of former Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North, held a press conference where she claimed she was subjected to racist treatment during a recent stay at Grace Hospital in Winnipeg. North said the symptoms of a bacterial infection on her leg were initially ignored by health-care providers, and that a doctor questioned her about alcohol use, despite the fact she doesn’t drink.
On Sept. 28, Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman, died in a Quebec City hospital, sparking nationwide outrage. As she lay dying in bed, Echaquan recorded hospital staff directing racist insults and abuse at her.
“It is my belief that I was purposefully left alone with a critical patient and no assistance was provided to me due to (the) recent racial complaints I have brought forward to the WFPS.” – Whistleblower email
The Free Press requested comment from the UFFW Monday but did not receive a response prior to deadline.
WFPS spokeswoman Kristin Cuma said in a written statement that both the city and department take "allegations of racism very seriously." However, she declined to provide "specific details about human resources matters."
"We can advise that an external investigator has been engaged to assist in the review of this most recent incident," Cuma said.
In a written statement, Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, which represents city paramedics, said she has previously "raised concerns about racism, sexism and bullying within the WFPS."
"These allegations are very serious and extremely concerning. The City of Winnipeg needs to investigate immediately, and take whatever steps are necessary to protect those involved," Gawronsky said. "No worker should be subject to bullying, harassment or racism at work. Putting up with such behaviour is never part of the job, and patient care should never be compromised."
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.