Opinion

The United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg has had precious little to say about the allegations that two of its members refused to provide medical support to an Indigenous woman because of an inherent racial bias.

The United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg has had precious little to say about the allegations that two of its members refused to provide medical support to an Indigenous woman because of an inherent racial bias.

Throughout this story, which the Free Press first exposed last October, the UFFW and its mercurial president Alex Forrest have declined comment. Even when we reported the confidential details of an independent review of the incident in question, which concluded racial bias was involved, Forrest remained silent.

However, two things happened to change all that.

First, the two firefighters in question were suspended from their jobs pending a formal disciplinary hearing. They had, remarkably, been allowed to continue working after the incident was reported to the Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service.

United Firefighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest said he will defend the firefighters at the centre of the allegations. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

United Firefighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest said he will defend the firefighters at the centre of the allegations. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

And second, Mayor Brian Bowman threw a gauntlet down at the feet of the UFFW, challenging the union and its president to take a stand on the issue of systemic racism.

A little more than an hour after Bowman issued that challenge, Forrest ended his five months-long silence and returned fire.

In his own news release, Forrest said Bowman's comments were inappropriate given the fact that an internal disciplinary process was still unfolding. Forrest also said he would not be making any "statements at this time until after all of the issues and information is addressed and the disciplinary meetings have concluded."

But right after promising to refrain from making any comments or reaching any conclusions, Forrest did just that.

The two firefighters in question "have been tried and convicted before the full facts were dealt with," Forrest wrote, adding that the UFFW would be "defending our members to the fullest extent possible and we believe that our members will be vindicated."

Forrest's response is hardly surprising, given the UFFW has a legal and moral obligation to defend its members. However, there were some alarming aspects to his news release.

After months of silence, he entered the debate only after the mayor called him out. More importantly, even when he finally did have something to say, he failed once again to acknowledge that systemic racism exists and that his union is committed to making it a thing of the past.

Mayor Brian Bowman (left) and Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service Chief John Lane were forced to hold a press conference after the allegations of racism came to light. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Mayor Brian Bowman (left) and Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service Chief John Lane were forced to hold a press conference after the allegations of racism came to light. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Some might call a statement like that little more than lip service, and they wouldn't be wrong. But it's still important for key public figures such as Forrest to be seen and heard taking a stand on something this important.

Bowman's motivation for challenging Forrest is hardly altruistic; the mayor, along with WFPS Chief John Lane, were feeling the heat after it was learned the firefighters in this incident were allowed to continue working up until last week; the public challenge to the UFFW was an attempt to change the channel.

Still, Bowman made a good point: where does the UFFW stand in the debate on systemic racism? Given the details revealed in the third-party investigation of this incident, that is a question that should follow Forrest for some time.

In that report, we learned the two firefighters and two others from their crew provided false statements to the investigator and then changed their stories after being shown video evidence that disproved their accounts. And that one of the firefighters kept referring to the incident in question as "just another call in the North End" while expressing concern that "Black Lives Matter had made martyrs out of career criminals."

It's also important to note the paramedic involved in this incident had made previous complaints about some of the same firefighters posting racist comments on social media, with one calling him a "sand (N-word)" during a face-to-face confrontation.

The paramedic also claimed that after filing his complaint, he received threatening phone calls, including one that warned him that if his house caught on fire, he shouldn't expect any help from the fire department.

With evidence like this now out in the public domain, the hill Forrest and the UFFW must climb to full vindication is not insurmountable, but it has become exceedingly steep.

The union must defend its members and ensure due process is followed; of this there is no doubt. But how the union defends its members and, more importantly, what it says in public about the broader issues are extremely important.

Right now, the UFFW has done nothing to suggest that it believes systemic racism exists or that it has any role to play in fighting it on the front lines of the fire and paramedic service.

The UFFW is hardly alone in this kind of dangerous posturing. Across Canada and the United States, police unions have become a potent political force that have frustrated attempts by government to combat systemic racism and the unbridled use of deadly force in confrontations with people of colour.

There is no easy way for the UFFW to balance its legal obligation to defend the firefighters with the moral obligation we all have to fight systemic racism. But at the very least, it could start with a full explanation of where the union and its president stand on the issue.

For the sake of the community, and the firefighters who genuinely do not allow racism to affect them in the commission of their duties, the UFFW and its president better find a way to become part of the solution.

Right now, they are both fully and completely part of the problem.

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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