Winnipeg's fire-paramedic chief has contradicted an independent review that found evidence of racism among his staff, and he did it during Anti-Racism Week.
John Lane issued an internal memo to staff Thursday morning — quickly leaked to multiple media outlets — taking issue with a key finding of a probe into a critical-care call last fall that sparked accusations of discrimination and patient neglect.
"We have treated the results of the October incident investigation with confidentiality. Unfortunately, the release of the confidential report through different sources has brought unwanted attention to the matter," Lane wrote. "Therefore, I am making a brief statement."
The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service chief continued, writing, "The possibility of racial animus towards the ambulance paramedic that was raised in the report was determined to be unfounded."
A paramedic accused firefighter colleagues of failing to provide proper care to a seriously injured Indigenous woman on Oct. 7.
The 78-page report produced by Laurelle Harris of Equitable Solutions concluded that the conduct of various firefighters on the night in question had "more likely than not" stemmed from implicit — or unconscious — racial bias toward the patient, as well as "racial animus" toward the paramedic.
In his memo, Lane said that disciplinary outcomes for some members involved in the call had taken place, although he did not say who they were or explain the actions taken. The process is ongoing for others, he wrote.
Lane’s correspondence prompted a quick response from the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, signed by union president Alex Forrest.
"One important lesson learned from this incident is that politicians and respected organizations should wait for due process to be concluded before they make damming statements based on partially leaked information," Forrest wrote.
"The unjustified demands for termination of four respected and valued members of the WFPS has caused indescribable pain and suffering for the individuals and their families."
But just hours after sending the memo, during a hastily organized Thursday afternoon press conference, Lane backtracked on the language, clarifying that the finding of "racial animus" towards the paramedic was not "unfounded," but rather "could not be verified" during the disciplinary process.
"The (independent report) was one component in our investigation. The report indicated that racial animus among the crew members may have been a factor on this call, but details of this possibility could not be verified," he said.
"Regardless, we want to ensure that racial animus is never part of the equation in our workplace, and that’s really why we’ve implemented immediate education and training for our employees."
When asked if there were other aspects of the independent report that could not be verified during the disciplinary process — such as one firefighter showing a lack of concern towards the patient, or four firefighters colluding to obstruct the probe — he declined comment, citing privacy concerns.
Nevertheless, he said it wasn’t a matter of the report not being accurate.
"It’s not a matter of the accuracy, it’s a matter of it being one level of information. Details of the information that were provided in (Harris's) report need to be verified as part of the disciplinary process. Those processes are clearly laid out in the collective agreements," he said.
"What (the report) really helped us with is to highlight the fact that systemic bias is present. We immediately undertook measures and continue to undertake measures to make sure we are aware of those systemic biases."
Mayor Brian Bowman said Thursday he had not read Lane's memo.
"I am not going to be providing comment on a memo that I haven’t reviewed," he said.
The Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union President Michelle Gawronsky said in a written statement that the timing of Lane’s memo was noteworthy, adding the chief seems more concerned about the department’s reputation than fixing its workplace culture.
"It is questionable leadership for the chief to issue a memo downplaying and distorting the findings of racism in the independent investigator’s report during the City of Winnipeg’s Anti-Racism Week," Gawronsky said.
"We must remember the seriousness of what the investigator found — that there was an attempt to collude and cover up the unnecessary delay in transporting a seriously injured Indigenous patient to hospital."
In his memo, Lane also said efforts are underway to find the source of the leaked report.
"Maintaining confidentiality is essential because it protects the integrity of the investigation and ensures that all employees can feel comfortable bringing forward concerns," he wrote.
"This was an egregious violation of the respectful workplace policy and it has caused harm to the very members that the policy is intended to protect, as well as to the reputation of our service."
— With files from Joyanne Pursaga
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.