An investigation into allegations of racism in the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service has vindicated a paramedic who accused two firefighters of refusing to provide medical treatment to an Indigenous woman who had been stabbed in the throat.
The third-party probe concluded the firefighters ignored repeated requests for help from the paramedic, failed to provide medical care to the patient and delayed transportation of the patient to the hospital. It also found they conspired to lie to the investigator hired by the city to review the incident.
In a 78-page report — a copy of which was obtained by the Free Press —– Laurelle Harris of Equitable Solutions Consulting said the firefighters’ conduct was likely motivated by "racial animus" and "implicit racial bias."
The patient was a 23-year-old Indigenous woman who had stabbed herself in the throat with a broken beer bottle.
Harris ruled the firefighters likely refused to help the patient in an attempt to retaliate against the paramedic (also a person of colour) for having filed complaints about racism within the WFPS.
In the past, the paramedic had reported one of the firefighters to WFPS Chief John Lane for making racist social media posts. That firefighter is alleged to have called the paramedic a "sand (N-word)" during a past dispute.
"The investigator has identified the patient’s social standing/race/Indigeneity as the likely subject of implicit bias that affected the conduct of some members that night," Harris wrote, adding that one firefighter was also likely motivated by "racial animus" toward the paramedic.
Around 4 a.m. on Oct. 7, 2020, a caller contacted 911 to report that a woman had stabbed herself in the throat in the North End. Within 15 minutes, the Winnipeg Police Service and the WFPS — including a fire unit and a paramedic unit — were on the scene.
The paramedic began treating the woman. He was the "highest-ranking medical authority on scene" and the four firefighters were mandated to follow his instructions.
After the patient was put into the ambulance, the paramedic requested that one of the firefighters ride in the ambulance with him to the hospital, because he had to "conduct multiple interventions while trying to stop the bleeding from the patient’s neck."
The firefighters ignored three requests for assistance, which led to a two-minute delay in taking the patient to the hospital.
Eventually, one of the firefighters did ride in the ambulance to the hospital, but he refused to help the patient. The woman was forced to press the dressings to her own neck while the paramedic conducted treatments that required both of his hands.
The firefighter's refusal to help the woman, the investigator said, demonstrated a "lack of concern" for the patient's "physical and emotional well-being."
"This lack of concern is indicative of the presence of implicit bias on the basis of the social standing and/or the race/Indigeneity of the patient," Harris wrote.
The firefighters' actions violated the WFPS code of conduct and respectful workplace rules.
During interviews with the investigator, the firefighter who rode in the ambulance said he did not believe the situation was overly urgent or serious, since there did not seem to be "a significant amount of blood loss."
However, the investigator noted that explanation raised concerns about his competency, since it is "not possible to determine if a penetrating neck wound is life-threatening without the use of advanced diagnostics."
The WFPS medical director told the investigator there was "no way" to determine in the field whether the woman’s life was at risk, that the amount of blood loss was irrelevant to such a determination, and that a review of the event found it to be a "near miss."
"Any unnecessary delay to arrival at hospital in the case of a penetrating neck wound as was the case in this instance is ‘unacceptable’ and could have led to dire consequences for the patient," Harris wrote, summarizing the testimony of the medical director.
"The investigator finds it implausible that all four members of the crew have asserted the same explanation for the delay, when none of the four crew members’ respective narratives accord with the video evidence," Harris wrote.
"Accordingly, the investigator finds (the firefighters) agreed upon a common narrative to be presented to the investigator with the intent to obstruct the investigation of the (paramedic’s) complaint."
On Oct. 19, 2020, the Free Press published a story about the paramedic’s allegations in which it was reported the city had hired an external investigator to probe the matter.
Afterwards, the paramedic said he received harassing phone calls, including one in which he was told if his house caught fire, he shouldn't call the fire department. He also said people showed up uninvited to his home and scared his family, so he decided to file a police report.
During interviews with the investigator, one of the firefighters repeatedly referred to the incident as "just another call in the North End" and claimed that "Black Lives Matter had made martyrs out of career criminals."
That firefighter also said the colleague, whom the paramedic had reported for sharing a racist social media post, was a "beautiful man… with a heart of gold." In addition, he said the culture in the WFPS encourages workers not to be "a rat."
Harris ruled the paramedic who filed the complaint also breached respectful workplace policies by swearing at and insulting one of the firefighters, but said such behaviour "while unacceptable, should be contexualized" given the events of the night.
The Free Press requested an interview with Lane and comments from the WFPS, the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union (which represents city paramedics) and the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg.
Report's key findings:Click to Expand
— Firefighters ignored repeated requests for help from the paramedic, who was the highest-ranking medical authority at the scene
— Firefighters failed to take positive steps to prioritize patient care, and they delayed the patient's transportation to hospital
— Firefighters conspired to lie to the investigator and obstruct the probe
— Firefighters’ conduct was likely the result of their dislike of the paramedic, who had filed complaints about racism within the department; racial animus toward the paramedic, as well as implicit racial bias against the Indigenous patient
In a written statement, MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky said the findings of the report are "very troubling" and should serve as a "wake-up call" to the City of Winnipeg.
"The investigator found that elements of racism, including resentment towards a paramedic who had previously raised concerns about racism, interfered with the care of a patient in a serious medical emergency," Gawronsky said.
"Though serious concerns about racist, discriminatory and disrespectful behaviour within the WFPS had previously been raised, the senior WFPS leadership failed to meaningfully challenge the internal culture of denying and even covering up racist and discriminatory behaviour, and of blaming and shaming its victims."
The UFFW did not respond to a request for comment.
The request to interview Lane was denied. However, in a written statement, Lane acknowledged "issues of racism exist in the organization."
"There is no tolerance for racism or discrimination based on any human rights characteristics among (WFPS) employees, any City of Winnipeg employees or with any members of the public. The city remains committed to identifying and resolving any issues that arise," Lane said.
"The WFPS is in the process of addressing any issues that may be related to individuals under the provisions of our collective agreements. The outcomes associated with any individuals will not be shared publicly."
A city spokeswoman sent a statement outlining "activities" the city has launched to improve its workplace, including mandatory anti-racism training set to be rolled out in March.
Gawronsky said those initiatives are not enough to address the issue of racism in the department.
"These baby steps may be worthwhile, but they fall far short of what is needed to deal with the seriousness of the problem. The highest levels of city leadership need to step in and take meaningful action to fundamentally change the culture within the WFPS," Gawronsky said.
The city did not answer questions about whether the firefighters remain employed or continue to respond to medical calls.
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