Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman was warned about the toxic workplace culture in the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service three years ago, in letters sent by the paramedics' union, which were obtained by the Free Press.
Letters between Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union president Michelle Gawronsky and the mayor, in which the union leader calls for changes to the workplace culture, date back to March 2018.
The first letter was sent March 5, 2018, shortly after WFPS Chief John Lane was found to have breached respectful workplace policies against city paramedics, resulting in a $100,000 fine. In it, Gawronsky took issue with comments Bowman made to the media about Lane after the ruling.
"I was disappointed and surprised by the tone and content of your comments… The arbitrator’s ruling this week found that senior leadership at the city had engaged in disrespectful and inappropriate behaviour and had failed to take appropriate action on these problems," Gawronsky wrote.
"(The ruling) also found that the chief had not been forthright in his testimony about this serious matter."
Gawronsky went on to say the union "wants to move past" the issue, but that action must be taken to fix the broken culture in the department. She called for the mayor to step in and "lead that change."
"The workplace culture in the WFPS has to change and together we can make that happen," Gawronsky wrote.
Four days later, Bowman responded with a letter of his own, indicating he would like to meet with Gawronsky to discuss her concerns. He also made clear his continued support for Lane was not "without reservation."
"…While I continue to support the chief, it was also my expectation that he review the arbitration ruling, that he accept it as a learning opportunity, and that moving forward in a spirit of collaboration with the union and its members was absolutely required," Bowman wrote.
"I do agree with you the workplace culture in the WFPS has to change, and I am certainly looking forward to chief Lane leading that change."
On Feb. 3, 2021, Gawronsky wrote to the mayor again to request an "urgent meeting" to discuss the "crisis" in the department. Her letter was related to a leaked report into allegations of racism and patient neglect by firefighters who responded to a 911 call last fall.
The union leader wrote to the mayor again on Wednesday morning.
"Instead of setting up a meeting, you sent me a letter asking me, on behalf of our union, to speak out publicly against systemic racism, the very racism the MGEU had previously and repeatedly spoken out against and filed formal complaints about," Gawronsky wrote.
"One of your staff called me to express surprise at our apparent lack of confidence in the WFPS leadership’s commitment to transforming their workplace culture. Your office should not be surprised by this."
Gawronsky wrote that WFPS leadership has already had "many years of opportunity to change the situation," and suggested Bowman’s recent comments about the department's workplace culture "sound eerily similar to the words you wrote three years ago."
The Free Press requested comment from the mayor Wednesday. In response, a spokesman for the mayor directed the Free Press to monitor Bowman’s afternoon news conference.
At the scheduled event, Bowman recounted a number of initiatives he’s led to combat racism, including the creation of a human rights committee, mandated reconciliation training for civic employees and the hiring of a municipal diversity co-ordinator. He also pointed to anti-oppression training that will be rolled out in city departments and a workplace cultural assessment of the WFPS.
The mayor repeatedly acknowledged that systemic racism is a problem throughout all levels of government and expressed his commitment to address it.
"The two largest unions at the centre of (the current WFPS controversy) don’t always get along, and they haven’t for many, many years… That being said, the issues of systemic racism are serious and they really do warrant ongoing and renewed efforts by civic leaders," Bowman said.
The mayor said he was disappointed Gawronsky and United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest have failed to publicly acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in the WFPS in recent weeks.
In a past written statement, Forrest said that racism, be it implicit or explicit, is a serious matter and stressed his union has long been dedicated to combatting it. However, the union leader stopped short of acknowledging the existence of systemic racism in the WFPS.
Meanwhile, the MGEU has issued numerous statements to media outlets in recent weeks in which it identified racism as a pressing issue in the WFPS that must be rooted out.
Following the mayor’s news conference, the MGEU released another written statement calling Bowman's comment an "obvious lie" that could be disproven by a "simple Internet search."
"Now that the crisis in his workplace has deteriorated to the point that patient care was placed at risk, the mayor has made a cynical and transparent attempt to reframe this crisis as a feud among unions," the MGEU said.
"This is a shameless tactic to divert attention from his legal responsibility as the employer to ensure a workplace free from these behaviours. The mayor has the authority to fix this problem. He should use it. Emergency services are too important to allow this situation to continue."
Bowman said the current controversy is subject to an ongoing disciplinary hearing and that he would like to see "appropriate disciplinary measures enacted." He also said "there is no way to deny" that issues of racism are negatively impacting relationships between members of the WFPS.
The mayor said he sent a letter to the leaders of the unions that represent all WFPS members on Tuesday in which he requested a meeting to have an "open and candid" discussion among all parties to "better address the issues" in the department.
Bowman said the UFFW and the MGEU had yet to agree to the meeting.
“After too many years without progress, I reiterate our view that change will only come to the WFPS if the highest levels of city leadership get meaningfully involved.” – Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union president Michelle Gawronsky
In the letter Gawronsky sent to Bowman Wednesday morning, she said she must decline the invitation, since the mayor requested the details of the discussion remain confidential from both union rank-and-file and the media.
"I am willing… to participate in good faith conversations about what the city needs to do, but I cannot accept your office’s unreasonable conditions," Gawronsky wrote.
A source later told the Free Press Bowman’s office dropped the request for confidentiality Wednesday afternoon.
"After too many years without progress, I reiterate our view that change will only come to the WFPS if the highest levels of city leadership get meaningfully involved," Gawronsky wrote to Bowman Wednesday.
"On its own, the WFPS leadership has shown it is either unable or unwilling to make the change that is so desperately needed."
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.