The union that represents Winnipeg paramedics has demanded the immediate removal of its members from fire halls saying they're increasingly afraid about an unsafe working environment.
The demand was made in a letter written by Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union president Michelle Gawronsky to Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman on Friday. A copy was obtained by the Free Press.
"As has been well documented, Winnipeg’s fire halls have for some time been a difficult, if not impossible workplace for many paramedics. This week’s memo has now made the situation completely unacceptable, unsustainable and unsafe for many paramedics," Gawronsky wrote.
"It is for this reason, and for the future of emergency medical services in Winnipeg, that we are urgently requesting that the city take immediate steps to move paramedics out of fire halls now."
The demand is the latest sign the relationship between the firefighters and paramedics, who work in the amalgamated department, may be beyond repair.
"... we are urgently requesting that the city take immediate steps to move paramedics out of fire halls now." — MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky in a letter to Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman
The Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service has been embroiled in controversy in recent months after a paramedic accused two of his firefighter colleagues of refusing to help treat and transport a seriously injured Indigenous woman during a call last fall.
A third-party investigation supported several of the paramedic’s key accusations, and the firefighters were placed on administrative leave. This week, United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest announced they would soon return to work.
In a memo to his members, Forrest vowed to pursue "all aspects of justice" related to the accusations levelled at his members. The firefighters have not been publicly identified and it remains unclear if they were disciplined.
In her letter to the mayor, Gawronsky said the "intimidating and hostile" work environment Winnipeg’s paramedics have long been subjected to was exacerbated by Forrest’s memo.
"In addition to expressing pride in the conduct of personnel involved in the incident of Oct. 7, 2020, the memo contains comments that have understandably been received by paramedics as intimidating and threatening," Gawronsky wrote.
"Following the release of this memo, tensions within fire halls grew immediately. Paramedics have come forward to our union expressing serious concerns about potential reprisals and intimidation from some firefighters."
"Paramedics have come forward to our union expressing serious concerns about potential reprisals and intimidation from some firefighters.” — Michelle Gawronsky
Gawronsky said she’s aware of three paramedics who resigned recently and others who are applying for other jobs.
The UFFW did not respond to a request for comment.
In a written statement, a spokesman for the mayor pointed to a recent meeting Bowman brokered between Gawronsky, Forrest, WFPS Chief John Lane, among others, to discuss the conflict. Bowman was also present.
The spokesman said Gawronsky promised to work on greater dialogue between herself, other union leaders and top department brass, adding that "the mayor expects (her) to make efforts to follow through on her commitment."
In addition, the spokesman said the most recent workplace complaints raised by the MGEU have been sent to the city's chief executive officer, Mike Ruta, for review. On the question of moving paramedics out of fire halls, the spokesman said that’s a matter for the province to address, not the mayor.
"Given that the ambulance service is owned by the Province of Manitoba and contracted to the city, and the fact we are in year five without a contract, your question would be best addressed by the provincial minister of health who has yet to publicly share the provincial government's plans for ambulance services," the spokesman said.
In a written statement, a city spokeswoman said that Ruta is aware of Gawronsky’s concerns and "looks forward to having a conversation" about them, so they can "find ways to repair the relationship between the two unions."
In her letter, Gawronsky again called on Bowman to personally step in and address the crisis in the WFPS, since she does not have confidence in the department's leadership to make changes.
"As I’ve expressed in the past, we need you to step in and use your authority to make sure the culture at the WFPS changes, and to restore public confidences in the leadership at the WFPS," Gawronsky wrote.
"The current chief has shown time and time again that he is either unwilling or incapable of leading this change."
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