Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman and firefighters union president Alex Forrest publicly locked horns Friday in the aftermath of a damning report into racism in the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service.
The spat began with Bowman calling out Forrest for his public silence on the findings of a recent independent probe that ruled "implicit racial bias" among a city firefighter crew was responsible for failure to properly treat an Indigenous patient during an October 2020 call.
"Earlier today, I wrote to the longstanding president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg... to express my concern regarding the lack of public communication from the UFFW regarding issues of systemic racism in the WFPS and the UFFW," Bowman said in a news release issued at 12:50 p.m.
At 2 p.m., the mayor was holding a news conference on the subject. After Bowman read his opening remarks and began fielding questions from reporters, Forrest fired back with a message of his own.
"In response to Mayor Bowman, myself and the UFFW will not be making any statements at this time until after all of the issues and information is addressed and the disciplinary meetings have concluded," Forrest said in a news release.
"Unlike the mayor, we will respond at the appropriate time in a professional manner so that it does not prejudice the ability of our members to defend themselves from these accusations."
Forrest said the UFFW will defend its members "to the fullest extent possible," and believes they will be "vindicated."
On Oct. 7, 2020, the WFPS responded to a critical care call in the North End, after a 23-year-old Indigenous woman stabbed herself in the throat.
After a paramedic on the call accused attending firefighters of failing to provide treatment and delaying patient transportation to the hospital, the City of Winnipeg hired an independent investigator to look into the matter.
In her final report, Laurelle Harris of Equitable Solutions ruled the firefighters’ conduct was likely motivated by a combination of "implicit racial bias" against the patient and "racial animus" against the paramedic, who is also a person of colour.
In addition, Harris ruled the firefighters were also likely acting in retaliation against the paramedic, who was known to have filed complaints about racist conduct within the WFPS. They were also found to have conspired to obstruct the investigation into the incident.
“What I’m urging him (Forrest) and, quite frankly, urging leaders throughout our community within the City of Winnipeg workforce, is to really acknowledge that systemic racism exists, because it needs to be said, and it needs to be said often,” – Mayor Brian Bowman
In his written comments Friday, Forrest seemed to push back against those findings, saying: "Our members and our department have been tried and convicted before the full facts were dealt with."
When portions of the UFFW news release were read out by reporters, the mayor said he was happy the union leader was speaking publicly about the case — since he had been concerned about Forrest's silence.
Nevertheless, Bowman reiterated he would like to see Forrest publicly acknowledge systemic racism exists in the WFPS and UFFW.
"What I’m urging him and, quite frankly, urging leaders throughout our community within the City of Winnipeg workforce, is to really acknowledge that systemic racism exists, because it needs to be said, and it needs to be said often," Bowman said.
"We also need to discuss what each of us are doing within our areas of responsibility to address it."
The mayor said the disciplinary process into the case is ongoing, and will continue to unfold over the coming weeks. Bowman said he would commit to making public as much information about the outcome of that process as possible.
"What I want to see is discipline occur in accordance with due process and those governing parameters, including the parameters set out in the collective agreement, which include the ability for a hearing," Bowman said.
Bowman also confirmed Forrest — a full-time union leader –— continues to have a portion of his salary paid for by Winnipeg taxpayers, as part of a longstanding and controversial arrangement.
Last month, the UFFW announced Forrest had been re-elected for a fourth term as International Association of Fire Fighters Canadian trustee, the highest elected firefighter labour role in the country.
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