As political stories go, few are as combative and colourful as the decades-long civil war that has raged in the ranks of the Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service. Now, remarkably, it seems that there is a possibility of peace on the horizon.
A slim possibility — but a possibility, nonetheless.
The ongoing war of attrition between firefighters and paramedics has reached crisis proportions, as witnessed by an incident earlier this year in which two firefighters withheld medical treatment from an Indigenous woman during what appeared to be a dispute with a paramedic on scene.
An investigation found racism had fuelled the incident, but acknowledged that a toxic relationship between firefighters and paramedics was also a major underlying factor. That finding did not extinguish the burning conflict between the two arms of the WFPS.
Both the paramedic and one of the firefighters involved have filed defamation lawsuits against each other. And the union representing paramedics has demanded the city relocate their members out of firehalls because they have become unsafe workplaces.
However, out of the black smoke of this smouldering dispute, a ray of light.
First, Alex Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, has decided to step down from his position. The impact of this development on the future of paramedic-firefighter relations cannot be understated
Forrest was, for decades, a legitimate force in provincial and municipal politics, although his influence waned as he became ensnared in various controversies related to his salary and an unconscionable deal he struck years ago with city council to have municipal taxpayers cover most of his salary.
United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)
Forrest also funnelled enormous union time and resources into a campaign to not only promote the UFFW brand (to the detriment of the WFPS), but also to discredit paramedics who did not first train as firefighters.
And then, hot on the heels of that news, the city announced it is hiring an outside consultant to help trigger “a culture-shift plan” for the WFPS. It’s a promising development, but unlikely on its own to calm the hostilities that exist between the two professional groups.
Indeed, although the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, which represents paramedics, applauded the hiring of a consultant, the UFFW did not respond to requests for comment.
It should be noted that the origins of the dispute, and the factors that have sustained it through many decades, are not entirely well known. What is known is that paramedical services have increased in importance over that period, resulting in a major increase in investments in personnel and equipment dedicated solely to responding to medical emergencies. That, it seems, was viewed as a threat to the long-term viability of firefighters who, in most major cities, have considerably fewer fires to fight.
So, on one side you have paramedics, who —- based on the fact they are facing a steady increase in demand for their services — are on the go all day long. On the other side, you have firefighters, who respond to considerably fewer calls and who want to really add paramedical training to their array of skills so they can do it all.
It’s not clear where the solution lies for the consultant who’s been hired. It seems impractical to demand that every member of the WFPS is equal parts paramedic and firefighter, although there are more and more people with both skill sets entering the service every year. And it seems improbable that both sides, having built opposing viewpoints over many years, are simply going to bury the hatchet and live in peace and harmony.
However, both sides need to keep one key fact in mind, a fact that I have raised in previous columns: the public largely does not care about why they don’t get along — they just want firefighters and paramedics to get along.
Firefighting and paramedicine are both too important to be compromised by a lack of maturity and a penchant for conflict. It’s time for those who simply cannot get along, to move along.
Journalist, Heal Thyself
Readers who are angry at journalists in general — or me in particular — often make the allegation that we “never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
In the gross majority of cases, this is a taunt uttered by someone who really knows a whole lot less about the topic in question than I do. They see the facts that support their cause; if I’m doing my job properly, I should know the facts on both sides of an issue.
That having been said, there are times when we in the journalism game deliberately ignore facts to make a good headline.
Case in point: last week, The Canadian Press moved a story that was published far and wide about how Saskatchewan was contracting out some elective surgeries to private clinics to ease its backlog. The story appeared in many newspapers, including the Winnipeg Free Press.
“Saskatchewan to privatize some surgeries to reduce growing backlog from COVID-19”: That’s a headline with some punch. Many readers will know that under federal law, it is illegal for provinces to allow citizens to purchase health-care services from private providers outside the public system. That is largely to ensure that key human resources — doctors, surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists — do not leave the public system and perform only private procedures.
Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman (Michael Bell / The Canadian Press files)
The problem here is that the headline, and the article to some degree, is misleading. Saskatchewan is not “privatizing” these surgeries.
Some facts: first, the public system has always relied heavily on private clinics and facilities to deliver services. Ever had a blood test at the tiny lab window located in or next to your physician’s office? Both the lab and the clinic are private businesses that provide services to the public system for a fee. Government controls the fees and the billings.
That is not privatized medicine.
Second, most provinces, including Manitoba, have for a long time used private surgical clinics to perform some elective procedures to help keep wait lists down. Once again, government sets the fees for these procedures and oversees billing.
That is also not privatized medicine.
Private medicine involves allowing people with financial resources to purchase a health service so that they can get it sooner than they could through the public system. Some countries, most notably the United Kingdom, have an official two-tier system that gives people the option of waiting for a service in the public system or paying out of pocket to get it privately.
My main concern here is the CP story does not provide a true definition of private medicine, and uses the word “privatizing” recklessly, even erroneously.
Other media outlets did better. The CBC did not run the CP story, and the headline on their own version was much better: “Sask. to fund private surgeries in an attempt to slash massive backlog.” That is a headline that is much more honest and factual.
Why am I concerned about issues like this? Many politicians in this country make it sound like all we need to do to solve backlogs is to allow people more access to privatized services. Have your knee-replacement and eat it too.
Unfortunately, it takes a lot of careful planning and oversight to make a true, two-tier health care system work. You have to ensure medical professionals agree to devote a pre-determined number of hours to the public system. Government also needs to regulate the fees that are charged through the private option. And there must be concerted efforts to train and recruit more doctors, nurses and other health care specialists to ensure we have the people to serve both public and private options.
Stories like this have a habit of building misconceptions that other media outlets, or pollsters, reinforce.
About the same time the CP story was published, Second Street, a polling company, released the details of a survey it did on health care reform. Among the findings: two-thirds of Canadians want governments to use private clinics to provide health-care services; and just under two-thirds want the option of allowing Canadians to purchase health services “using their own money” at private clinics.
The poll has deliberately misinformed respondents to get a response. There was no preamble to any of the questions that informed respondents that governments already purchase surgeries and other procedures from private clinics. Nor was there any mention of the fact that buying health-care services directly from private providers would most definitely starve the public system of resources.
Now, some of the respondents likely don’t care. But if you don’t really care, and you have the money to pay for your own procedure, you can go to another province, the U.S. or Lithuania for that matter. But Second Street had an obligation to provide a bit of information to respondents so that we know if people care about crippling the private system, or not.
The verdict: in this case, both CP (and all the news outlets that published its story) and Second Street did not let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Do you have a subject you would like to see covered in Not For Attribution? Do you have specific questions about journalistic practices or the business of news? Do you have specific concerns about politics or political leaders? Email me your questions and I will respond. Promise.