Winnipeg's fire-paramedic chief is feeling the heat, after breaching respectful workplace policies by appearing to criticize paramedics during a firefighters conference two years ago in Maryland — a breach that became very public at an arbitration hearing Wednesday.
At the firefighters conference, held in August 2015, Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief John Lane made a presentation about the city's integrated fire-paramedic service model, which has been in place since the 1990s.
A summary of the presentation — which said that model is "continuously threatened by single-role EMS providers and misinformed leaders" — was posted to Twitter by Alex Forrest, head of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg.
That tweet caught the attention of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union Local 911, which accused Lane of insulting and disrespecting the approximately 350 paramedics it represents.
And on Wednesday, two years of infighting over the issue spilled into public view, with lawyers for the two sides appearing at an arbitration hearing.
Keith LaBossiere, MGEU's lawyer, said Lane's participation in such a presentation compromised his relationship with paramedics.
"As the leader of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, he's supposed to lead by example instead of presenting under an offensive banner," said LaBossiere, suggesting Lane had jeopardized employee morale and well-being.
"His conduct was found to be improper, unwelcome, and inappropriate and offensive."
Lane's participation in such an event constituted "discriminatory action" and ran contrary to the city's respectful workplace policy, LaBossiere said, while breaching the Workplace Health and Safety Act.
Pamela Clarke, an outside investigator hired by the city to look into the union's complaint, agreed with that assessment last year.
The hearing heard that according to a 39-page report based on interviews with 155 people, Clarke initially said the brochure's wording fell within the parameters of the city's respect in the workplace policy but later changed her finding.
John Jacobs, the city's labour lawyer, attempted to have CBC's camera barred from continuing to cover the hearing on Wednesday afternoon, arguing it should be kept confidential because it was a workplace dispute. Arbitrator Arne Peltz dismissed the request.
Earlier in the day, Jacobs told the hearing the dispute is due, in part, to "social difficulties" between members of the two unions. He also noted Lane did not personally write the summary in the conference brochure.
"The chief had a hand developing the brochure but it was drafted by someone else," Jacobs said.
'Unwarranted and reprehensible'
In an April 2016 letter to Clarke, Lane argued the allegations levelled against him by the MGEU were contrived, and the filing of the complaint itself was "unwarranted and reprehensible."
He also wrote that union leaders had actually seen the presentation two months before he repeated it for a Maryland audience, adding he praised Winnipeg's integrated model and the work of all its employees.
"I believe that at its core, this complaint is a cynical and vexatious use of the respectful workplace policy," Lane wrote.
When Clarke sided with the union last November, Lane reversed course, offering up a written apology to paramedics and union leadership, whom he had previously accused of trying to escalate the controversy amongst union members.
"The investigator's interviews clearly demonstrated that a groundswell of concern was expressed by the membership when the summary was broadcast on social media, compelling the executive to act," his apology letter read.
'His true colours shined through and ultimately made matters worse.' - Keith LaBossiere
"I sincerely regret my error in this judgment."
The apology did not alleviate tension between the two sides. Instead, LaBossiere told Peltz that Lane's apology came too late, was insincere, and "threw gasoline on the fire."
"When he did eventually explain, his true colours shined though and ultimately made matters worse," LaBossiere said.
The union is asking for declaratory relief as well as damages from the city to union executives, the union itself, and the individual paramedics it represents for the breach of the policy.