City officials say a union-organized event with Canada's prime minister at one of Winnipeg's busiest fire halls did not follow proper protocols and is now being dealt with as an HR matter.
During a cross-Canada tour in July, Justin Trudeau and federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr visited with union officials from the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg (UFFW) and firefighters who were on duty at the Osborne Village fire hall.
Despite the high-profile guest, it was revealed during a recent labour arbitration hearing that city officials, including the fire chief, were unaware the event occurred until after the fact.
Michael Jack, the city's chief corporate services officer, said UFFW president Alex Forrest did not follow the rules when he organized the event.
"It's not any mystery that Alex is a high-profile figure, operates not only within the union environment, but is also a political figure," said Jack. "So it's not completely unexpected that he is going to be attempting to orchestrate such events. What our meeting after imparted to him is that the process he followed is not acceptable and we are not accepting it."
Jack said in the following months, Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief John Lane held meetings with Forrest and the district chief who helped him co-ordinate the event to express the city's concerns.
"I think it's obvious some assumptions were made on the part of people involved when they were being asked to do certain things or having the event explained to them, absolutely — assumptions that we want to correct in the future," said Jack.
"We would expect Alex, who completely understands how the fire paramedic service works, to have followed proper protocols and processes. Fair to say he did not in this instance."
No paper trail
CBC News filed a series of freedom of information requests to get insight into how an event with the country's head of government could be organized without coming to the attention of city officials.
Requests for any documentation relating to the event, including emails and text messages, from nearly all staff who were present yielded no records.
"All individuals in the photo, less two that are currently away from the workplace and cannot be reached, have confirmed that they do not have any responsive records," said the response to an access request.
2 fire vehicles out of service during visit
The city said during the time the prime minister was at the fire hall, two of the station's fire response vehicles were on "out-of-service" status, meaning they could not be dispatched to a call.
A city spokesperson confirmed the two vehicles were unavailable for over two hours.
"Station 4's engine was out of service from 12:30 p.m. to 2:41 p.m. The Station 4 rescue was out of service from 1:14 p.m. to 2:40 p.m.," said Michelle Finley.
However, Finley said the city cannot confirm at this point whether or not these requests were made in relation to the Trudeau visit. She said one of the engines had returned from an apartment blaze on Sherbrook Street earlier in the day and it would be common for the vehicle and crew to be unavailable for a certain period following such an event.
A transcript of dispatch radio communications for the station obtained by CBC News confirms that a call from the station was made shortly before the prime minister arrived, requesting that an engine and a rescue vehicle be put on "unavailable" status.
"We can tell you that there were four calls received in the vicinity of Station 4 that likely would have been assigned to the station. In reviewing these four calls, response times by stations other than Station 4 were acceptable," Finley said.
'No apologies for building positive relationships': UFFW
Forrest declined an interview or to answer followup questions about the prime minister's visit, but issued a statement in which he said his members are disappointed the event has become a "negative media issue."
"Prime Minister Trudeau is not the first politician to visit a fire hall and will likely not be the last," Forrest wrote. "It is absolutely vital that our decision-makers understand the services and value we provide to the city we proudly serve."
Forrest said the visit was a direct result of the relationship the International Association of Fire Fighters has forged with the prime minister.
"This was not the only fire hall he had visited unannounced. He has been in fire halls from the Maritimes to British Columbia. We make no apologies for building positive relationships, and it is interesting to note in other cities, visits were appreciated and supported by the public," the statement said.
CBC News reached out to other cities whose fire departments hosted an event with the prime minister last summer. Unlike the Winnipeg event, the City of Regina confirmed senior officials were notified and involved in the planning process for Trudeau's April 27 visit at a local fire hall.
Mayor questions process of arranging PM event
Mayor Brian Bowman was quick to express concern about the Winnipeg Police Service helicopter being used in a movie shoot, but had not said anything about firefighters and apparatus being made unavailable during the prime minister's visit.
When asked if Bowman took issue with Forrest's actions, the mayor's communications director sent an email on Monday, stating, "Air 1 and a fire hall … one is a very unique, specialized piece of equipment that was deployed for use in a private-sector movie production outside the city of Winnipeg… the other is a fire station the prime minister of Canada visited within the city of Winnipeg to better understand the challenges first responders face in dealing with the opioid crisis."
On Tuesday morning, Bowman spoke with CBC, and while he welcomed the prime minister's visit, he questioned the process followed in arranging it.
"If the prime minister of Canada wants to visit a public building like a fire station, the prime minister — whomever he or she may be at the time — is going to welcomed, first and foremost. I think this was an important visit in the sense of the discussion on opioids," he said.
As for the process, Bowman said he has spoken with Lane.
"I have raised concerns with our chief of our fire and paramedic service and was advised the process that was followed is being dealt with in the department."
Asked how he thinks it should be dealt with, Bowman said he would leave that to administration.
"You're talking about departmental operational questions which politicians should not be weighing in on, in terms of specific operational decisions," he said.
"I think raising questions is something that we should absolutely do … but that is a question for Chief Lane."
Jack said the city is having "ongoing dialogue" with Forrest to keep him in line with the city's expectations of a union leader.
"Alex has been around for quite a while, so it's no mystery that this isn't the first time we've had a discussion like this, but relationships require ongoing work and we're having some very firm and clear communications," said Jack.
'I don't like it'
Forrest has also been in the spotlight this week after it was learned that Winnipeg taxpayers have been paying nearly two-thirds of his six-figure union salary for the past four years — even though he's been on leave from his job as fire captain to work full-time as UFFW president.
Bowman was blunt about his feelings on that.
"I don't like it," he said.
"That was a surprise to me. This decision was made before I was elected and I think many of us were surprised to learn of the arrangement … that was entered in the final months of the previous term of office."
However, Bowman said the city will honour the legal agreement until it expires on Dec. 31, 2020.
"I think the most appropriate time to deal with it is the next round of collective agreements," he said. "I know our finance chair Coun. Scott Gillingham has expressed concern about it as well."
While he doesn't know the reasons for the agreement, Bowman suggested Coun. Russ Wyatt should, since he was chair of the city's finance committee when it was signed in 2014.
However, Wyatt told the CBC that he did not know about it.
Statement by Alex Forrest about Trudeau visit
The firefighters and fire-paramedics of Winnipeg are shocked and saddened that the Prime Minister's visit to fire hall 4 is becoming a negative media issue.
We believe this is the first time the Prime Minister of Canada has visited a Winnipeg fire station to say "Thank you" to the brave men and women of the Winnipeg Fire Department in its 135 year history. This visit is something every citizen of Winnipeg should be proud of.
Also of note is that the crew working that day had just returned from a serious apartment fire during which they rescued six people from a third floor window. The PM's visit during their subsequent lunch and rehab back at the hall was a thrill for the crew and an opportunity for him to hear about the great work our department does every day in Winnipeg.
Our fire stations have always maintained an open door policy for the public to visit, and every day across the city individuals do just that; be it to drop off books for the Children's Hospital sale, coats for kids, toys for Toy Mountain, using it as a community safe house, or simply to visit the crew and see the trucks.
Every day individuals visit fire halls and sometimes these people are politicians. Politicians from every Political affiliation have visited stations in their area and the majority of the time the Chief of the department is not aware of them; it is impossible for him to be aware of the visits, as we turn no one away.
This visit was due to the relationship IAFF firefighters have with the Prime Minister across Canada and this was not the only fire hall he had visited unannounced. He has been in fire halls from the Maritimes to British Columbia. We make no apologies for building positive relationships, and it is interesting to note in other cities, visits were appreciated and supported by the public.
Prime Minister Trudeau is not the first politician to visit a fire hall and will likely not be the last. Any politician who wishes to discuss our profession with us is welcome to as all aspects of our job involves political decisions. It is absolutely vital that our decision makers understand the services and value we provide to the city we proudly serve.
I ask this - When we have so many other important issues in Winnipeg such as a opioid overdoses, homelessness, poverty, arsons, and the number of fires in general causing devastation for those affected, is this really a major issue for the media and public to be concerned about?