British Columbia·Go Public

Ex-Vancouver firefighter alleges racism, says crew put him through 'unbelievable hell'

Former firefighter Luis Gonzalez says Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services treats Caucasian workers better than visible minorities

City investigation concludes 'disrespectful, harassing conduct did occur,' but nobody was disciplined

Ex-firefighter's story: Trainer said, 'Just like a real wetback, right?'

7 years ago
Duration 2:23
Featured VideoVancouver investigation concludes 'disrespectful, harassing conduct did occur,' but nobody was disciplined

A former Vancouver firefighter has filed a Human Rights complaint, alleging he quit his job after a year of racial discrimination and harassment at the hands of his colleagues.

"It was always, 'That Mexican,'" says Luis Gonzalez. "It was never, 'That rookie. That junior man. That probationary firefighter.' It was always, 'That Mexican.'"

The 33-year-old was actually born in El Salvador, and moved to Canada as a young boy.

After working as a firefighter and a paramedic in Alberta, he beat stiff competition and was accepted as a trainee with  Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services in September 2013.

Gonzalez says the discrimination started his first week in training.

Luis Gonzalez was recruited over 600 other hopefuls to join Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services. (City of Vancouver)

Racial slurs at work

"After a training exercise, we were changing out of our sweaty gear," he says. "As I was taking off my shirt, one of the training officers said, 'Just like a real wetback, right?'"

Wetback is a derogatory term coined to describe Mexicans who swam or waded across the Rio Grande River to enter the U.S. illegally.

Gonzalez, who is soft spoken, says he kept his mouth shut after that racial slur, because he was intimidated.

But, he says, things got worse.

He told Go Public that training officers started calling him "poco lento," which is Spanish for "a bit slow," and "Slowpoke Rodriguez," the name of a cartoon character called the laziest mouse in all of Mexico.

Firefighters put up posters depicting Mexicans as dumb, lazy people. (Cliff Shim/CBC)

He arrived at work at the firehall on the grounds of the University of British Columbia one day to find posters depicting Mexicans as dumb, lazy people.

"They were put up in the bathroom stalls," he says. "They were put up on water pitchers in the fridges. They were put up on coffee-makers. It was embarrassing. I was humiliated."

City investigates

Gonzalez filed a complaint with the city of Vancouver, alleging harassment and racial discrimination.

Officials investigated, and interviewed members of his crew.
Deputy city manager Paul Mochrie says there were no grounds for discipline. (Christer Waara/CBC)

A report concluded that Gonzalez experienced "disrespectful, harassing conduct" that was a violation of the city's human rights and harassment policy under the prohibited grounds of race and place of origin.

But most of Gonzalez's allegations were not confirmed, and no one was ever disciplined.

"Based on the evidence we had," says deputy city manager Paul Mochrie, "there was no grounds to substantiate a disciplinary action against an individual employee."

The most recent class of recruits for Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services, taken on April 25. (Vancouver Fire & Rescue Services)

Mochrie says the city doesn't keep track of how many visible minorities work in the fire department, but noted Vancouver's demographics have changed significantly over the past few decades, "and the demographics of the fire department have not changed at the same pace."

"There is work we need to do there," Mochrie says.

Firefighters fear retaliation

Go Public contacted more than half a dozen firefighters about Gonzalez's case.

None would speak on camera for fear of retaliation from leaders and other crew members.  

All day long there were racist remarks, sexist remarks ... and the people leading it were the people in charge.- Source

One source said he was "shell-shocked" when he witnessed the behaviour of his colleagues.

"I had no idea it would be so bad," he says. "All day long there were racist remarks, sexist remarks ... and the people leading it were the people in charge. They definitely decided they didn't like Luis, and they wanted him out. I think they didn't like his skin colour."

Another source said he witnessed Gonzalez being harassed almost every day, but guys on the crew felt they couldn't stop it.

"There's a culture of fear and intimidation," he says. "And if the name of the game is racism, everyone goes along with it."

Senior leaders allegedly involved

In his complaint to the city, Gonzalez says senior members were responsible for a lot of the racism, some of which happened beyond the firehall.

As an example, he says while the fire truck was stopped at a red light, a black woman walked in front of the truck.

He alleges his captain said, "Hey, look at her. She is so black, I can only see her eyes" and then plugged in a spotlight — used to find addresses in the dark — and pretended to shine it on her.

Gonzalez says he was called 'Not-so-speedy Gonzalez' and 'Slowpoke Rodriguez' when he was a recruit and probationary firefighter. (City of Vancouver)

Gonzalez also claims other senior members often told racist jokes.

"If you start off in that culture, it's going to continue going … you're going to think that stuff is acceptable. And it's not. It's disgusting."

None of Gonzalez's allegations of racism were verified in the city's investigation.

Union says 'suck it up'

After months of what he calls "unbelievable hell," Gonzalez says he became depressed, had difficulty sleeping, and started drinking alone, something he says he had never done. Eventually he sought out a counsellor.

He also reached out to his union for guidance, but says, at the time, he was told to "suck it up."

Gonzalez, seen here second from the right, in training with other Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services recruits. (City of Vancouver)

The Vancouver Fire Fighters Union would not give Go Public an interview, but in a statement says it takes "all allegations of bullying and harassment very seriously" and that firefighters "take their obligation for a respectful workplace and professionalism in earnest."

Just 11 months after joining Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services, Gonzalez resigned.

Files human rights complaint

More than a year later, Gonzalez says he is still troubled, continues to have difficulty sleeping, and is experiencing flashbacks.

He now wants accountability, financial compensation, and acknowledgement that he experienced not just harassment, but racial discrimination.  

Gonzalez has submitted a complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, but because he filed outside the timeframe allowed, it has not yet been decided whether the complaint will be accepted.   

That complaint alleges other disturbing treatment of visible minorities, and says caucasians got better treatment than visible minorities.

Racism in workplace

A human rights lawyer with the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre says racism in the workplace is not uncommon.

Lawyer Sarah Khan says racism is still a 'big issue' in Canada. (Christer Waara/CBC)

Sarah Khan says she hears from a "disturbing number" of people who say they've experienced racism — even when there are policies in place to protect employees.

"People who do speak up and try to stop racism are often dismissed," she says. "And they're told: 'It's not such a big deal,' particularly when you're a new employee and you lack seniority and job security, then it can be even more difficult to bring forward those issues."

Gonzalez says it was so difficult, he had to wait until he left the department before speaking out.

"I wouldn't want these guys showing up at my family's house," he says. "What are they gonna say about my aunt, who doesn't speak English well?"

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Erica Johnson

Investigative reporter

Erica Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist. She hosted CBC's consumer program Marketplace for 15 years, investigating everything from dirty hospitals to fraudulent financial advisors. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, Erica continues to expose wrongdoing and hold corporations and governments to account.

With files from Enza Uda