Racism in fire department 'horrifying,' says Calgary mayor in committing to culture change

Extreme racism festering in the city's fire halls is "horrifying" and "unacceptable," says Calgary's mayor reacting to a CBC News story about the toxic culture in the fire department.

Group of BIPOC firefighters spoke with CBC News about toxic culture in fire halls

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, right, says reports of racism within the Calgary Fire Department are 'unacceptable.' CFD Chief Steve Dongworth, left, says he is committed to 'acknowledging shortcomings, listening and learning.' (Audrey Neveu/CBC)

Extreme racism festering in the city's fire halls is "horrifying" and "unacceptable," says Calgary's mayor, reacting to a CBC News story about the toxic culture in the fire department.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the accounts of several current and former BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) firefighters who detailed racism in the fire stations is "unacceptable in today's society and it's unacceptable in this organization."

The firefighters say life in the halls has been more traumatizing than the calls they respond to.

"I am most interested in making sure we change the culture and that the culture is actively anti-racist," said Nenshi.

A group of active and retired members penned a letter to Chief Steve Dongworth demanding change after the City of Calgary held a three-day public consultation on racism in the summer.

Two of the presenters spoke about incidents including one where a stuffed animal was painted black and hung from a noose at a fire hall where a Black firefighter worked. 

Local Cree Elder Doreen Spence also told the story of Indigenous fire captain Barry Dawson, who took his own life in November 2017, the day after visiting her and speaking about the "unbearable" racism he had experienced at work. 

"It hurts me to hear that my colleagues are being subjected to this," said Nenshi.

"I'm going to do everything I can in my power and authority in my own hands to make sure that every single person who joins the City of Calgary, whether in the fire department or any other role, has the opportunity to have an outstanding career."

Other firefighters report hearing racial slurs, suffering physical assaults and enduring many micro-aggressions like eye-rolls and scoffs at any mention of issues such as Black Lives Matter.

Coun. Jyoti Gondek says she listened to the public consultations in the summer and remembers the presentations detailing racism at the fire department.

"I left those hearings with a sense that those people's words had been heard and if there were specific examples they would be looked into," says Gondek, who represents Ward 3. "I'm left wondering, did we not look into this, and if we did, where's the report?"

The city says it doesn't keep track of the number of BIPOC hires within its departments but estimates put the number around 40, or less than three per cent of the 1,400 firefighters.

There are also about 40 women in the department.

Mayor wants to read workplace review reports

Nenshi says the city has been largely focused on gender issues within the fire department but in hindsight after attending CFD graduations, he's noticed a lack of BIPOC fire recruits.

"It is clear to me that it is not a particularly diverse workforce compared to say Calgary Transit or Calgary Police, and it's always been in the back of my head," said Nenshi.

When asked if he still has faith in the fire chief, Nenshi said he does.

"Yeah, until I know otherwise, because I know the chief very well and I know the issues of inclusion have been very important to him, and frankly it's one of the reasons we hired him."

CBC News also reported two reviews of the department's workplace culture have been commissioned over the past six years but neither has been made public. 

Nenshi says he should know what's in those reports. 

"I, too, am curious; what did we know, when did we know about it and what did we do about it at that time, and those are the answers I'm looking for as well."

Group wants BIPOC, female trailblazers recognized

In its letter, the group demands nine changes, including a public inquiry into job-related suicides and a permanent place for the department's BIPOC and female trailblazers to be recognized.

They also want a zero-tolerance policy on workplace racism, bullying, harassment, assaults and other toxic behaviour, with breaches resulting in discipline up to and including termination.

In a written statement, Chief Dongworth said he is committed to "acknowledging shortcomings, listening and learning."

Dongworth said his department is working with the city to create a Safe Disclosure Office for fire department employees to report concerns and access advice.

"One of my top priorities is to ensure that CFD focuses on enhancing diversity and inclusion and fostering a work environment where employees feel valued and respected."


Meghan Grant

CBC Calgary crime reporter

Meghan Grant is a justice affairs reporter. She has been covering courts, crime and stories of police accountability in southern Alberta for more than a decade. Send Meghan a story tip at or follow her on Twitter.