Report details racism, implicit bias on part of Winnipeg firefighters

An investigation into a workplace complaint at the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service found there was evidence of implicit bias and lack of concern for a seriously injured Indigenous patient's physical and emotional well-being on the part of some firefighters who attended a call last October. 

Investigation was launched following complaint by paramedic over firefighter's refusal to help

A consultant found that it was 'more likely than not' that a firefighter refused to help a paramedic in an ambulance with an Indigenous patient because the paramedic had complained about racist Facebook posts made by other Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service members. (Travis Golby/CBC)

An investigation into a workplace complaint at the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service found there was evidence of implicit bias and lack of concern for a seriously injured Indigenous patient's physical and emotional well-being on the part of some firefighters who attended a call last October. 

The investigation was spurred by a complaint from a paramedic who attended a call about a 23-year-old woman on Oct. 7, 2020 who had a self-inflicted stab wound to the neck. 

CBC News obtained a copy of the report on the incident, done by Equitable Solutions, an external consulting firm.

The complainant, a paramedic, alleged that he was delayed in transporting the patient to the hospital because there was a disagreement between two firefighters on scene about who should come along in the ambulance, and that the firefighter in question "blatantly refused" to help him. 

WATCH | Leaked report exposed racism, bias in Winnipeg fire response:

Leaked report exposed racism, bias in Winnipeg fire response

2 years ago
Duration 3:02
Racism and bias played a part in how Winnipeg fire fighters responded to an injured Indigenous woman last fall. Those findings are in a independent report that looked at the incident.

Ultimately, the investigator Laurelle Harris found that it was "more likely than not" that the firefighter didn't want to help a paramedic with a seriously injured Indigenous patient because of past concerns the paramedic had raised about racist Facebook posts made by WFPS members.

Harris also found that the other firefighter who did not help the paramedic was likely motivated by the "racial animus he bore towards the complainant." 

In the report, Harris notes that the paramedic presented as "a racialized person with a dark skin tone."

The paramedic alleged that the respondent in the complaint would have known about these complaints because he served as a union representative for one of WFPS members who had made the posts, the report says. 

The paramedic also alleged that he was harassed after the Winnipeg Free Press reported on the complaint about the Oct. 7 incident. He said that after the article came out, someone who just went by the name "Winnipeg Firefighter" posted in a private Facebook group for WFPS member, saying not to work with him and accused him of tipping off the newspaper. 

The firefighter told the investigator that he didn't believe the call was urgent because the patient was hugging and kissing her boyfriend before being loaded into the ambulance. 

He said that he asked the paramedic for clarification on who he wanted to come along in the ambulance, but that the paramedic's response was muffled by his respirator. 

The firefighter said that he was waiting for clarification from the paramedic, and that he did go in the ambulance after another WFPS member directed him to. 

He said he was aware that the paramedic had made complaints about another WFPS member's Facebook posts, but denied posting anything to the private Facebook group.

Implicit bias

Ultimately, Harris found that the firefighter's failure to voluntarily help the paramedic was "more likely than not" because of his knowledge of the complaints about racism. 

Further, if the firefighter really didn't believe that the injury was urgent, it raises questions about his own competence, the report says. 

However, Harris did not recommend disciplinary action, but rather that Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service members receive education on implicit bias. 

Harris notes that there was a lack of concern for the patient's physical and emotional well-being on the part of the firefighter. 

"This lack of concern is indicative of the presence of implicit bias on the basis of the social standing and/or the race/indigineity of the patient," Harris wrote. 

"Just as the respondent's assertion as to his assessment of the seriousness of the wound are not relevant to the proper triaging of the patient, nor are they relevant to his obligation to treat every patient with compassion and respect." 

Harris also noted that one of the witnesses interviewed referred to the Oct. 7 incident as "just another call in the North End," or some version of that phrase, three times. 

Harris wrote that several of the witnesses showed a "significant level of discomfort" about the very subject of racism and with any WFPS members being labelled a racist.

"This degree of defensiveness and discomfort must be overcome to disrupt systemic racism." 

Allegations 'extremely concerning': WFPS chief

WFPS chief John Lane spoke about the leaked report in a City of Winnipeg press conference on Wednesday, calling the allegations "extremely concerning.

"This type of behaviour is not in line with the values and principles of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service," he said.

"There is absolutely no tolerance for racism or discrimination of any kind at the WFPS or the City of Winnipeg, either among co-workers or while serving the public."

Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Chief John Lane says there's no room for racism or discrimination within the ranks. (John Einarson/CBC)

Lane says 200 WFPS front-line leaders will be required to go through anti-racism training, which will be scheduled within the next month. Additional anti-oppression training will also be mandatory for all other employees.

WFPS has also hired two consulting firms to do a workplace cultural assessment and outline steps for improvement.

Lane wouldn't say how the firefighter would be disciplined, or whether they'll be removed from the line of duty, but did say that discipline is ongoing.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont says the firefighter in question should face consequences — even charges — and those who tried to protect him should be fired.

"This is a deep and dangerous problem that has to be addressed. It's not just that racist attitudes are unacceptable — people who have them are bad at their jobs and people get hurt and die because of them," he said in a statement.

Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, which represents some paramedics in the province, said she was troubled by the report's findings. 

"Though serious concerns about racist, discriminatory and disrespectful behaviour within the WFPS had previously been raised, the senior WFPS leadership failed to meaningfully challenge the internal culture of denying and even covering up racist and discriminatory behaviour, and of blaming and shaming its victims," she said in an email.

"This report is a wake-up call to the City that this culture cannot continue."

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson and Rachel Bergen