Winnipeg fire chief tells staff 'no racial animus' found in controversial emergency call

A memo from WFPS chief John Lane to the staff of the fire paramedic service contradicts a report from an independent investigator into an emergency call last fall, who found "racial animus" from a fire fighter at an ambulance paramedic.

Memo from Chief John Lane at odds with findings of independent investigator

Unions representing fire fighters and ambulance paramedics have opposite views of the memo and the outcome of investigations into the call. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The chief of Winnipeg's Fire Paramedic Service sent out a memo Thursday that appears to contradict an independent review that found evidence of racism among some of his firefighters.

CBC News obtained an inter-office memo from Chief John Lane to WFPS staff about an emergency call last October. The call triggered a workplace complaint by a paramedic and a subsequent investigation by an independent consultant.

The investigation found there was evidence of implicit bias and lack of concern for a seriously injured Indigenous patient's physical and emotional well-being by some firefighters who attended the call. 

The paramedic alleged there was a delay in transporting the patient because of a disagreement between two firefighters on scene about who should come along in the ambulance, and one "blatantly refused" to help him.

The investigator found the firefighter who did not help the paramedic was likely motivated by the "racial animus he bore towards the complainant." 

In the memo sent Thursday, Lane said the conclusions of the investigation were not confirmed by further review of the incident, adding the accusation of racial animus was "determined to be unfounded."

Lane told reporters the ongoing disciplinary process involves further examination of some of the details in the investigator's report.

Chief John Lane would not say what else the disciplinary process had uncovered, nor when it would conclude. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Lane's memo to staff also noted "there was no explicit racism demonstrated towards the patient" — a conclusion the union representing firefighters believes exonerates its members.

"One important lesson learned from this incident is that politicians and respected organizations should wait for due process to be concluded before they make damning statements based on partially leaked information," wrote Alex Forrest, the president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg.

Lane's memo to staff did acknowledge implicit bias that "played a role in the incident" and that "education is the most effective way to address this issue."

'Questionable leadership': MGEU president

Lane's memo has drawn the ire of the union representing the ambulance paramedic who initiated the complaint.

"It is questionable leadership for the chief to issue a memo downplaying and distorting the findings of racism in the independent investigator's report during the City of Winnipeg's Anti-Racism Week," said Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union. 

"We must remember the seriousness of what the investigator found — that there was an attempt to collude and cover up the unnecessary delay in transporting a seriously injured indigenous patient to hospital," she said.

Coun. Markus Chambers reacted to the memo, saying "I get frustrated where people can't acknowledge that it [racism] does exist and we need to address it and move forward." (John Einarson/CBC )

Mayor Brian Bowman declined to comment on the memo, saying he hadn't reviewed it, but the contents raised concerns from the chair of the city's protection and community services committee, which oversees the WFPS.

"What I saw in that memo is splitting hairs … I'm really interested in making sure that the anti-oppression, anti-racism message gets through to the civil service and that we're providing services that are safe for all Winnipeggers," Coun. Sherri Rollins (Fort-Rouge - East Fort Garry) said. 

Coun. Markus Chambers (St Norbert - Seine River) declined comment on the specifics of Lane's memo, but told reporters he's heard complaints of racism in the city's emergency service departments and urged staff and management to start focusing on the problem. 

"The racism piece? I get frustrated where people can't acknowledge that it does exist and that we need to address it and move forward. The issues between fire and paramedics, we can agree to disagree on that. But when it comes to race, we should all be in agreement that it exists and that we need to move forward on this issue," Chambers told reporters. 

Lane would not say what else the disciplinary process had uncovered, nor when it would conclude. 

The firefighters who were placed on leave after the incident have subsequently returned to work.