Montreal's mostly white, male fire service vows to hire more women, people of colour

Montreal’s fire service wants to triple its minuscule roster of female and visible minority firefighters by 2025.

Of Montreal's 2,360 firefighters, just 29 are women, 24 are visible minorities, 5 are Indigenous

Women and visible minorities make up less than three per cent of the Montreal fire service's front-line staff. (Service de sécurité incendie de Montréal)

Montreal's fire service wants to triple its minuscule roster of female and visible minority firefighters by 2025.

Of its 2,360 firefighters, only 29 are women, 24 are members of visible minorities and five identify as Indigenous.

That stands in stark contrast to the makeup of the city population: more than 51 per cent of Montrealers are women, nearly one in three identify as a member of a visible minority, and a little less than one per cent identify as Indigenous.

Diversifying the fire service

The fire service laid out its diversity goals at a meeting of the city's public security committee today at City Hall.

It wants to double the number of women and members of visible minority communities working on the front lines within three years and triple that number in seven.

Fire service deputy director Richard Liebmann said it's a challenge fire departments across North America are facing, and there's no quick fix.

"I think it's in part because it's a physically demanding job, and a lot women fear that they don't have the capacity to do it," Liebmann said.

"I can tell you from personal experience: I worked from day one as a firefighter with one of the first female firefighters in Quebec, and I'd put my life in her hands over and above a lot of fit male firefighters that I know."

The role and requirements of a firefighter have evolved with the times. Equipment isn't as cumbersome, and firefighters do a lot more first-responder type calls for medical situations now that require less physicality, Liebmann said.

However, the physical requirements are standardized for anyone who wants to work on the front line.

Part of the fire service's plan includes reviewing tests to eliminate any systemic discrimination, participating in job fairs, holding open-door events and updating the physical test preparation videos to depict members of diverse communities.

The Montreal fire service posted this video to Youtube in 2015, to demonstrate its openness to recruiting women and people from visible minorities.

The fire service is lagging well behind the city's transit authority, and even the police service, which is also struggling to recruit outside of its traditional pool when it comes to workforce diversity.

In part, Liebmann said, that's because it can only recruit graduates who complete a three-year college and professional studies diploma in fire safety.

"For the last year or two, we've been working hard with the schools to increase recruitment and make sure that the schools attract women and people from cultural communities and visible minorities, so we can hire them when they finish their education," he said.

In 2015-2016, there were only six female applicants to the post-CEGEP fire safety school, and only half were admitted.

Last year, there were 22 female applicants, and 11 were admitted.

As of April 2018, 191 women worked for the Montreal fire service. (Service de sécurité incendie de Montréal)

Integration as important as recruitment

Fo Niemi, the executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), said the plan moves the service in a positive direction, especially when it comes to recruiting more women.

However, he said, there are still significant gaps when it comes to the reality of actually hiring and integrating members from minority groups.

"There is a big chunk missing — the role of the union in implementing this plan and monitoring and evaluating the results, because without the union, most employment equity plans will not work in the unionized workplace." 

"We're talking about changing the organization from the inside out and the staff who are already there who are represented by unions," he said. "Unions basically have to be involved at every level of the plan in order to ensure success."

Alexandre Dumas of the Montreal Firefighters Association said management has not asked the union to collaborate on the plan, and the association only saw the presentation earlier this week. 

"The union wishes to have a better program and to integrate eventually those candidates coming from ethnic communities and women," he said.

"Once they're employed, the union will be happy to represent them, as any other member."

Women's washrooms and other fixes

The fire service said it's working on ways to better integrate recruits from non-traditional pools, including retrofitting its all-male bathrooms and rest areas in fire stations, bringing in new training for current staff, buying equipment that is better ergonomically for women and assigning new members to a mentor.

The targets may seem ambitious, but the fire service said it's already seen an improvement. 

Nearly a quarter of the new recruits that will join the service in May come from the three under-represented groups.

With files from CBC's Lauren McCallum