Ottawa hires fire chief who doesn't speak French

John deHooge, fire chief for the City of Waterloo, is the new head of the Ottawa Fire Service.

John deHooge, fire chief for the City of Waterloo, is the new head of the Ottawa Fire Service.

DeHooge will be officially introduced on Thursday and will start his new job on Jan. 11, the city announced Wednesday. He is taking over from Jim Ullett, who has been acting fire chief since Rick Larabie retired in May.

There has been some controversy over the appointment because deHooge does not speak French.

The City of Ottawa's language policy requires people hired for many jobs — especially senior positions and frontline service positions — to be able to work in both French and English.

However, city solicitor Rick O'Connor said the policy does not specifically cover the position of fire chief.

Diane Deans, chair of the city's community and protective services committee, said there are very few people in the country qualified to be the fire chief of the nation's capital.

"So, the talent pool was relatively small, and there was just not what we felt was the best candidate for the job that had the bilingual qualifications," she said Wednesday.

More than 300 people applied for the job.

Coun. Georges Bédard said while deHooge is not yet bilingual, he has committed to taking courses to learn French.

Policy will change

Following intense debate among city councillors over the hire, city manager Kent Kirkpatrick promised that within five years, all new senior hirings at the fire department and emergency department would be bilingual.

Mayor Larry O'Brien said the problem arose in the first place due to issues with planning how the former fire chief would be replaced after his retirement.

He added, "We have directed staff to make sure that when we go through this process again, that we have an opportunity to hire a fluently bilingual person from within our own service."

DeHooge is currently both fire chief and general manager of protective services for the City of Waterloo. Before that, he was deputy fire chief for the Town of Oakville, just west of Toronto.

Susan Jones, general manager of emergency and protective services for the City of Ottawa, said the city is fortunate to add him to its team.

"Chief deHooge is a creative and progressive thinker, respected by his peers and well-known across North America for his commitment and dedication to his profession," she said in a statement.

In October, Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder publicly alleged that the city was having trouble recruiting for several senior positions, including the fire chief job, because of its bilingual requirements.

At the time, Deans said the city was not limiting its pool of candidates based on the language requirement.