Firefighters say it’s time for Sackville’s fire chief, the town CAO, and members of town council to end the persistent bullying and intimidation of volunteers that has led to a spate of resignations over the last five years.
“I think we counted 17 since 2016,” said Kevin Scott who resigned effective December 31st after serving more than 11 years as a volunteer firefighter.
“I would bet that at least half of those resignations, if not more, were because of issues going on within the fire department including low morale, bullying and favouritism,” he says.
“I’ve taken a step back in the last two years and watched and listened to the other members,” Scott writes in the resignation letter he sent to Chief Craig Bowser on December 17, 2020.
“The members see inconsistency, favouritism and bullying. I wonder why one firefighter needs to wear bunker gear on a scene when another doesn’t need to. They [the members] see how some firefighters can drive a truck to a scene when others can’t,” he writes.
“No firefighter should ever feel intimidated by another firefighter/leader; that is bullying. It’s been going on at the station for too long, but it seems to be a subject that is avoided.”
Scott emailed his letter in December to the fire chief, deputy chiefs, and CAO Jamie Burke with copies to the acting mayor and members of town council, but received no response. After e-mailing it again last month, he received brief acknowledgments from Councillors Bill Evans and Shawn Mesheau. Councillor Mesheau said he had raised Scott’s concerns with the CAO and members of council.
Safety Officer ignored
Scott’s letter refers to former Safety Officer Louise Landry, who resigned on October 4, 2018 after eight years as a volunteer firefighter. Warktimes obtained a copy of Landry’s resignation letter addressed to the chief, deputy chiefs and fellow members of the department. In the letter, she says it was hard to do her job when certain firefighters ignored basic safety instructions such as refusing to wear proper protective equipment when entering burning buildings.
“Certain individuals were persistent in making it difficult for me to perform my duties as a Safety Officer, as they had absolutely no respect for me. I can only conclude that it was because I am a female,” she writes.
“The glaring stares and the silent treatment, ignoring me when I asked them a safety question at a scene, the mockery, the intimidation, the humiliation and last but not least, the countless sleepless nights I encountered week after week,” Landry added.
“It just came to the point that I lost interest in all events, training calls, meeting(s) and opted out of every committee…to avoid being bullied, harassed and discriminated against…
“The last couple of years have left me with very disheartening feelings and unfortunately, I can no longer say that I enjoy or am proud to be a firefighter with this department,” Landry’s letter says.
Treatment of women
Landry’s concern about discrimination against women in the Sackville fire department was echoed in several interviews conducted for this story that were both on and off the record.
Laura Thurston, who has served as a firefighter for four-and-a-half years, recalls helping to rescue a motorcycle accident victim from a ditch and being told to relinquish her side of the stretcher to a male firefighter.
“Even though I was perfectly capable and doing a fine job, I was still asked to hand off to a male firefighter as we were coming up the embankment,” Thurston says.
She adds that she finds it infuriating that she faces resistance whenever she drives the rescue truck even though she passed the qualifying air-brake endorsement course in 2017.
“Officers get in trouble for allowing me to drive; they get pulled into the office,” she says. “It’s not a secret, everyone knows that I am treated differently.”
Thurston adds that over the years she has requested meetings with CAOs Phil Handrahan and Jamie Burke, but both declined to meet.
“They wouldn’t even sit with me; they wouldn’t listen to what I had to say.”
Landry’s letter not read to members
Former Sackville firefighter Kevin Scott says the fire chief did not follow the customary practice of reading Louise Landry’s resignation letter to the members on the grounds that it was a confidential Human Resources matter.
“She distributed her resignation letter to any member who wanted to see it,” he writes, “knowing she left because she felt bullied, and no one did anything about it or acknowledged it is wrong.”
Landry’s letter refers to an incident in which a fellow officer refused to drive the rescue truck to a car fire on the TransCanada because she was sitting in the passenger seat.
“It is alarming that an Officer could be that selfish, immature and defiant, especially when seconds could be the difference between life and death,” she writes.
‘Toxic work environment’
Another firefighter, who resigned from Sackville Fire & Rescue in 2018 after nine years of service, says the department has a “toxic work environment.”
“I have watched Sackville Fire deteriorate over the last nine years to the point that I myself as well as others do not even want to walk in the door,” he wrote in a letter of resignation that mentions favouritism, double standards, and harassment.
He describes one incident at a departmental lobster party where a captain’s wife angrily threw dirty cutlery at a female officer while her husband and a deputy chief looked on.
“To this day, these two men are still officers and the membership was not made aware of any formal discipline against them,” he writes.
“I have many examples of conduct that was deemed as acceptable for a select few members and officers, but not the remainder of the membership.”
No grievance procedures
The town bylaw that governs the Sackville Fire Department outlines procedures for filing complaints to a Grievance Committee with detailed steps for appealing its decisions to the CAO, the mayor and the liaison councillor for public safety.
But Warktimes has confirmed in a series of interviews, both on and off the record, that a Grievance Committee has never been established, leaving members of the fire department with no choice but to file their complaints to the chief, even if those complaints are against him.
Multiple firefighters say attempts to lodge complaints with CAO Jamie Burke have been rejected, with Burke advising members to go through the fire department’s chain of command.
Kevin Scott, who now volunteers with the Pointe De Bute Fire Department, says that aside from setting up a functioning Grievance Committee, volunteers should be consulted when Chief Bowser receives his annual performance review.
“In my eleven and a half years with the department, no one from the town has ever come to me and asked, ‘Hey, how’s Craig doing as chief?’”
Scott adds he recently discovered that CAO Burke conducts the annual assessment based on a report that the chief submits.
“I’d like to see the town council get more involved in what’s going on within the fire department in Sackville,” he says.
Update: town response
Warktimes e-mailed questions to Fire Chief Craig Bowser with a copy to CAO Jamie Burke at 10:51 Monday night. At 5:06 p.m. today, Burke responded: “Thanks for your note. As these are personnel matters, we will not be providing further comment.”
Here are the questions the CAO declined to answer:
1. What steps did the town take to address allegations contained in letters of resignation over the last six years about low morale, bullying and favouritism?
2. What steps were taken to investigate allegations of discrimination against female members of Sackville Fire & Rescue?
3. Why is there no Fire Dept. Grievance Committee as required under town bylaws?
4. Why has the CAO not responded to complaints over several years?
Bruce Wark worked in broadcasting and journalism education for more than 35 years. He was at CBC Radio for nearly 20 years as senior editor of network programs such as The World at Six and World Report. He currently writes for The New Wark Times where this story first appeared on April 14, 2021.