‘It’s got to stop’: Firefighters call for an end to bullying, harassment and favouritism in Sackville Fire & Rescue

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 e-mailed 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 Point 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?

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15 Responses to ‘It’s got to stop’: Firefighters call for an end to bullying, harassment and favouritism in Sackville Fire & Rescue

  1. Sherry Bertin-MacIsaac says:

    Small town mentality….another reason I’m moving from this GD town

    • Christian Corbet says:

      I’ve heard this from many people recently. This town has to move with the times and stop their petty grievances. We need advanced thinking and leadership here.

  2. Norman Cole says:

    I thinking maybe new councilors might want to ask questions before they get in to deep sounds kinda like old days with sackville pd and other town management this should not be be tolerated sounds like some people have thier own agenda.These are volunteers who fire fighters that have a right to a fair hearing and discrimination is not acceptable no matter what position is held in serving the citizens of Sackville ACCOUNTABILITY is necessary on all levels and discrimination on any level. And im hopeing that council will take what measures at whatever level that is need.There thats my .

  3. Kelly Alder says:

    Doesn’t surprise me one bit. We offered a prize of $2000 free gas for the annual truck draw and specifically sent to council, mayor at the time, current chief and former deputy chief and not one of them ever responded to our offer of the donation. We made sure to get it on the record at a council meeting and again not one member of council or mayor even responded. They (fire dept) would rather purchase the fuel prize from Esso, just as the town tailors their fuel rfq to favour esso as well. Guess I should have thanked them for saving us $2000 annually. Time for new councillors , mayor and by looks there are many choices of new blood this May. I commend them now for offering as I wouldn’t want to knowing what’s been transpiring in past 6 years at town hall.

  4. Christian Corbet says:

    It’s time for complete new leadership.

  5. Kata List Productions says:

    Volunteers as in unpaid workers. Why would anyone work for free and expect to have decision-making over Chief Bowser? That in itself has me scratching my head when you consider how little town councillors are paid and the mayor for that matter compared to town staffers who are paid very very well – in some cases to do online cooking classes for the Facebook crowd. We have too many over paid staff at the town hall with too much time on their hands from the look of it – inequity of labour and unpaid people doing all sorts of volunteer work in town. What is work? What is paid work? What is valuable work? Firefighters are valuable and should be paid; ambulance workers are paid, but that’s another ‘department’ no doubt… I was also wondering if perhaps the fire hall has too many people and there are bound to be conflicts between different personalities. As for a woman carrying a stretcher out of a ditch – I can completely understand why a man would offer to take over that task – males have superior upper body strength and the woman could have injured herself doing a task that is above and beyond what she is required to do – after all volunteering should not lead to injury on the site, and perhaps that was the thinking of the man. I prefer to think the best of people when it comes to their intentions in the line of duty. This is politics within the firehall.. Bowser’s department… and he is paid well to do that job. Perhaps leave it with him and hope that he finds the right group of people who fit and work well together. Best to not meddle where you do not know the requirements of the work, as most of us do not know the intricacies of running that group of workers… do we?

    • Kathy Best says:

      The problem here is the Chief. For yrs things ran pretty smoothly..then the Town hired a full time fire chief which was a big mistake, in my mind. The chief used to be voted in by the members and things ran smoothly and 90% of the members got along and worked well together. There are always a few bad apples in every work place.

      The harassment, intimadation; etc have been going on for probably 10 yrs but if a fire member had an issue with the chief, there was no where to turn to for help..no one to go to except the CAO…and they did not deal with any of it.
      There needs to be a proper external investigation into the whole matter at SFD.

      As far as the male fireman wanting to “help” the female bring up a stretcher out of a ditch, the particular female is quite capable of lifting probably more weight than some of the fire dept members.

      And as far as someone teaching cooking online while working for the town is not correct. She does it on her own time, which she is allowed to do. Just like our CAO teaches classes at MTA at night time.

    • Ben says:

      Let me tell you. I had 14 years of service in the sackville fire department and know very well the intricacies of it. The department ran fairly smooth until the town decided to make the chief a full time position against the wishes of the membership. We are also taught and heavily trained to be able to do what is needed and to step aside when the task is too difficult and allow an other person to take over. If Laura said she could handle that stetcher then I have no doubt that she could. That was her decision and to try and brush it off and say they where just trying to help just makes it worse. If you do not know the inner workings or how much effort is required then frankly your opinion is invalid.

  6. Barb Smith says:

    It is time for new leadership and some accountability from the higher ups. I had an issue with the town in 2017 over my job at the tourist bureau and i was forced to work for three hours every weekend or be replaced. I was replaced by someone from Kelly services at twice the wage we were making . I sent a letter to all town councillors as well as the mayor, the CAO and the department heads and i got one reply and that was Bruce who they have been trying to get rid of for years. He is about the only one there looking out for the little person. Good luck with your concerns with the fire department.

  7. Bonnie Stiles says:

    Doesn’t surprise me. Time for a change in all departments.

  8. Thilo Joerger says:

    If these reports are accurate, then they point to a culture of cover-up and cronyism incompatible with a small community where we depend on each other, and most urgently, on our first responders. A cleansing is needed. And an outside review.

  9. Ross Estabrooks says:

    As a Town official I would be questioning why firefighters are performing duties if they do not have their full PPE on. This opens the Town up to Millions of dollars in liabilities if that firefighter were to get injured on the job. People get confused when they hear the term “Volunteer”. Volunteer firefighters still have to perform and follow all of the same safety regulations as a Career firefighter has to. The overwhelming majority of fire departments across North America are Volunteer and we hear about accidents everyday because they were allowed to be in the Volunteer mindset. Firefighting is professional whether you get paid or not. Sexism and bullying has no place in the fire hall the only way a department achieves their objectives is through teamwork. I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside and for some of the great women firefighters out there. I take each of the things they taught me and apply it to my own way of leading a department now that I am an assistant Chief. The Town management is the problem without proper leadership from them how do they expect their employees to perform differently. The candidates running for Mayor dodging this hot topic shows me that nothing will change with a new Mayor.

    • Barb Smith says:

      Sadly i think you are right, unless some of the new crew get their big boy panties on and fight to make a change, it will not happen.

  10. Jeff Weldon says:

    Ah. The Tyrant Fire Chief is exposed again. Sad that female firefighters are treated like this.

    • Barb Smith says:

      No one should be treated this way, regardless of whether it is the fire chief, deputy or firemen or fire lady. We have too many at town hall that just go along for the ride and never question that someone is trying to pull off a coverup. Hopefully we get a few new faces on council who will ask questions and demand answers.

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