‘I’m Speaking Out:’ Calgary Firefighters Allege Decades of Racism

When Chris Coy became Calgary’s first Black firefighter 25 years ago, his heroic vision of the profession was almost immediately upended...

When Chris Coy became Calgary’s first Black firefighter 25 years ago, his heroic vision of the profession was almost immediately upended.

First, he said, during training he was hazed more than his colleagues, strapped to a stretcher against his will and repeatedly doused with a fire hose. Then there were the co-workers who ostracized him at lunch. Throughout his career, he said, fellow firefighters used a racial slur directed at Black people.

For years, Mr. Coy said he suffered in silence as he feared speaking out would mean dismissal, or, worse, other firefighters not shielding him from danger in the field.

But since retiring in December, Mr. Coy has begun speaking publicly about what he said was decades of racially motived physical and verbal abuse, joining a group of current and former firefighters who have been voicing similar grievances. The city’s mayor and fire chief have acknowledged the racism within the department and pledged to address it.

“Here in Canada we are proud and sometimes smug about our commitment to diversity,” Naheed Nenshi, Calgary’s mayor, said in an interview. “I don’t want anyone who gets a paycheck I sign to feel that they aren’t valued because of the color of their skin.”

In Canada, a country that prides itself on its liberal humanism and multiculturalism, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made reconciling with Indigenous peoples an early priority of his premiership. Now, the country has been undergoing a national reckoning about institutional racism in its city halls, law enforcement and cultural institutions, particularly since the global uprising for Black rights spurred by last year’s police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Brenda Lucki, the chief of Canada’s storied national police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was recently forced to walk back her previous denials of systemic racism within the force. Mr. Trudeau was among those arguing that police forces across the country were grappling with systemic racism.

While there have been complaints of discrimination in other fire departments in Canada, Calgary has become a high-profile case. The accusations of racism at the fire department were first reported by the CBC, the national broadcaster.

Mr. Nenshi said that while Calgary had evolved into one of Canada’s most diverse cities, people of color and women were woefully underrepresented in the fire department. Of 1,400 firefighters in the department, he said, only 40 were women; the city does not track minority numbers.

The department has conducted two internal reviews of workplace culture that have not been made public; the mayor cited the need for employee confidentiality. An internal investigation into racism is also underway, Adam Noble-Johnson, a spokesman for the mayor, said Wednesday.

Calgary’s fire chief, Steve Dongworth, said in an interview that he was proud the fire department had counted Mr. Coy among its ranks and stressed that all accusations of racism, bullying and sexism were thoroughly investigated. He declined to comment on individual complaints.

“I have to acknowledge that we live in a society where ingrained racism and sexism exists and this extends to the Calgary Fire Department,” he said. “We are predominantly a Caucasian male department and we are trying to change that.”

Alberta, an oil and cattle center in the country’s west, has long been billed as “the Texas of Canada.” It is a province where socially conservative political parties dominate and where a highlight of the year is the annual Calgary Stampede, the world’s largest outdoor rodeo.

But decades of migration have transformed the social fabric and politics of Calgary, Alberta’s biggest city, which elected a Muslim mayor more than a decade ago. Today, about one-third of the city’s residents are Black, people of color, or Indigenous, according to City Hall.

Mr. Coy said tensions between the old and new Alberta had boiled over into racism at the fire department, Canada’s third-largest, where, he said, a culture of nepotism still held sway.

This summer, after thousands of antiracism protesters took to the streets of Calgary, the city held three days of public hearings on the issue of local systemic racism.

Among those testifying was Shannon Pennington, a veteran firefighter. He described an episode about a decade ago, when a large pink panther stuffed toy was smeared with black shoe polish on its face and hands, and hung with a rope around its neck from the rafters of Calgary’s Fire Station 5. The toy was wearing a uniform belonging to a Black firefighter.

“It was a mock lynching,” said Mr. Coy, who said he counseled the Black firefighter. “I was outraged but the victim didn’t want to do anything because he feared a backlash.” The alleged victim did not return phone calls.

Elder Doreen Spence, 83, an Indigenous nurse who counsels minority firefighters, also testified about the case of Barry Dawson, an Indigenous firefighter, who rose to the rank of captain and who took his own life in November 2017, at age 47. Ms. Spence, who had dinner with Mr. Dawson the night before he died, said in an interview that he had told her about being bullied repeatedly about his hair, which he wore long to honor his culture.

“He told me he had PTSD from the job, and the constant bullying and verbal abuse exacerbated it,” she said in an interview. (The fire department said Mr. Dawson had been asked to cut his hair during training, in line with regulations, but later was allowed to wear it long).

Following the hearings, a group of current and former minority firefighters, led by Mr. Coy, wrote a letter to Chief Dongworth, saying they had faced an “extremely toxic” environment at work.

“We have been ostracized, humiliated, degraded, slandered, undermined, ignored, verbally and physically assaulted,” the letter said.

They made nine demands including calling for the creation of an independent body to investigate workplace abuses.

While firefighters the world over are revered as heroes, Carrie Edwards-Clemons, President of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, said the issues in Calgary reflected a global challenge in a profession dominated by a white old boys network.

“The difference now is that the world is paying attention and people are saying ‘enough is enough,’” said Ms. Edwards-Clemons, who is deputy chief of Flint, Michigan’s fire department.

In Canada, Chris Coy said he was determined that discrimination at fire departments come out of the shadows.

The son of Jamaican immigrants who came to Canada in the 1960s, Mr. Coy, 60, previously taught English literature to college students. As a firefighter, he went to the scene of a lethal explosion at an oil recycling plant, rescued children with their necks stuck in playground equipment and worked on a recovery team pulling dead bodies out of the river.

He said the racism at the department was never far beneath the surface. If basketball was playing on the fire station’s television, he said colleagues would say, “Why are we watching N-word ball?”

Even after training, he said, he was blocked by superiors from attending fire emergencies, with no explanation.

In 2013, he said he was promoted to captain of a station near Calgary’s airport, on the basis of seniority. His colleagues stopped using the racial slur in front of him, he said, but he would still overhear them using it.

Anwer Amery, a retired Calgary firefighter with Middle Eastern roots, said he never considered himself a visible minority member until he began to work for the department.

As a young recruit, he said, other firefighters called him the “Snake charmer,” “Turban twister” and “a sand N-word.”

“People asked if I ate sand lizards,” he recalled, saying he was singled out for menial tasks like scrubbing the walls of the station. He said physical abuse followed, including being spit on and having wet rags thrown at him. When he complained to superiors, he said they laughed.

After he was promoted to captain in 2010, he said he routinely faced insubordination from other firefighters. “I was the person in charge of emergencies so if people disobeyed or walked away, it was dangerous for the public and other responders.”

After a junior employee who had refused to obey his orders complained to the firefighter’s union about him, he said, he was suddenly suspended by the department, without cause. He said he was eventually offered a settlement of $17,500 from the city, which he refused, and lost out on at least $200,000 in wages. Distraught, he retired in 2016.

“I’m speaking out to stop this from happening again,” he said.

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Newsrust: ‘I’m Speaking Out:’ Calgary Firefighters Allege Decades of Racism
‘I’m Speaking Out:’ Calgary Firefighters Allege Decades of Racism
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