By Laura King
Nov. 10, 2015, Toronto – It was purely happenstance that the CBC's Fifth Estate aired its unbalanced report on sexism in the fire service Friday night while female firefighters from across Canada were in Mississauga hauling hoses and cutting cars – training, networking and celebrating successes.
The network's venerable news-magazine missed the story; it featured old, well-documented cases of isolated, serious abuses but failed to mention the herculean – and in many cases, successful – efforts of myriad women and men in departments across the country to change fire-hall culture.
As a deputy chief with Canada's largest department said to me yesterday about the type of behaviour discussed in the episode, "It's just not tolerated."
Friday's broadcast (you can see it here) was sensational – full of clichés, cheesy video and ominous music.
There is no question that there is sexism in fire. And boardrooms. And government. But the fire service would be well within its rights to question the CBC's lack of balance and its failure to mention the progressive programs or talk to women who are thriving as firefighters, captains, training officers, deputy chiefs, chiefs.
Reporter Mark Kelly provided little context and nary a word about the work every fire department I can think of has done or is doing to educate and prevent discrimination and harassment among its members, save a single sentence about Richmond, B.C., changing its culture after incidents a decade ago and Ottawa Chief Gerry Pingitore acknowledging that leaders need to give members better tools to deal with issues when they are reported.
As far as I can tell, the story – previewed all over CBC's platforms last week – came and went with little notice.
So why mention it here?
Because as much work as the fire service has done to diversify – which we all know is challenging because few women and minorities apply for firefighting jobs – there seems to be a perception among some outsiders that all fire departments are bastions of white maleness, rude locker-room banter and shenanigans that females can't abide, and that women don't have the gumption to report harassment when it does happen. Clearly there's some work to be done to educate more taxpayers (the same taxpayers who love their CBC) about successful women in fire.
Indeed, the CBC focused on a well-documented case in Fort St. James, B.C., where former fire chief Rob Bennett was convicted for sexually harassing three female volunteer firefighters, and jailed (he's appealing). Absolutely, it took too long for justice to be served and by then the women had quit the department and had endured taunting in the community. But was it a fire-service problem, or an individual's problem that happened to happen in a fire department?
Certainly, there have been harassment cases in other Canadian fire departments, and firefighters – even officers – have lost their jobs. And certainly a bunch of men in close quarters can be downright disgusting should they be allowed to get away with such behaviour. But, as I keep noting in discussions about this issue, a gaggle of women can be as catty and crude as their differently chromosomed counterparts, given the opportunity.
The point, as one of the former firefighters on the Fifth Estate noted, is that fire halls, like banks and public works departments and insurance companies are places of work in which such behaviour should not be tolerated. And, for the most part, it isn't.
So why the Fifth Estate chose to seek out women who had bad experiences – some as far back as 1995 – parade them in front of cameras, make them cry, and provide not a shred of evidence for viewers that the fire service come a long way in the last 10 years, is beyond me.
Yes, there are bad apples (I wanted to use another word that starts with the letter A but that would be rude). In every profession. In every office, newsroom, hospital, factory, fire hall.
But the CBC missed the point.
I have heard as much about diversity and inclusion at conferences and fire-service events in the last decade as I have about nozzles and hoses and trucks and leadership and cancer and presumptive legislation and PTSD. I have heard fire chiefs share ideas to attract more women and minorities to their halls; I have listened to consultants and studied surveys in which firefighters of both genders have reported harassment by their peers or superiors, and witnessed the changes implemented in those department. I have been to four of the five Fire Service Women Ontario conferences and watched incredibly impressive firefighters and officers speak, train and mentor younger firefighters.
Kelly said at the beginning of the program that, "There remains a perception that women simply can't cut it, that they're not strong enough, tough enough to wear the uniform."
I don't know whose perception that is – Kelly never said. Clearly, it's a generalization that no longer holds true.
Because it's 2015.