By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
It’s a simple bylaw, but it’s like nothing Oshawa’s firefighter’s union president Peter Dyson has ever seen, and as it stands, it’s barring him and his members from speaking openly to council members.
According to Dyson, the president of the Oshawa Professional Firefighters Association (OPFFA), it was in late May that he was informed by city clerk Andrew Brouwer that he would no longer be allowed to appear as a delegate at either committees of council or council meetings.
Dyson appeared before the Community Services committee in March to share with councillors the union’s struggles in dealing with the management of the Oshawa Fire Service.
Following a fatal fire in January that killed four people in downtown Oshawa, the OPFFA released an initial report that showed people living in the downtown were more vulnerable to fire-related deaths due to age, income and the types of housing. After that initial report, the OPFFA has been working with the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) to create an updated community risk assessment that would look at the effectiveness of the city’s fire resources and how they are deployed at the city’s six fire halls. The Oshawa Fire Service has not joined the union in working on the report.
Moving forward, Dyson says it is unheard of that he would be barred from speaking, noting that Brouwer informed him the avenue for his concerns was through the proper management channels. He disagrees.
“Those are not the avenues where we would say what we want to say to council. I think we have a right to speak to council,” Dyson says. “I have a responsibility to speak on behalf of my members and also the citizens of Oshawa about the level of fire protection they are receiving and the concerns we have.”
However, Brouwer says council’s Procedural Bylaw stipulates that when it comes to Dyson’s concerns, they fall into a category that prohibit him from bringing them forward to council, similar to issues surrounding labour relations.
“After Peter had come to committee, I got some further legal advice that said labour relations is broader than just something obvious like collection bargaining,” Brouwer says. “So, labour relations is about really the employment relationship, and the proper channel for staff to put forward their input on the way city services are delivered is through management.”
And that doesn’t change for union leaders, Brouwer says.
“You never take that employee hat away,” he says. “It’s an employee, and it’s an employee that has an interest in directing the fire master plan in a certain way, so it isn’t just anybody.”
Even with that noted, Dyson believes there is still a problem with the bylaw, and council and citizens are missing out on significant input from the union, especially at this critical time. Most recently, Fire Chief Derrick Clark delivered his five-year review of the Fire Master Plan created in 2013. During a meeting to discuss the review on July 5, Dyson made a request to speak, but was denied.
“It just seems undemocratic, it seems not right. I would never speak to council on confidential issues, on bargaining issues, on grievance issues, that’s all not allowed, for sure, but just because the city’s procedural bylaw, I believe it’s probably not allowed what they have,” he says.
Brouwer admits the clarification in council’s bylaw is rare, but he would argue it makes the city more transparent in their processes. In fact, he says the bylaw has been set this way for some time.
“We’re one of the few municipalities that has this spelled out so clearly. So, in a way, I feel that we’re being more transparent, so that everybody knows what the rules are up front,” he says. “This isn’t something that we created, this was there, it’s just that the provision on labour relations wasn’t fully understood by myself in administering the bylaw.”
Regardless, Dyson still is not on side with the city’s decision, and the same goes for a portion of his membership.
“It seems like they’re trying to hide something, they’re afraid of something. I think having more voices at the table and more opinions on the matter, can give council and the public more things to deliberate on,” he says.
“Our members are not happy, I think it speaks to a culture that is not fair and it’s not right, but we will continue to speak and continue to get our message out to the public and our membership and councillors in terms of fire safety.”