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Letter: What does Vic Fedeli know about fighting forest fires?

When the season is over, and our backs and lungs are destroyed, staff look at their bank account and ask, 'Why did I do this?'
'We are not contractually recognized as firefighters. Which means we do not get danger pay, and our health benefits do not recognize that we eat more smoke than we do food.'

Editor's note: Mr. Freedman writes in response to the BayToday story Fedeli believes forest fire fighting funding is vital.


To the editor:

My name is Noah A. Freedman, I am the Vice President of OPSEU 703 Local and a Forest Fire Crew Leader in the far north of Ontario.

My district, Sioux Lookout, protects 114,000 square kilometres of land, including 14 Indigenous communities, 5 towns/municipalities, countless homes and camps, and critical infrastructure.

This season, the worst in Canadian history, we were down 24% of our fire crews locally and 28% across the province. And it's only getting worse. While individuals on our crews used to have an average of 15 years of experience each, we struggled to put together fire crews of 5 people who have 15 years combined.

Why are we short so many crews? And why do we have so little experience? The answer is quite simple.

We are not contractually recognized as firefighters. This means we do not get danger pay, and our health benefits do not recognize that we eat more smoke than we do food. 

We cannot be compensated and taken care of adequately without being reclassified as firefighters; something Minister Smith is entirely aware of and can fix with the stroke of a pen. However, he won't help us because if they recognize what we do, the dangers we face, and the detriment to our health, they would have to pay us a living wage.

Under Minister Smith's leadership, Aviation, Forest Fires, and Emergency Services (AFFES) spent over $100,000 of tax payer money to hire a private consulting firm (MNP Consulting) to investigate why forest fire workers don’t stick around anymore - issues which we already investigated almost a decade ago internally, and whose recommendations have been entirely ignored.

What's worse? Neither the AFFES, or Minister Smith, will release the results of this report to fire management or fire workers, much less the taxpayer. Where is the transparency when lives are at stake?

Vic Fedeli is no better. 

When I wrote Mr. Fedeli personally on July 14, 2023 regarding this issue, his staff didn’t respond until over two months later on September 18.

This is what he had to say: “Ontario, like other jurisdictions, is experiencing challenges with the availability of skilled and experienced candidates for wildland firefighter positions; therefore, the Ministry will continue to explore and implement recruitment and retention strategies to ensure the province continues to have highly trained and capable wildland firefighters, operational staff, and support staff.”

We don’t have issues bringing new fire staff into the program – we can’t retain people. When the season is over, and our backs and lungs are destroyed, staff look at their bank account and ask, “Why did I do this?”. The only reason anyone sticks around is because we have a duty to protect the people of Ontario and train the next generation of firefighters, but until we pay people better, our efforts are wasted.

Minister Smith and his friends like Doug Ford and Vic Fedeli like to pretend like Forest Fire Workers are in constant communication with the government and that they’re listening. They’re not. What we are asking for is not complicated and has nothing to do with our collective agreement – we simply want our jobs to be reclassified such that we are recognized for actually being firefighters instead of “Resource Technicians” – whatever that means.

Our government loves to talk about how much they respect forest firefighters. I’ve spoken directly with people like Vic Fedeli and Minister Smith behind closed doors; I don’t feel respected.

And until the day when this government, including Minister Smith, Mr. Fedeli, and Doug Ford, stop pretending like everything is fine and Ontario Forest Fire Fighters are “the best in the world” I fear deeply for the people of Ontario and the people who kill themselves to protect them.

And if something bad were to happen in the Summer of 2024, our blood is on their hands.

Noah A. Freedman

Vice President, OPSEU 703 Local

Forest Fire Crew Leader