Calgary fire chief says most of department ‘ashamed’ that some firefighters attended vaccine protest

The City of Calgary will soon require all of its employees to be vaccinated, but some firefighters took part in a protest against the mandate on Tuesday.

Images of several dozen purported first responders linking arms outside of City Hall circulated online after the demonstration, while videos showed alleged firefighters lining up to touch the firefighters memorial. 

It drew a swift response on social media, and some city councillors publicly expressed discomfort and disappointment.

“To have a group of people purporting to be members of our fire service and members of our police service — who are standing for some kind of weird conception of freedom, and really undermining the entire purpose of their service — is disappointing and off-putting,” Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra said.

Someone who wholeheartedly agrees with Carra is Calgary’s fire chief, Steve Dongworth.

“We are very confident that a number of those [at the protest] are our employees,” Dongworth told the Calgary Eyeopener on Friday.

“And I think 95 per cent of our members right now are completely embarrassed and ashamed of what happened on Tuesday.”

‘Decent men or women … make up our majority’

Unvaccinated city staff who are without a religious or health exemption will need their first dose by Sept. 13, when employees will be required to disclose and provide proof of their vaccination status.

By Oct.18, it will be mandatory for all city employees to have received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccination.

Those who are not fully vaccinated by Oct. 31 will be disciplined — and could be fired.

As the second-largest employer in Calgary, the city has a duty to ensure that workplaces are safe for employees and citizens who access its services, city manager David Duckworth said about the mandate.

Fire Chief Steve Dongworth says “the protesters chose to exploit what is a sacred monument to advance their agenda.’ (Monty Kruger/CBC)

But according to Dongworth, the mandatory vaccination policy has created tension in fire halls around Calgary.

“There are some interesting conversations right now between … [the] decent women or men who make up the majority of our 1,500 employees, and a small minority who are choosing to make this protest,” Dongworth said.

“[And] I’m hearing nothing but disappointment and distress about what occurred from the public, our employees, our pensioners.”

‘They step over the line’

The Calgary Firefighters Association — which is the union that represents its members — says 85 per cent of the city’s firefighters have been vaccinated.

Dongworth said he believes it was a small minority of the department that attended the protest.

“I can accept the fact they have those views, and I respect the fact they have those views. I respect their right to protest,” Dongworth said.

“But when they clearly market themselves as Calgary firefighters to add weight to their message, they step over the line.”

Prior vaccines always mandated for firefighters 

In spite of respecting a right to protest, Dongworth was clear: He doesn’t believe the opinions of the protestors are correct.

It contradicts predominant medical advice and what’s happening in the community, he said.

He feels the public’s trust in their first responders is very important, in addition to the safety of firefighters themselves. In the United States, more than 100 firefighters have died of COVID-19. 

Even more puzzling, Dongworth said, is that every member of the Calgary Fire Department has to have mandatory vaccinations to get the job in the first place — shots to protect against Hepatitis B and C, for example — and they must be kept up to date.

“We’ve never had, that I’m aware of, a complaint from anyone about receiving a vaccine,” Dongworth said.

“So it’s quite bizarre now, during a global pandemic, that this has come to the fore.”

Memorial demonstration ‘disgraceful’

Perhaps especially troubling for Dongworth was the inclusion of the firefighters memorial in the protest.

It was, he said, the most disrespectful thing he has seen in 45 years of professional fire service.

“The protesters chose to exploit what is a sacred monument to advance their agenda,” Dongworth said.

“Even the widows and families of some of our members who are actually memorialized on that wall have reached out to say how disgraceful that was, and how disturbed they are that that’s what happened.”

During previous protests against COVID-19 health measures or vaccines, the department has asked that the memorial be cordoned off to protect it.

Another protest is planned for City Hall on Sunday, and although it’s unclear if firefighters will attend, Dongworth said he has asked that the memorial be cordoned off again.

But this time, it will be done to protect it from the fire department’s own members.

“I never thought the day would come,” Dongworth said.

‘We will enforce our policies’

The fire department is in the process of identifying members who attended the protest, and will reach out to them, Dongworth said.

They are investigating, but he cannot speak specifically about discipline for individuals.

However, because protestors identified themselves as firefighters during the demonstration, he said they are within the scope of some policies around off-duty conduct.

“We will enforce our policies to the degree that’s necessary, for sure,” Dongworth said. 

“[And] I’m hoping that these members will finally get vaccinated and listen to what is their responsibility to the citizens of Calgary.”


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.

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