Montral fire truck
18 Apr 2018

Montreal fire department wants to triple the recruits of women and cultural minorities

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The fire department plans to double the number of visible minorities within its ranks in the next three years and triple them by 2025, reports the Montreal Gazette.

Montreal’s fire department is behind with the city’s multicultural and women’s equality, said it´s top managers onTuesday at a meeting of the public security committee.

“It’s a man’s world. It must be said,” said Suzanne Desjardins, director of health and well-being, while presenting a plan to recruit more women, minorities and First Nations into the department.

In Montreal, 30 % belongs to a visible minority.  Three out of five are first- or second-generation immigrants, and 51.4 per cent is female. However, the fire department remains white and male dominated, Desjardins said.

Today, only 29 of the city’s 2,360 firefighters are women (1.2 per cent).  Only 24 are from visible minorities (one per cent) and five are Indigenous people (0.2 per cent).

The department plans to double those numbers in the next three years and triple them by 2025, Desjardins and fire chief Bruno Lachance announced.

Fo Niemi, executive director of the Montreal-based Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations, said the plan has good intentions but lacks specifics ideas on how to realize these plans successfully.

In particular, he said,  it is unfortunate that the firefighters’ union is not playing a more proactive role in opening the door to women and minorities.

The fire department should take inspiration from Montreal’s police force and transit corporation, who have been trying to be more representative of the population since the 1980s, Niemi noted.

“Part of it is outreach, education and, basically, to send the message that not only we want you, but we need you, and there’s a viable career opportunity for you here with the fire department. I think that message has really not been sent strongly enough until today,” he said.

Women make up one-third of police officers and one-quarter of employees at the Société de transport de Montréal. Twelve per cent of police officers and 22 per cent of transit workers are from ethnic or cultural minorities.

“Why is it that the fire department is so far behind other public municipal institutions in coming to reflect the full diversity of the population that they serve?” asked city councillor Alex Norris, chairperson of the public security committee in an interview after the public meeting.

Part of the answer is that in the past, firefighting was seen as too physically demanding and dangerous for women, he said. While women have proved themselves fully capable of taking on such challenges, the image lingers, he said.

“It’s also a question of political will. There has to be political will from the very top of a municipal administration to ensure that things change. I think at the STM and at the SPVM, where it was seen as critically important to have a full diversity, given the nature of police officers’ work, that culture took hold earlier,” Norris said.

But change has “to start somewhere and I’m convinced our fire department is making a genuine, good-faith effort,” he added.

Richard Liebmann, deputy director of the Montreal Fire Department, said the first step is to attract more women and members of cultural minorities to CÉGEP-level firefighting programs.

“We’ve worked really hard on recruiting in cultural communities and amongst women, but our biggest challenge is that we can only hire people that graduate from the school,” he said.

“So as of this past year or two, we’ve been working hard with the schools to increase the recruitment and make sure that the schools attract women and people from cultural communities and visible minorities, so that we can then hire them once they finish their education.”

The image of firefighting has evolved in recent years to be more that of first responders who are called on in all kinds of events, from natural disasters to terrorist attacks.

“Our equipment is now lighter. Our techniques have evolved. The profile of our calls have evolved. We do a lot more medical responses now,” Liebmann said.

Cultural and gender diversity among firefighters, police and transit workers:

Montreal Fire Department (2018)         

Firefighters total: 2,360      

Women 1.2%

Visible Minorities 1%

First Nations 0.2%

Montreal Police (2016)    

Officers total: 4,547 

Women 32%

Visible Minorities 7.4%

Ethnic Minorities 4.2%

First Nations 0.4%

Montreal Transit Corporation (2016)  

Employees total: 9,000       

Women 24.4%

Visible Minorities 20.9%

Ethnic Minorities 6%

First Nations 0.6%

Source: SPVM, STM, City of Montreal

mscott@postmedia.com