A Black man who is a retired firefighter has filed a lawsuit against the Halifax fire department, alleging that he has been discriminated against because of his race.
George Cromwell’s detailed Statement of Claim references incidents that date back to soon after amalgamation of the predecessor governments into the Halifax Regional Munipality in 1996, and continue on until the present. In his claim, he outlines several instances that he alleges illustrate incompetence on the part of fire department managers. One of those incidents involved a district chief recklessly risking the lives of firefighters, claims Cromwell.
A fatal car crash
After amalgamation, explains Cromwell, the newly formed Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Services was to create two new “rescue units” — one at the West Street Station in Halifax (Station 2), and one at the King Street Station in downtown Dartmouth (Station 13). Cromwell was already working at Station 13. (West Street is now Station #3; I don’t know if the station numbers have changed or if Cromwell has the numbering wrong.)
“Personnel had to apply for these positions [in the new rescue units], and were required to have at least three years on the job with heavy firefighting experience and high-angle rescue to qualify,” writes Cromwell.
Cromwell describes a dramatic incident from the time that he implies both demonstrated his abilities and showed the racism directed against him:
We had a call of a vehicle-pedestrian accident on Woodland Avenue, where a youth had stolen a van and was proceeding to go to Woodland Avenue by cross streets.
The driver of the stolen van noticed a police officer approaching from the rear, panicked and darted into the street, and T-boned another driver’s vehicle and caused a fatality to that driver.
At that time, the personnel of Station 13 were allegedly qualified to join the rescue unit. I was on that call. I and only one other person had actually reached the qualifications to be on a rescue team… the Captain himself was not qualified for rescue team service at that time.
At the scene, the Captain asked me to perform his job, to extricate the female driver that had died in the accident. The Captain asked me to work with the remaining crew.
We were at the scene for four hours, and then returned to the station. I ran the entire call myself, instead of the Captain doing it.
Cromwell appears to be referring to a March 11, 1998 incident involving two teenagers who had stolen a Chrysler Magic Wagon. “The chase started at about 4:30pm when a patrol officer in a marked police car tried to pull over a green minivan near the corner of Jackson Road and Pinehill Drive, said Halifax regional police Const. Gary Martin,” reported Chris Lambie the following morning in the Daily News.
The van “took off as soon as the officer put on his flashing lights,” wrote Lambie. “After a half-kilometre chase, the van crashed into a red Saturn sedan travelling along Woodland Avenue, flipping it on to its side and killing the driver — a Dartmouth woman in her early 40s.”
The woman was later identified as 43-year-old Janet Myers, a dance instructor at the Dartmouth Dance Academy.
After he returned to the fire station from the crash scene, continues Cromwell, the Captain called Cromwell into his office and told him he wanted him to apply for the rescue unit in Station 13. Cromwell said that he was already being transferred to Station 2, but not to that station’s rescue unit. However, “[the Captain] begged me to apply… [so] I applied for the rescue team position at Station 13.”
The next day, says Cromwell in his Statement of Claim, Platoon Chief Allan Carmichael confirmed to Cromwell that his application to become part of the rescue unit “was shuffled aside.”
“I believe I was denied due process because of incompetence on the part of Jim Gillis, who was Director of fire services at the time,” writes Cromwell. “I was the most decorated firefighter in HRM, the first firefighter qualified in Dartmouth to use the Jaws of Life, and yet I was treated with disrespect due to my race. I have rescued numerous individuals, including other firefighters, while Jim Gillis was my fire captain. When he became director, he ignored all my commendations for service.
“A large moustache”
Perhaps to illustrate the absurdity of his situation, Cromwell goes on to detail another incident of what he says was discrimination directed at him. When he returned from vacation with a “large moustache,” Cromwell says he was told by Captain Bill Williams that he could keep his moustache so long as he could get a safe seal on his mask, which he could. Moreover, says Cromwell, “there was a white firefighter in Westphal with the same sort of moustache.”
All the same, “Mike Eddy [then the Director Operations, and later the Chief] was in the kitchen in Station 13 and embarrassed me in front of the crew by saying I looked ugly with my large moustache… After this, Mike Eddy called me and Lieutenant Gordie Skinner into his office and further abused and degraded me relating to my moustache. Within a month of this event, Mike Eddy brought in Doug Pierce, Captain Wayne Swinamer, Lieutenant Skinner, Lieutenant Dave Laybolt from Westphal and Platoon Chief Terry Bourgeois. He further harassed me in front of these people, literally jumping up and down like a kid.
“Mr. Eddy then said to Terry Bourgeois to go outside with him to demonstrate how he doesn’t want facial hair to touch the mask,” continues Cromwell. “Mr. Eddy then came back in with the mask on himself upside-down, and Mr. Bourgeois tried to cover for him. Mr. Eddy then told Mr. Bourgeios to make me shave my moustached ‘at all costs, today.’”
Putting firefighters’ lives in danger
In his Statement of Claim, Cromwell relates a much more serious incident that he says put the lives of firefighters at risk. Cromwell doesn’t say when or where the incident occurred, only relating that it involved a “major fire.”
“When we arrived at that call,” he writes, “the fire had been burning for over an hour. Captain Joe Ryan, another firefighter and I were told to stay at the truck until the Captain was given the job tasks from the [District] Chief, Terry Bourgeois. We were [then] told to go into the building, by Mr. Bourgeois, with no fire line. To me, that is a dangerous move, and I noted it to the Captain that it was not good firefighting. It put us at risk, with no way to pull us out or no way for us to find our way out if we should get lost in there.”
And that’s what happened, claims Cromwell.
“We proceeded into the building and because of the lack of safety measures, firefighters could have been killed. One firefighter, Barry Greer, [his] coat was on fire when I pulled him out. I was able to rescue the Captain and the other firefighter, and we all made it out alive, fortunately.
“Mr. Bourgeois put us in danger at that call, and people could have died,” continues Cromwell. “Mr Bourgeois was worried about the safety of the seal on my mask and made a huge issue of it, but was not safety conscious enough to protect personnel under his command from danger.”
Searching for justice
In his Statement of Claims, Cromwell goes on to relate how he looked for help from City Hall.
He says he met with former Cole Harbour councillor Ron Cooper and then-CAO George MacLellan; MacLellan told Cromwell that his complaints had been investigated and found wanting, but MacLellan could offer no details of the supposed investigation — who carried it out, who was interviewed, what documents were examined, etc.
Then, alleges Cromwell, MacLellan agreed to hire a law firm to investigate the matter, but subsequently told Cromwell that “he was doing it himself.”
“To this day, I still have not been provided with any evidence or documents to suggest that my concerns were investigated by the City,” writes Cromwell.
In 2013, says Cromwell, he met with then-Mayor Peter Kelly and then-city solicitor Mary Ellen Donovan. In that meeting, Cromwell says he warned Kelly about “incompetence” at the fire department, and there would eventually be a fire for which the city would be held financially liable, illustrating his point with a recent fire in Settle Lake in Dartmouth:
The Platoon Chief from Station 13, Platoon A (who is the racist one), chose to alert the fire station in Westphal instead of the one on Cole Harbour Road. The Westphal station is farther away, and because of this delay, the entire house was demolished by the fire.
Cromwell says that in the meeting he told Kelly about the racism he had experienced while he was in A Platoon at Station 13. “The Platoon Chief was racist and made racist comments toward me and other Black firefighters, and I did not want to work with him. If council was not going to deal with this, I advised Mayor Kelly that I would take the city to court.
“Ms. Donovan asked me not to take the city to court,” writes Cromwell.
Cromwell says that Donovan was working on his file but then retired in 2013. In her stead, the file went to city solicitor Marty Ward, but by 2016 Ward told Cromwell that the case was closed. “When I asked him why it was closed, he said the CAO, Richard Butts, told him it was closed.”
Cromwell says he has continued to raise the issue of discrimination with the city, but has gotten no satisfactory response, so he’s filed the lawsuit.
At times, Cromwell was represented by the law firm Cox & Palmer, but he filed his lawsuit without legal representation. His demands are relatively modest — he wants $200,000, an amount that he says represents additional income he would have made had he been assigned to the rescue unit in Dartmouth. Had he been assigned to that position instead of being assigned to Station 2 in Halifax, he writes, “I most likely would not have been in the car crash that ended my career as a firefighter, and might even be still working today.”
Cromwell’s claims have not been tested in court, and the city has not yet responded to them. Cromwell did not return a phone call from the Halifax Examiner seeking comment.
Cromwell’s claims, however, appear to be of a piece with the documented history of racism in the fire department. In 2013, in response to a Human Rights complaint filed by the Halifax Association of Black Firefighters, then-fire chief Doug Trussler issued an apology to “any black firefighters who experienced racism within the fire service.”
“Trussler acknowledged the fire department could have done a better job of handling the concerns,” reported the Canadian Press:
“When allegations of poor treatment were brought forward by individual firefighters and the Association of Black Firefighters, the allegations were not addressed as effectively as they could have been, allowing old hurts to reopen instead of heal,” he said.
I was at the “reconciliation circle” where Trussler issued his apology. As I wrote at the time in The Coast:
Trussler’s apology was certainly heartfelt and welcomed by HABFF, but it hits nowhere near the level of detail found in most reconciliations. It relies on weasel phrases like this:
When allegations of poor treatment were brought forward by individual firefighters and the Association of Black Firefighters, the allegations were not addressed as effectively as they could have been; allowing old hurts to reopen instead of heal.In any fire service, the standards of behaviour are established at the top of the chain of command. I apologize for our failure to bring a swift end to any discriminatory behaviours you experienced in the workplace.
It contains a vague nod to “allegations,” not enumerated. The “top of command” is mentioned, but Mosher’s name not used, and Trussler declined to elaborate when asked to by The Coast. In total, the apologize comes off with a bit of a “I’m sorry if you were offended” feel.
Of course, it’s not up to newspapers to decide these things. The black firefighters themselves accepted the apology and clearly want to move on, continuing their jobs and setting the bad blood with the department behind them.
Still, there’s one black firefighter who feels re-victimized by the reconciliation.
“They threw me under the bus,” says Blair Cromwell, who made anonymous comments about fire department brass on The Coast website. The city paid for the legal expenses of Mosher and deputy chief Steve Thurber, first to get a court order to require The Coast to turn over IP addresses related to the comments, then again paid for Mosher’s and Thurber’s libel suit against Cromwell, which continues in the courts. In the process, Cromwell was fired.
Cromwell says now that originally the HABFF agreed not to settle their human rights complaint unless Cromwell was hired back into the department.
“I know Blair feels bad,” said HABFF rep Ray Adekayode Thursday. “But there’s nothing we can do for him.”
I’m not aware that Blair Cromwell and George Cromwell are related.