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Firefighter choked by colleague, discouraged from reporting it by supervisor: internal reports

A ritualistic dishwashing competition at an Ottawa fire station last year escalated to unusual violence in the form of choking, and later that day the victim — an openly non-binary rookie firefighter — was ushered into a supply closet by their supervisor and discouraged from reporting the incident, two internal fire department investigations obtained by CBC have found.

While the final reports focus only on the events immediately leading up to, during and shortly after the violent incident, they include some accounts of a culture of fear and silence at Ottawa Fire Services.

The rookie complainant was so afraid of reprisal for speaking up about what happened that they asked management to erase their contact information from all fire service records, and the department complied, the reports state.

Some of the witnesses who were interviewed also expressed concern “about possible repercussions for providing evidence,” and some eventually gave written statements only.

Two unnamed firefighters were found by the fire department to have breached municipal and provincial workplace policies.

While both were cleared of verbally harassing the rookie about their gender identity, appearance and pronouns leading up to and during the violence, the complainant’s allegations outlined in the reports raise questions about inclusivity at the service.

Eric Einagel and supervisor Capt. Greg Wright are each facing criminal charges laid by Ottawa police in connection with what happened on Sept. 14, 2022, at Station 47 on Greenbank Road in Barrhaven — Einagel for alleged choking, harassment and more, and Wright for alleged criminal negligence causing bodily harm for failing to provide the rookie complainant with medical attention.

Einagel was eventually terminated from his position with the fire department, and Wright — whom department sources told CBC had been hand-picked to oversee the non-binary firefighter — will be suspended for three days without pay, lawyers for the two confirmed last week.

The criminal allegations against Einagel and Wright have not been tested in court and they remain innocent in the eyes of the law.

Investigations delayed for police probe

The two internal Ottawa Fire Services reports obtained by CBC were authored by Deputy Chief Dave Matschke, who was assigned by Chief Paul Hutt to determine whether workplace safety policies and/or the city’s code of conduct were breached in the Sept. 14 incident.

The reports say Matschke’s investigations began Sept. 21, four days after the complainant filed an accident/injury report, and one day after the complainant went to Ottawa police. Police then asked the fire department to temporarily halt its investigations from Sept. 28 to Nov. 16, the reports state.

Matschke’s investigations for the fire department resumed and were completed Feb. 20. His final reports were provided to Hutt on March 8.

The two reports do not mention anyone by name, and do not specify that only two people were investigated.

Dishwashing a display of ‘eagerness to perform’

The violence took place during a “frequently” observed fire station custom in which junior employees compete for the right to do chores like washing dishes, thereby demonstrating “their eagerness to perform” to senior staff, one of Matschke’s two reports states.

The rookie complainant was choked and pushed against a kitchen counter by another firefighter, Matschke found. He wrote that same firefighter also tossed dishes onto the complainant’s hands as they were washing others.

CBC has agreed not to identify the complainant due to their concern about being exposed to hate-motivated attacks, a concern communicated through their lawyer, Paul Champ.

The choking didn’t take place exactly as the complainant described, Matschke concluded after reviewing witness evidence.

The rookie and the other respondent firefighter started out mutually shoving each other consensually, but the respondent’s one-handed choking action went “far beyond what was normal from previous interactions over the chore of doing dishes,” Matschke wrote.

The alleged incident happened in September at Station 47 on Greenbank Road in Barrhaven.
The incident happened at Station 47 on Greenbank Road in Barrhaven. (Google Maps)

That same day, after the complainant said they told their supervisor they were hurt and asked to go to the hospital, the supervisor allegedly said: “You are fine and won’t be going to hospital. You are breathing. You can move. The best thing for your career as a firefighter is to get on the truck and we are going to go out for [two hours] to residents and check smoke detectors for the door-to-door program,” Matschke wrote in a separate report dealing with the supervisor.

Later that day, when they got back from a call, the complainant said the supervisor placed a chair in a supply closet under a set of stairs in the truck bay, told them to go in and calm down, slammed the door, turned off the lights, and said, among other things:

  • “This has nothing to do with you being who you are. This was just a dish fight that got out of hand. You’re not the first person to be choked out, many firefighters before have been strangled. I have been choked out at work and that is something that happens, and you can get over it. Many firefighters have got into huge fights and broken things. No one reports on one another. You will not go and report this, this is a family, and we work it out in station. HR will blow it out of proportion, you don’t want that happening to your name and having others holding it against you or coming after you for the rest of your career and I will not have this on my time.”

The report does not address the verbal accusations separately. It states only that both parties agree the conversation in the supply closet was about whether a report would be made, but that they each “indicate differing content.”

Matschke found the supervisor violated Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act when he failed to report the incident as required, and that he violated the city’s workplace violence and harassment policy and code of conduct when he discouraged the complainant from reporting the incident during the conversation in the supply closet.

The firefighter, meanwhile, violated the workplace violence and harassment policy when he choked the rookie complainant, Matschke found.

Eight people were interviewed, including the complainant, the respondents and witnesses.

Alleged pattern of harassment

The non-binary complainant alleged being harassed about their gender identification, personality and appearance leading up to Sept. 14, Matschke’s report states. Some of the comments allegedly made include:

  • “My sister is a lesbian and that makes sense to me, because she is a female and so are you, you’re a lesbian and this whole thing [non-binary queer] makes no sense. It is only something that has recently become popular, it was not even a thing a couple years ago.”
  • “Guys on the floor don’t understand the ‘they/them’ why can’t you be called she/her?”
  • “Guys on the floor hate you because of who you are. No matter what, you look the way you look, and until that changes that’s going to be a problem for you.”
  • “You need to change who you are.”
  • “You’re getting off easy at this station, other stations would have their way with you, and you wouldn’t last.”
  • “I’m getting so sick of you.”

Matschke found that the comments were either “taken out of context, or … did not occur based upon witness testimonies,” and were therefore unsubstantiated. No staff stationed with the firefighter and the complainant witnessed the alleged comments on any shifts between Aug. 1 and Sept. 14, he wrote.

Again, the report does not address the comments individually. It’s unclear which comments Matschke found were taken out of context, and which didn’t occur according to witnesses.

“Witness evidence supports substantial efforts were made to make the complainant feel welcomed and part of the team and at no time was it negative towards the complainant,” Matschke’s report adds.

‘Difficult … to compare the cases’

Einagel’s criminal defence lawyer, Dominic Lamb, said Tuesday that he and his client won’t comment.

Joshua Clarke, Wright’s criminal defence lawyer, said in an email Wednesday that Wright “acknowledges” the fire department’s internal findings were made, but disputes the findings and his suspension and is challenging the suspension.

“It’s important to know the different standards at play here. Internal investigations [require] 50 per cent plus one level of certainty. Criminal charges require proof beyond a reasonable doubt (so a lot more than 50 per cent),” Clarke added.

“Without seeing all the internal evidence, it’s difficult (though tempting) to compare the [internal fire department and criminal] cases.”

The local firefighters’ union, the Ottawa Professional Fire Fighters’ Association, won’t comment on the internal fire department reports, saying in an emailed statement to CBC Wednesday that the matter is before the courts.

The city, meanwhile, would not address the two reports or their contents specifically, saying in an email that it doesn’t comment on individual personnel matters.

“The city’s policies prohibit workplace violence and harassment, including on the grounds of discrimination under any of the categories listed in the Human Rights Code. The city recognizes that members of equity-seeking groups, including members of 2SLGBTQ+ communities, have been historically targeted in instances of workplace harassment and violence,” human resources associate director Margaret-Marie Steele wrote Tuesday.

“All disciplinary measures are determined in accordance with the city’s discipline policy and any relevant collective agreement or statutory requirements.”

Hutt said in an emailed statement Wednesday that the fire service “values the safety, rights and dignity of all our members and is committed to providing a safe workplace environment built on a culture of respect and inclusiveness for its members. We maintain a zero-tolerance policy for harassment, violence, or discrimination of any kind and take allegations of misconduct very seriously.”

Union files grievance for firing, suspension

The firefighters’ union has filed a grievance about Einagel’s firing and Wright’s suspension, president Dave André told CBC in an email Wednesday, “and we continue to support all our members involved,” he added.

On Saturday, after news of the disciplinary actions against Einagel and Wright came to light last week, a statement posted by André on the union’s website said the association “may have no option but to challenge” them.

Members must have the opportunity to submit evidence in a member’s defence, André wrote. The union’s grievance committee met with the city to discuss the matters Thursday, and on Friday the union was told no changes were being made.

It’s now “determining how to assign legal counsel” to deal with the firing and suspension if they go to arbitration, André wrote.

“We want to be clear that all members have the right to work in an environment that is free of discrimination, violence, or harassment. That position has not changed and our actions in this matter do not and will not move us away from that position,” André added.

Wright and Einagel had been scheduled to appear in court on their criminal charges Wednesday.

The rookie complainant is currently on leave with pay.

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