OPSEU/SEFPO forest fire workers call out false statements by Minister Graydon Smith


TORONTO – Forest fire workers represented by OPSEU/SEFPO are calling out Graydon Smith, Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, for false statements made during a closed-door news conference in Timmins that shut out frontline forest fire workers.

The workers held their own news conference to demand real solutions and immediate action to resolve the retention crisis in Ontario’s Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services (AFFES). Their demands include reclassification – a process to recognize the actual work they do, the dangers they face and pay them appropriately; danger and standby pay; and longer-term, permanent job opportunities.

“We are extremely disappointed by the Minister’s misinformation,” said OPSEU/SEFPO President JP Hornick. “The decision to reclassify can happen right now. The Minister can make this happen with the stroke of a pen. In fact, it must happen – northern communities and lives depend on it.”

Despite Smith’s words to the contrary, the Treasury Board can, and does, reclassify with direction from the Minister. While OPSEU/SEFPO has requested action from both the Treasury Board and the Minister, it is the Minister who is responsible for ensuring fairness and respect for forest fire workers.

“The retention crisis in Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services exists because forest fire workers are unfairly compensated for the level of risk they take,” said Tara Maszczakiewicz, OPSEU/SEFPO Region 6 Regional Vice-President. “They put their lives on the line to keep us, Northern communities, and the Boreal Forest – Ontario’s lungs – safe.”

This was the worst wildfire season on record in Canada. Instead of ensuring our wildfire management system is well-resourced for next year’s wildfire season by addressing the retention crisis, the government says it’s investing in drones. They know that is not an adequate solution or what forest fire workers have been calling for. That’s why the Minister shut the workers out of his news conference.

“We don’t need drones, we need fair wages and respect,” said Noah Freedman, a Fire Crew Leader and Vice President of OPSEU/SEFPO Local 703. “If people are not willing to do the job or leave the job because of higher wages elsewhere, we lose those years of experience, and it means fewer crews next season. It takes many years of experience to become a crew leader, but no one is staying long enough for that to happen. This year we were down 50 crews because of lack of experienced staff.”

“This means smaller fires become uncontrollable because they aren’t put out in a timely manner and workers are spending more time on fires, prolonging their exposure to smoke inhalation and high heat situations,” added Freedman. “Disregarding forest fire workers’ demands is disregarding our health and safety. It’s unacceptable.”

In the past, crews had a combined experience of 100 years; now they have a combined experience of five years. Safety is developed through situational awareness – you learn the job by doing the job. But turnover is high because people are not adequately compensated for the high risk.

While the ball is in the Minister’s court, the union says it will continue to ramp up the pressure, just like today.

“We will not let Minister Smith off the hook. This is a matter of life or death,” said Hornick. “The government needs to correct the situation before more communities are displaced, and lives are lost.”

To view coverage of the press conference please click here.