CNL-deal a chance for Deep River fire to move past disputes

Image: Deal-signing ceremony between Deep River and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (credit: Town of Deep River).

Deep River’s game-changing deal with Canadian Nuclear Labs to operate our fire department will not only benefit both parties, it should help us get past the disputes covered in the North Renfrew Times (NRT) last week being fought out before a grievance arbitrator and the Ontario Labor Relations Board. In the proceedings reported, the union’s dismissal of democratic process is insulting to our community and specifically to the many who voted in the 2016 survey.

My remarks to the NRT are below. The resources I referred to are here:

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Congratulations to the Deep River Council for achieving a game-changing agreement with CNL to operate our fire department!

We’ll get better fire protection as a result of leveraging CNL’s expertise, and this cooperation also opens opportunities to get past some of the disputes about the department’s current operations.

The problems that have led to arbitration over union grievances, and to a hearing before the Ontario Labor Relations Board boil down to the union seeking protection for one thing: positions, not people.

Protection for the individual firefighters was not in dispute in either of the rounds of bargaining that ended up in arbitration in 2014 and 2017, because the town offered a “no lay-off” clause that would have enabled our fire fighters to serve out their careers.

The union’s position has been that a “minimum staffing” clause is needed instead, which would require the town to replace these individuals whenever they leave, thereby forcing the town to maintain firefighter positions in perpetuity.

Such a minimum staffing clause “protects the association,” as the president of the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA), Carmen Santoro, testified at the Friday hearing.

So its not about protecting people at all; its about self-perpetuation of an institution.

Society may tolerate self-interested behaviour to a point, but as oil producers, drug-makers and financiers are beginning to realize, profit-seeking at the expense of society results in a bad reputation that hurts them in the long-term.

So too, should the OPFFA realize that its insistence on maintaining a high number of positions in Deep River against the will and best interests of the residents will only hurt it in the long run.

Santoro’s dismissal of the referendum-format “survey” held in 2016 just adds to the damage to the union’s reputation.

More residents voted in the 2016 survey (36 percent, with 1255 responses) than in the 2011 by-election (25 percent).*

In 2016, 1255 residents, a very large and statistically significant sample, voted 9 to 1 against the fire protection model that the union is now trying to pressure to town to implement.

Furthermore, if supporters of the union’s position didn’t like how the town positioned the question, they had time to voice their opinions and influence the results.

The survey’s results are in fact a true reflection of an enduring community sentiment that goes back earlier than the 2010 election, when I campaigned on restructuring the fire department.

I knocked on every house in Deep River, and only found a handful of people who objected to changing to a volunteer fire department.

The council has a sufficient democratic mandate to shut the department down, if necessary, to get to a sustainable solution.

Fortunately, the deal just signed with CNL means that better solutions are now possible.

As the parties work together on a long-term partnership, no doubt they will consider the mutual benefits of merging the departments.

We wouldn’t be the first nuclear host community to be serviced by the same fire department as the nuclear facility: the Los Alamos Fire Department serves both the National Lab and the surrounding county.

Merging the departments might finally allow us to move beyond the limitations that have plagued our fire department for over 30 years.

And with nuclear-grade fire fighters ready to respond, we can forget about whether our guys were carrying pagers or not.

Documents referred to in this letter will be available on my blog: danielbanks.ca

Daniel Banks

former Deputy Mayor of Deep River, 2011-2014

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* The democratic legitimacy of the 2011 by-election (at 25 percent participation) was deemed enough not only to elect two Councillors (Katie Robertson, Ian Ingram), but two more runner-ups were later appointed to fill vacancies (Bob McLaren, and Ed Cochrane), largely because of their participation as candidates in the election.