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Noah Freedman, Ministry of Natural Resources forest firefighter, Queen's Park screen shot, February 26, 2024

Forest firefighters still wait for government action

By Randy Thoms Feb 26, 2024 | 6:10 PM

Ministry of Natural Resources forest firefighters continue to fight for recognition under the Workers Safety and Insurance Board.

They are seeking the same coverage afforded municipal, volunteer, and First Nations firefighters when diagnosed with cancer or heart disease, recognizing that they are workplace illnesses.

Forest firefighters were not included in the legislation that took effect last summer.

“The government knows that forest firefighters are at higher risk for cancer and other serious diseases. Their own documents prove it. Yet they aren’t taking action to protect these workers who risk their lives to keep us safe,” says J.P. Hornick, president of the Ontario Public Services Employees Union.

The union attempted to address the issue last summer, shortly after the change for other firefighters came into place.

Noah Freedman, an eight-year veteran forest firefighter from Sioux Lookout and Vice-President of OPSEU Local 703, says they spoke last summer at length with Natural Resources Minister Graydon Smith.

“We explained to the minister that part of the reason we are hemorrhaging experienced staff is because soaking in carcinogenic emissions and risking a life of cancer and disease without recognition and protection is a death sentence,” says Freedman.

Freedman says they are still awaiting a response from the Minister.

The union notes firefighters do not receive proper health and safety training regarding toxic conditions they are exposed to on the frontlines.

Freedman notes they were told last year to protect their mouths by wearing a dry cloth, like a bandana, over them.

He says no one on his crew did so, knowing the method was ineffective.

“If Premier Ford and Minister Smith are ready to act in good faith, start by recognizing that forest fire missions are toxic. Start by reclassifying Ontario forest firefighters today and including us in the firefighter cancer legislation.”