Toronto
2 min

Collateral damage

Jim Hearst, you’ll remember, collapsed on Jun 25 in the ground-floor hallway of the apartment building in which he lived at 40 Alexander St. It took more than 37 minutes after the first of several 911 calls for paramedics to arrive. Heroic bystanders took turns performing CPR on Hearst but by the time firefighters were on scene he had died of an apparent heart attack.

Toronto Emergency Medical Services (EMS) chair Bruce Farr told reporters at a Jul 14 press conference that paramedics were at Hearst’s building within nine minutes of the initial 911 call. Farr said they were waiting for police to arrive before they entered because of concern for “health and safety issues.” But none of the bystanders who attended to Hearst saw paramedics nearby nor did they perceive any threat to anyone except Hearst.

Toronto Police chief Bill Blair told reporters two days later on Jul 16 that two other Toronto ambulances were similarly waiting for police before responding to two other emergency calls while Hearst was waiting for help.

On Jun 26 CUPE 416 ambulance unit chairman Glenn Fontaine told the Toronto Sun that there would be no paramedic services during the Pride parade if the city didn’t return to labour negations before the end of the following day.

“[The city] would not have any issue if they would talk about training and car counts,” Fontaine Told the Sun. “They’re playing Russian roulette with citizens’ lives.”

Paramedics were ultimately on duty during Pride. Fontaine was subsequently charged with theft and mischief in connection with a strike-related purloined ambulance stunt.

On Jul 24 the City of Toronto filed an application to the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB) requesting that the essential services agreement between the city and paramedics be enhanced to ensure more paramedics are on duty during strike conditions. As it stands now EMS is required to operate at 75 percent capacity during a strike in Toronto.

And on Aug 5 city councillors Michael Walker (St Paul’s) and Michael Thompson (Scarborough Centre) moved that the city ask the province to make EMS a true essential service, a move that would remove paramedics’ right to strike altogether and replace it with a system of binding arbitration.

But that motion, and virtually everything connected to Hearst’s death, is mired in bureaucracy. See, Hearst’s story has all the ingredients of a political hot potato.

Making EMS a true essential service could reportedly add hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to municipalities across Ontario. And of course no politician or civil servant at any level of government wants to bear any responsibility for Hearst’s death: The union blames the city, the city blames the union, scores of individual politicians, civil servants, union types, other bureaucrats and paramedics are quietly avoiding the matter until it is eclipsed by other issues. But all remain ready to point fingers and deflect blame in case there is any responsibility to be assigned for Hearst’s death.

At the root of the matter though remains Hearst — an innocent transportation broker, gay man, village resident, Toronto taxpayer, lover and human being — who died waiting for emergency medical help that didn’t come soon enough.

Obviously, regardless of rhetorical contortion and the contrived complexity of our political system, EMS ought to be an essential service. What could be more essential?

A report on Hearst’s death by Ontario’s health ministry is due at the end of September, a month later than initially expected. Ontario’s chief coroner’s office is awaiting the results before deciding whether to launch an investigation of its own.

It should conduct that inquest. We simply must ensure that what happened to Hearst doesn’t happen again.