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Homophobia in Pemberton firehall?

Gay firefighter files complaint against fire chief

BREAKING THE SILENCE: Gay firefighter David MacKenzie says he's received death threats since going public about the human rights complaint he filed against Pemberton Fire Chief Russell Mack. Credit: Photo courtesy of David MacKenzie

A gay Pemberton firefighter has filed a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal, alleging workplace discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation by the local fire chief.

In his complaint, filed Jan 23, David MacKenzie, a paid, on-call firefighter with the Village of Pemberton, alleges that Fire Chief Russell Mack made regular jokes and statements over the last year that ended with or used the words “cocksucker” or “faggot.”

“Jokes and statements of this nature are very inappropriate, especially from someone in a leadership position. The comments were made while several firefighters were in attendance and it made me feel extremely uncomfortable,” MacKenzie, who has been with the Pemberton fire department for more than two years, states in his complaint.

MacKenzie’s complaint also alleges that he was passed over for a promotion to an acting captain position with the fire department because of his sexuality. He claims he was told by others in the fire department that Mack said, “I would not want someone like that in an officer’s position.”

MacKenzie, who also named the Village of Pemberton as a respondent in his complaint, says his life has turned 180 degrees since he made his allegations.

“It’s been pretty trying,” he told Xtra West in an Apr 18 telephone interview. “I’m under a tremendous amount of stress.”

“I’ve got people giving me the finger. I’ve had people try to run me off the road. I’ve received death threats,” says MacKenzie. “I’m surprised that that type of hatred still goes on in British Columbia, of all places.

“I’ve got people coming up to me in the street and asking me why I would lodge a complaint against such a nice man [Mack], but they don’t want to hear my side of the story,” he continues.

In a Mar 21 letter to Mack, the Human Rights Tribunal said it has accepted MacKenzie’s complaint. Both MacKenzie and Mack now have the option of either an early settlement meeting to try to resolve the complaint or a hearing.

MacKenzie is interested in an early settlement meeting. Mack is also agreeable to early settlement, according to a Mar 29 letter sent to the tribunal by Murdy & McAllister, the Vancouver law firm representing the Village of Pemberton. The law firm’s letter also says Mack “leaves tomorrow [Mar 30] for three weeks vacation but is anxious to have the matter dealt with at the earliest opportunity thereafter.”

Xtra West attempted to contact Mack, but the Pemberton village office said he is unavailable for comment.

Mack, who has been with the Pemberton fire department for about 10 years, formerly served with the Richmond fire service, which was involved in controversy last year when a female former firefighter went to court alleging sexual harassment and threatening behaviour by male coworkers.

MacKenzie says there is a culture of homophobia at the Pemberton fire department and at firehalls in general.

“It’s like an old boys’ club,” he claims. “There’s a culture there that’s just not right.”

MacKenzie alleges that the culture at the Pemberton fire department crosses over into other areas of human rights as well. He claims to have seen a computer screen background of a naked woman on a department desktop and a naked girl calendar on the wall.

In an Apr 23 telephone interview, Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy said the village is not in a position to comment on the details of MacKenzie’s complaint, although he did say the municipality will fully support the process of the Human Rights Tribunal.

Sturdy says situations like MacKenzie’s are new for Pemberton. “I don’t think we’ve ever encountered a situation like this before,” he says. “As these situations come up, we look for ways to deal with them.”

Pemberton is instituting harassment-awareness training for municipal staff in May, Sturdy says.

As for MacKenzie’s allegations about images of naked women at the firehall, Sturdy says he has no knowledge of such images at the firehall or any village premises.

MacKenzie says he lodged his complaint because it was about time someone said something. “I broke the silence,” he says. “It’s about time someone stepped forward about this type of treatment. This sort of thing happens every day, not just in fire departments, but many other workplaces as well.”

MacKenzie encourages others experiencing workplace discrimination to come forward. “I want to encourage people to speak out. Discrimination happens in the workplace all the time and something needs to be done about it.”

However, BC’s top fire official says fire services in the province welcome employees from diverse backgrounds.

Although he cannot comment on MacKenzie’s complaint, Fire Commissioner David Hodgins maintains that BC’s firehalls are not homophobic. “It’s been my experience that the fire services in BC are very welcoming workplaces for visible minorities, women and individuals of diverse sexual orientation,” Hodgins said in a telephone interview from Victoria.

“But we still face a challenge,” Hodgins continues. “The challenge is looking for ways to better communicate to these groups that the fire service is open and welcoming.”