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Reaction mixed as Ontario pledges $5M to retain forest fire workers

‘This government is choosing PR stunts’: Union representing wildland fire employees calls one-time incentive payment of $5,000 or $1,000 a ‘drop in the bucket’
Fire sends smoke aloft near Ogoki Lake in the Nipigon District in this photo from Ontario Forest Fires.

The Ontario government has taken a multi-million-dollar step to address concerns in the ministry’s Aviation, Forest Fire, and Emergency Services (AFFES) program ahead of the 2024 wildfire season.

During a press conference in the Legislature on Thursday afternoon, Minister Graydon Smith (MNRF) announced a $5-million investment to attract, retain and recognize wildland firefighting staff.

The decision comes after the province witnessed more than 700 wildland fires burn more than 440,000 hectares last season, nearly tripling the 10-year average of total hectares burned.

OPSEU, the union that represents workers in Ontario’s wildfire program, estimated they were down 50 crews, or 30 per cent of their entire fleet, in 2023.

In an effort to solve their retention and attraction issues, the government's investment includes a one-time payment of up to $5,000 to employees in front-line fire, aviation and critical support positions for 2024.

More than 1,000 workers are eligible to receive the payment, according to Smith.

Additionally, AFFES support staff not employed on the front lines will receive a one-time payment of up to $1,000. More than 100 permanent positions in the program will also be created to combat the demand.

“Wildland firefighting staff work tirelessly under very difficult conditions to protect the health and safety of Ontarians, their property and our natural resources,” Smith said. “This is a respected and challenging career in our natural resources sector.”

“In addition to this incentive, we continue to explore longer-term strategies and solutions to support attraction and retention of critical jobs for future years,” he added.

While the announcement was commended by The Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association, as well as several other ministries in the Ontario government, not everyone was on board with the move.

Addressing their thoughts in a fiery press release yesterday, OPSEU called the government’s one-time bonus a “drop in the bucket” that won’t fix “the dire and ongoing crisis.”

“Instead of being proactive and focusing on real solutions — like recognizing Wildland fire workers for the work they do and compensating them properly, or ensuring they have the coverage they need for the risks they face — this government is choosing PR stunts,” wrote OPSEU president JP Hornick. “They’re more concerned about suppressing criticism than protecting our air quality and human life.”

While the union has agreed to the one-time bonus for its members, Hornick noted the process has been “deeply problematic.”

“Let’s be clear, this was not an open conversation about finding real, long-term sustainable solutions,” said Hornick. “This was a take-it or leave-it, one-sided decision. At the same time this government was pretending to talk to Wildland fire workers and ‘make a deal,’ they were threatening those who actually speak out with valid concerns. Senior management even sent a memo threatening workers with an investigation into any public criticism.”

The union told SooToday earlier this month that most of this year’s crews have a combined experience of ten years or less, when many crews had 50 years of experience two decades ago.

Promising to look at other long-term strategies around retention, Minister Smith said the conversation doesn’t begin and end in 2024.

“There will be other opportunities through the regular collective bargaining process to look at any future adjustments,” he said. “I don’t want to presuppose what they would be.”

“We know that the firefighters we bring onboard today that are learning from those that have experience are going to be those that teach tomorrow,” Minister Smith added. “We want a continuum of people coming in and staying. With this $5,000, we’re recognizing those that are both entering the system, but those that have been part of it as well.”

Among the greatest concerns from OPSEU that wasn’t addressed in the government’s incentive package is the classification status of its fire rangers.

The union has previously said it wants frontline workers reclassified as firefighters so they receive the pay and health benefits that comes with that title in Ontario.

Minister Smith said discussions surrounding that issue remain active.

“We know that’s an important conversation,” he said. “It’s a long process and one that’s ongoing right now. I don’t want to comment on where the process is at. It’s one that I’m certainly glad we’re doing the review, and we’ll wait to see the outcome of that.”

Unsatisfied with the current state of the program, the president of OPSEU said they will continue to fight until their workers receive what they feel should be owed to them.

“We won’t stop here or be silenced,” added Hornick. “[Thursday’s] announced bonus has only strengthened Wildland fire workers’ resolve to keep up the fight and keep up the pressure. It proves that worker power wins, and we won’t stop until this crisis is resolved and these workers have the respect they deserve.”

The AFFES program began hiring crews for this year’s upcoming fight against forest fires on March 4. The season officially begins on April 1.

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Alex Flood

About the Author: Alex Flood

Alex is a recent graduate from the College of Sports Media where he discovered his passion for reporting and broadcasting
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