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IAFF Legal Guardian Case

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A two-and-a-half-year ordeal is finally over for the members of IAFF Local 1237 in Kapuskasing, Ontario, whose jobs are now safe from their employers attempts to discontinue full-time fire fighting operations and terminate all four members of IAFF Local 1237.

On Feb. 9, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the town’s application to appeal an Ontario Court of Appeal decision, which upheld a previous court decision and a labour arbitration award which stated the town had no legal basis for its September, 2003 decision to terminate the four members of the local and reduce fire protection in the town to volunteer only.

The IAFF and the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA) rushed to the local’s aide as soon as the crisis erupted. A grievance was filed immediately over the terminations, and the fire fighters stayed on the job throughout the ongoing saga. The case was approved under the IAFF’s Legal Guardian Policy and was handled throughout by IAFF Canadian Legal Counsel Sean McManus of McManus & Hubler.

In December 2003, a labour arbitrator overturned the terminations but the town filed for a judicial review. In October 2004, a divisional court upheld the arbitrator’s decision, and the town appealed to the Ontario Court of Appeal, which in September 2005 also sided with the fire fighters, awarding them $20,000 in costs.

It was this decision the town appealed – unsuccessfully – to the Supreme Court of Canada, its final avenue of appeal. In dismissing the town’s case, the Supreme Court also awarded costs to the Association. As is customary, the Supreme Court did not provide any reasons for dismissing the case.

The town’s action to cancel Local 1237’s collective agreement was seen as an attempt to escape from a staffing clause that was supposed to double the number of full-time fire fighters employed by the town from four to eight at the end of 2005.

IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger welcomed the Supreme Court’s dismissal of the case, and highlighted the fact that throughout the long ordeal, the sanctity of collective agreements signed by fire fighters in good faith was upheld time and time again.

“It’s just a shame that our members in Kapuskasing had this hanging over their heads for over two years,” he said. “It’s too bad the town decided to waste money on a senseless court battle instead of spending it to enhance fire protection and public safety.”

But Schaitberger also noted the episode demonstrates the merits of the IAFF Legal Guardian Policy. “The Kapuskasing case illustrates once again that the IAFF is prepared to fight against any scheme that threatens fire fighters’ jobs with the full weight of our resources, backed by 270,000 members across North America,” Schaitberger said.

“We backed a four-member local all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, and we did it because the town was wrong and we have to protect the fire fighters’ rights.”

The town had argued in its earlier court appeals that it was terminating its fire fighting operations, and was therefore entitled to annul the fire fighters’ collective agreement. The Ontario Court of Appeal, the last court to formally hear the case, ruled that Ontario’s Fire Protection and Prevention Act (FPPA) specifically prohibits the town from getting out of the fire fighting business. The judges wrote that proposing to deliver the service with volunteers instead of full-time fire fighters does not constitute a discontinuation of operations.

Their decision also stated that the only way the town can escape from the staffing clause it had previously signed “is either through negotiations or interest arbitration under FPPA.”

Mitch Lauzon, President of Local 1237, said the local is grateful to the IAFF for coming to the local’s aide and backing it all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. “For almost three years the members of Local 1237 suffered a great deal of stress and anguish, but with the support and assistance of the IAFF, we could never have hung in there like we did,” he said. “We are proud to belong to the IAFF!”

During the height of the crisis, in late 2003, the OPFFA quickly rescheduled a district meeting to be held in Kapuskasing, and flooded a town council meeting with fire fighters as a show of solidarity. OPFFA President Fred LeBlanc addressed the council, and later discussed public safety issues with the local media.

Introduced in 2001, the IAFF Legal Guardian Policy makes direct legal representation available to locals fighting against precedent-setting cases, and cases where employers retaliate against IAFF members for participating in union-related activities or speaking publicly about public safety or other legitimate issues.

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