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A firefighter and police investigators inspect a three-storey heritage building in Old Montreal where a fire broke out on March 16, leaving seven people unaccounted for, in Montreal on March 19.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante has asked the city’s comptroller-general to probe the local fire department’s enforcement of safety regulations in the years leading up to March 16, when a blaze in an Old Montreal apartment building killed seven people and injured nine others.

Ms. Plante made her request the day after The Globe and Mail reported, based on internal memos, that the city’s fire department had instituted a moratorium on investigations of buildings’ evacuation routes in 2018, and that this moratorium had prevented a review of the Old Montreal building’s safety in 2021.

The Globe also reported that the department had imposed a separate moratorium on investigations related to fire alarm systems upgrades in June, 2021.

All of this “worried us enormously,” Ms. Plante said Tuesday during a municipal council meeting. “There was indeed a moratorium that was put in place, that’s the information we received,” she said. She added that she was not aware of the moratoriums before reading The Globe’s story.

Ms. Plante announced on Twitter in the afternoon that she had asked the city’s comptroller-general, Alain Bond, to work with the fire department to clarify the situation. Mr. Bond oversees ethics at city hall, and ensures that funds and resources are used appropriately.

At a news conference later Tuesday, the city’s fire chief, Richard Liebmann, confirmed that moratoriums were put in place on the enforcement of certain safety requirements related to evacuation routes and alarm systems.

He said the department had put a pause on requests for officials’ expertise on these matters. These requests, he said, were “for very complex files that were not necessarily sent to court, because we did not have all the necessary elements to win our case and force a return to compliance.”

The fire chief declined to comment on the Old Montreal building that burned in March, citing a continuing public inquiry. Evacuation routes and alarm systems were both allegedly non-compliant in the building, according to documents obtained by The Globe, and there is no indication those issues were ever addressed.

Mr. Liebmann, who became fire chief in February, 2020, said the comptroller-general would help the fire department determine what had happened before he took on the role.

Two fire department officials told The Globe that the moratoriums were lifted after the March fire, in direct reaction to it. The Globe is not naming the officials, because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

This timeline matches a fire department memo, sent in April, that instructed staff members to complete training related to evacuation routes and fire alarm systems upgrades, and, among other things, to flag violations related to those issues during inspections. These details were included in the previous Globe report.

Ms. Plante said at city council that the fire department initially told her that, contrary to The Globe’s report, the 2018 moratorium was lifted in 2021, not in 2023. Mr. Liebmann said the process of lifting the moratoriums started in 2022, was accelerated after the fire, and is continuing to this day, as the fire department reviews its methods to ensure compliance.

The Old Montreal building was flagged multiple times for various safety violations after its current owner, Emile-Haim Benamor, acquired it in 2009.

Documents show that the 2018 moratorium on evacuation route enforcement motivated the closing of a file related to the building’s allegedly non-compliant evacuation routes in September, 2021. A separate file related to the building’s allegedly non-compliant fire alarm system was closed in February, 2021.

Louis-Philippe Lacroix, who lost his daughter Charlie in the fire, said he was shocked by The Globe’s revelations. He said not enforcing safety regulations after inspections had revealed alleged violations was akin to asking police officers to stop giving out fines for traffic violations.

Annette Lefebvre, a lawyer for Randy Sears, who lost his son Nathan in the fire, said The Globe’s reporting shows that “the fire department has really been flagrantly negligent with respect to the enforcement of regulations.”

In March, Ms. Lefebvre filed an application to begin a class-action lawsuit against Mr. Benamor, the building’s owner, along with Airbnb and Tariq Hasan, an alleged operator of illegal Airbnbs in the building. She is seeking $22-million in punitive damages for Mr. Sears and other victims, along with an undetermined amount of compensatory damages.

Ms. Lefebvre said she is contemplating a lawsuit against the city. “To me, this is an accident waiting to happen,” she said. “Certainly, this moratorium seems indefensible.”

Aref Salem, leader of the Opposition at Montreal’s city hall, said he was shocked that Ms. Plante had not learned of the existence of the fire department’s moratorium until The Globe published its report. “If information of this magnitude escapes her, what other vital information is she missing?” he asked.

Mr. Salem said he was dissatisfied with Mr. Liebmann’s explanations. He said the moratoriums were unacceptable, and he asked for an independent investigation into the issue.

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