Firefighters in Caledon, Ont., are being told by their union that if they want to fight fires, they'll have to draw a salary for it.
The dispute targets, and may endanger, a breed the town depends on: "double hatters," firefighters who work full-time for a municipality but also volunteer at their local fire hall. Critics of the union's move say it is an attack on that quintessential small-town figure: the volunteer firefighter.
The tension between small-town fire departments and the union has been simmering for years in Ontario, one of two Canadian jurisdictions, along with Newfoundland and Labrador, that doesn't protect the right of firefighters to moonlight.
Communities as diverse as Ottawa, Stratford and Orangeville have seen double hatters resign en masse or ignore calls for assistance after union pressure.
The Brampton branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) sent letters in late September to about a dozen of its members who are thought to moonlight in Caledon, a geographically sprawling town northwest of Toronto, warning them that they could be fined or even expelled from the union unless they resign from their volunteer posts.
The union argues that volunteers, who are paid for calls they respond to, deprive other members of salaried work and violate a professional oath of service. It's why the IAFF constitution bans double hatting, says Fred LeBlanc, a district vice-president with the union based in Kingston, Ont.
"Why some members seem to think the rule doesn't apply to them remains a bit of a mystery," he said. "Sheer disagreement with the rule doesn't give them the right to disregard it."
But defenders of the practice say the unions are doing battle with common sense and even endangering public safety in small communities.
In a statement, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario called the union's move "surprising and extremely disappointing."
"AMO and its members must now start considering what recourse they can take to ensure public safety in the many communities that depend on these part-timers for fire protection, and protect the rights of dedicated firefighters who choose to volunteer when they are off-duty," said Lynn Dollin, the association's president.
The dispute in Caledon has left some long-time observers dismayed. Many hoped that a piece of provincial legislation passed late last year, Bill 109, would offer the moonlighters a line of defence. In an analysis of the bill, lawyers at the labour firm Hicks Morley suggested that the legislation's protection of firefighters engaged in "reasonable dissent" within the union might apply to double hatters.
The IAFF has rejected that interpretation and continues to press its claims. Mr. LeBlanc said that the union will typically explain to double-hatters, sometimes via a letter, that they're violating the IAFF constitution. If the members don't quit their volunteer posts, a fellow member can press charges, which can lead to a union tribunal and penalties ranging from a fine to suspension or expulsion. Under the collective agreements that most municipalities have with their firefighting unions, being bounced from the union can mean losing your job.
Mr. LeBlanc said that Ontario union members typically quit their volunteer work rather than going through the lengthy and complicated disciplinary process.
That's what has happened in Caledon. Mayor Allan Thompson says that all of his targeted firefighters have resigned as volunteers. More could be affected if other union locals in surrounding municipalities start applying pressure, he said.
"It's unfortunate that it's come to this," he said. "I really think what the union is trying to do here is for political gain, not to keep our communities safe."
It's unclear how many of the volunteers are double hatters, since many try to keep the information under wraps, but of the town's 250 firefighters, the vast majority are volunteers. (In the current climate, the town is encouraging that secrecy by removing name tags from its firefighters' helmets and coats to protect their identities.)
Mr. Thompson argued that the union is limiting the freedom of its members by targeting their off-the-clock activities."What does our Charter of Rights and Freedoms mean if you're dictated what you can and you can't do?" he said.
The union is aware that it's taken on an unpopular fight. "I've been dealing with the issue for 14, 15 years and I haven't had a good news story yet," Mr. LeBlanc said.
But he challenged the "Norman Rockwell" image that many people have of volunteer firefighters, noting that some make thousands of dollar a year in their spare time answering calls.
"It's a misuse of the word volunteer," he said.
Sylvia Jones, MPP for Dufferin-Caledon, rejected the notion that double hatters are motivated by greed. Many of the small fire halls serviced by volunteers don't have the demand or the budget to pay full-timers, she said. If professional firefighters spend their weekends pitching in, it isn't for the money, but "because they're loyal to their home community."