UPDATE: ‘There seems to be a pattern of not caring’ – Brampton MPP defends rights of Sikh paramedics
Just days after the result of an arbitration in Hamilton which revealed regulations that limit the religious freedom of paramedics across the province, a Brampton MPP has raised the issue inside Queen’s Park.
Speaking on Thursday, MPP Gurratan Singh (NDP, Brampton East) asked the government what it would do to change regulations to allow paramedics to grow a beard and continue to work on the frontlines of medicine in the Region of Peel and beyond.
Brampton East MPP Gurratan Singh
“It’s 2019, and in Canada, no one should be prohibited from working because of their faith,” Singh said in the legislature. “But currently in Ontario, Sikh paramedics are being told that they have to choose between their faith and their profession. A change in specifications to helmets worn by paramedics is threatening to make it impossible for Sikhs in Ontario to serve in that role. Despite repeated requests to the ministry to provide an exemption, or a waiver that would respect the human rights of Sikhs, the ministry has taken no action. My question is to the Premier. Will he act now to end this discrimination and ensure that Sikh paramedics can continue to serve in the valuable role that they were trained to do?”
Premier Doug Ford passed his response to Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark, who offered a vague answer. “We value our municipal partners,” he said. “We very much respect the information that the honourable member opposite has placed on the table. I again want to say to the honourable member that I appreciate your bringing this matter before us. I would be more than happy to sit down with you after question period. But, again, our government has pledged that we are going to continue to work with our municipal partners. We want to sit down and, really, if there are issues that they need clarification on, there’s always the opportunity for us to have those meetings. I want to thank the honourable member for placing that forward.”
Speaking to The Pointer, Singh confirmed that no sit-down meeting has taken place with the Minister and no date has been set going forward. “A meeting could have been arranged immediately,” he said, adding that the government was displaying a “pattern of not caring” on the topic.
An arbitration between the City of Hamilton Paramedics and Harkarn Sihota, a paramedic who now works in Peel, has raised the issue of religious freedom in the context of recent regulations that were pushed by the previous Liberal government. Safety standards applied in 2017 to paramedics across Ontario have created a dilemma for paramedic services in the region, with employers forced to decide between the rights of their workers and the demands of the recently amended Ambulance Act.
Paramedic Harkarn Sihota with a helmet that is no longer allowed under new regulations
New helmet requirements brought in two years ago do not work in conjunction with repository equipment that cannot form a proper seal over facial hair. This is important for many in Peel and across Ontario, with the kesh (unshorn hair) a requirement for baptised Sikhs, a significant community in both Brampton and Mississauga.
Normally, the province requires that paramedics wear N95/P100 respirators when airborne dangers might be a threat, though this equipment does not work with a beard. In the past, paramedic services accomodated workers who chose to maintain their beard by providing them with Power Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR), equipment which can accomodate facial hair. However, when the province changed its rules two years ago, practical problems arose. It changed the required helmets from Type 1, Class G to Type 2, Class E safety helmets, an upgrade which made PAPR incompatible and left paramedic services with no known technology to accommodate paramedics with exemptions to grow facial hair.
Evidence heard in the arbitration and testimony shared with The Pointer suggests, though, that the new helmets are unnecessary. Michael Speers, a Peel paramedic and a member of the Canadian Standards Association told both The Pointer and the arbitration that Type 1, Class G helmets were suitable for paramedic work, with Type 2, Class E helmets designed for construction, not rescue work.
In Peel, where the paramedic service has chosen not to acknowledge the 2017 change in order to accommodate its workers, there are 22 paramedics who use the PAPR breathing equipment. Speaking to The Pointer previously, the local president, Dave Wakely said the current government had an obligation to fix the “negative” and “racist” rules.
“Inclusive design is important and that is always the first step, employers [currently] have to take a risk by not complying in order to not violate the Ontario Human Rights Code,” he said.
Wakely played a significant role in the issue being raised at the provincial legislature in such a speedy fashion. MPP Singh told The Pointer he was in touch with Wakely and the paramedic in question, Mr Sihota, and was determined to fight to have the legislation changed.
“I plan to do whatever I can do to protect the right of people to work and express their religion,” he said. “[I will] stop this in whatever way possible.”
In a follow-up to Clark’s non-answer at Queen’s Park on Thursday, Singh was more specific. “The ministry said last August that they would consider changing the regulation. With just a few days left to live up to this commitment [when parliament ends for the year], will the premier end this discrimination now?”
Ford again sent the question to a colleague, with Health Minister Christine Elliot handling the latest official response. The minister offered an answer to Singh almost identical to the comment her office provided to The Pointer the day before.
Health Minister Christine Elliott
“Thank you very much for the question,” she said. “Our government believes in building inclusive workplaces in Ontario. We are certainly aware of the recent arbitration and are reviewing the decision. We are working with our partners in the Ministry of Labour and the paramedic service that was involved in this case. We are working to ensure that reasonable accommodations are available to healthcare professionals. We respect the work that they do very much. We will have more to say on this issue shortly. Thank you very much for the question.”
The ruling in the Hamilton case backs up MPP Singh’s point. Several examples are provided which show the service’s chief wrote to the province to request an exemption to the helmet standard for Sikh paramedics. The same correspondence shows the Ministry of Health refusing to agree.
The issue seems to have gained traction across the province and has now become a talking point inside the legislature, which could pressure the government to act.
In the meantime, Peel’s paramedics have said they will continue to ignore the new regulation, in a show of solidarity with their colleagues.
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