Firefighters thrilled as Manitoba looks to expand list of cancers for which they can be compensated

Backed by two dozen female firefighters, Premier Heather Stefanson celebrated new legislation, introduced Friday, that will compensate more firefighters for the cancers they are exposed to.

The government will expand the list of cancers that entitle firefighters to work-related compensation to incorporate thyroid, pancreatic, ovarian, cervical and penile cancers, provided the bill passes. 

Expanding the scope of presumed occupational diseases is a victory for women, as reproductive cancers affecting them have previously been excluded, Stefanson told the news conference.

“By adding these cancers, we will ensure adequate protections are in place, both for our male and female firefighters and at-risk fire commissioner personnel,” she said from the base of the grand staircase at the Manitoba legislature.

The province first prepared a list of presumptive cancers for firefighters back in 2002, expanding that coverage over time. Manitoba has been a model for other jurisdictions in Canada and even as far away as Australia, said Alex Forrest, president of the United Firefighters of Winnipeg union.

‘It’s not one fire that kills us’

“Occupational cancer is the No. 1 killer of firefighters. It’s not traumatic, on-duty accidents. It’s not one fire that kills us, it’s hundreds of fires over our career,” he said.

“That’s why we need this legislation because it will literally mean the world to individuals who are diagnosed with these deadly cancers.”

Forrest said some of the firefighters in the crowd Friday are suffering from the illnesses.

“They do not wish to be brought out to the public, but we know who you are here today and we thank you for being here.”

Stefanson appealed to firefighters during the recent Progressive Conservative leadership race, and it may have won her the election.

Alex Forrest, president of the United Firefighters of Winnipeg, said he has no qualms with potentially impacting the result of the Tory leadership race by campaigning for Heather Stefanson. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Forrest said “hundreds” of firefighters bought a membership to vote for Stefanson. Last month, the longtime Tuxedo MLA won the race against Shelly Glover by 363 votes. 

Forrest made no apologies for flexing the might of the firefighters’ union and potentially impacting the outcome.

“We make no excuses. We are politically active because if you aren’t at the table, you’re on the table,” he said, noting UFFW has supported other political parties in the past. (They played a pivotal role in ensuring former premier Greg Selinger survived an NDP leadership review in 2015.)

“We support those who understand the needs of firefighters, and that’s why we were active because Heather had 100 per cent success … in supporting firefighters at a level that’s very unequalled in Manitoba.”

Forrest added he’s confident political parties in any province would support legislation like this.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said he too supports the legislation. He can personally relate as his father shoveled out smelters as a young man in the 1950s, where “he and everybody else breathed in horribly toxic metals and he died at the age of 65 and every single person he worked with also had cancers early on.”

But he worries about firefighters using their power and influence to get what they want.

“What exactly was the deal that they had? How many memberships did [Forrest] help buy? How much did he help Heather Stefanson when it came to her leadership?” he asked.

“Part of this is a whole problem with the way our politics works.”

Fourteen other types of cancer are already on the list of presumed occupational illnesses.

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