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Retired Whitehorse firefighter berates council over alleged workplace safety issues

‘I’m out for blood’
Retired Whitehorse firefighter Gary Pettifor with his protest sign earlier this week. Pettifor is battling the city over workplace related maladies. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News)

Retired firefighter Gary Pettifor came before Whitehorse City Council at the Oct. 2 standing committees meeting, alleging he had been “bullied” by city staff when he tried to speak out against what he claims were unsafe working conditions, as well as his personal claims for compensation with the city.

Pettifor, who was a firefighter for 37 years, said he had on numerous occasions throughout his career encountered health and safety issues. He said he and his fellow firefighters were discouraged from talking about them and were told “if you go outside the city or give the city a black eye, you will be reprimanded or fired.”

Pettifor’s allegations of unsafe conditions go back decades. The city did not provide proper breathing protection for firefighters from 1978 to 1985, he said, “because it cost seven dollars to fill an air cylinder.” In 1986 he said some breathing protection was provided, “but the city refused to buy an appropriate amount.”

Pettifor provided the News with a series of photographs which he says are from a 1983 training fire. It clearly shows firefighters working in and around a burning building in uniform while black smoke billows out the doors and windows. None of the firefighters is wearing any kind of breathing protection in the pictures.

Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board claims provided by Pettifor confirm he has a variety of workplace related maladies, including prostate cancer since February 2014. The documents also state that he has hearing of loss of 50 decibels in his right ear and 95 decibels in his left ear as of March 2014.

In December 2012 YWCB accepted a claim filed by Pettifor in which it was determined he had sarcoidosis. According to the Mayo Clinic website, sarcoidosis is “is the growth of tiny collections of inflammatory cells (granulomas) in different parts of your body — most commonly the lungs, lymph nodes, eyes and skin. Doctors believe sarcoidosis results from the body’s immune system responding to an unknown substance, most likely something inhaled from the air.”

Sarcoidosis can cause weakness, fatigue, cough, shortness of breath, skin lesions, fever, sensitivity to light and blurred vision, as well as much more serious heart problems, including arrhythmia and edema, according to the Mayo Clinic. Pettifor says he has also developed chronic beryllium disease, which has similar symptoms, as well as symptoms of asbestos exposure.

These conditions will eventually kill him, he said.

A signed note from Dr. Sarah Biss of Whitehorse states that Pettifor “has a long history of exposure to asbestos fibres, beryllium, smoke and inhalation toxins due to his career as a firefighter.… He has developed sarcoidosis and chronic beryllium disease. This is a chronic and irreversible condition that is expected to shorten his life expectancy.”

A subsequent note from Pettifor’s respirologist at Saint Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver states that Pettifor’s has a “permanent lifelong condition,” and “there are no drugs that will improve his pulmonary disease.”

During his presentation Oct. 2, Pettifor was visibly angry. Council listened quietly. Many did not look directly at Pettifor. When his time expired — all delegates are given a five minute time limit — Pettifor continued speaking until Mayor Dan Curtis asked him to stop.

“My time is not up,” Pettifor snapped.

Curtis pointed out the red light indicating time had expired was on. Councillors said they had no questions for Pettifor and he gave up the floor. As he was leaving, Curtis thanked Pettifor for his “allegations,” before proceeding to the next delegate.

In a subsequent interview, Pettifor claimed the city was criminally negligent and that “bullying” was done to keep him quiet.

Pettifor provided the News a copy of an email between himself and the city’s then-acting manager of human resources, Robert Watts, from March 2016. In it, Watts writes that “it has come to (his) attention,” that Pettifor intended to speak as a delegate at a council meeting. Watts wrote he “needs to caution” Pettifor about speaking to council because Pettifor was still employed by the city until March 31 2016.

“Should this appearance include any of the following, but not limited to … your request for information, your package sent to Mayor Curtis, or you current complaint regarding your employment with the city…. (it) may constitute a breach of the employee code of conduct,” Watts wrote.

“I must inform you that if you should you be found in breach of these, or any of the clauses pertaining (to the code) you may be subject to (repercussions) … up to and including termination of employment. I need you to understand that should you be terminated it may adversely affect your severance pay, as outlined in the collective agreement.”

Pettifor has since spoken in public repeatedly about his allegations. The city has declined repeated requests for comment.

Pettifor said the disability payments he receives don’t equal what he would have made if he had been able to continue working as a firefighter. Pettifor said he was “forced” into retirement early by his health problems. What he wants from the city, he said, is 3.9 years worth of severance salary equal to what the man who replaced him currently earns.

Pettifor said he took his case to the RCMP in 2015. In 2016 the Crown determined they did not want to proceed because they weren’t certain they could win, he said.

If the city continues to refuse to compensate him, Pettifor said he would begin disclosing other things publically the city doesn’t want people to know about.

“It’s not acceptable. They should pay,” he said. “The City of Whitehorse does whatever they want. I know where all the skeletons are buried. I’m going to be (the city’s) conscience.”

His motives are not entirely monetary, he said, because he “won’t be around long enough to enjoy the money anyways.”

“I want revenge,” he said. “I’m out for blood. My entire career, I was bullied.”

Contact Lori Fox at