Former Burnaby fire chief was suicidal after alleged bullying

Firehall bullying took toll

Burnaby’s last fire chief says he had a mental breakdown and twice tried to take his own life after a “lengthy period of harassment and bullying” by the city’s current fire chief and the local firefighters’ union president before being fired without cause by the city two years ago, according to documents filed in small claims court this week.

Joe Robertson left the Burnaby Fire Department in March 2020 after almost a year on mental health leave.

City officials provided no explanation for his final departure, declining even to clarify whether he had retired, resigned or been terminated.

Mayor Mike Hurley, a former Burnaby firefighter and union president who got significant support from the local firefighters’ union to get elected, said he didn’t know anything about it.

And the city heavily redacted documents it released in response to a freedom of information request, saying releasing the information would be an invasion of privacy.

Robertson is now suing the city in small claims court, and the documents he has filed may shed light on his departure.

In a notice of claim, he says he suffered a “mental breakdown” involving two suicide attempts, hospitalization and a long recovery after “a lengthy period of harassment and bullying by the union president and the person who is now the fire chief.”

The current head of the fire department is Chief Chris Bowcock and the longtime president of IAFF local 323 is Jeff Clark.

Robertson says the city and WorkSafeBC both investigated his complaints and he was eventually “found to have been harassed and bullied.”

“During my recovery, and while I had been off work for some four months, the union president and another union official filed retaliatory harassment complaints against me in an effort to further harass me,” Robertson writes.

WorkSafe didn’t investigate those complaints, according to Robertson, but the city did.

He doesn’t provide any information about the outcome of the city investigations against him, but says the city terminated him without cause when they were done.

He says he signed a release, and the city gave him 20 months’ pay for a total of $311,050.

Municipalities are obliged to report on how many severance agreements they sign every year and how many months’ salary and benefits those agreements represent.

In 2020, the year of Robertson’s departure, Burnaby signed six agreements worth between seven and 20 months’ salary and benefits, according to the city’s statement of financial information.

In his small claims suit, Robertson alleges the city improperly held back part of a WorkSafe payment. He is suing for $13,859.21.

In response to questions about Robertson’s allegations, city communications manager Chris Bryan said the city “doesn’t comment on personnel matters.”

The city has not yet filed a response to Robertson’s claim, and his allegations have not been proven in court.

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