After almost three years and trips through just about every court in the land, ex-Whistler firefighter Neil Collins is feeling burned after being fired by the municipality.
Dec. 7, 1941 was the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, one of the most famous sneak attacks in history. It was on Dec. 7, 1992 that a fire started in some ashes carelessly tossed onto the balcony at a Twin Lakes Village townhouse in the south end of the Whistler Valley. The blaze caused more than $1 million in damage and left one casualty smoking and charred in its wake — Neil Collins.
Late last month, Collins settled a wrongful dismissal suit and other legal actions against the municipality in an out of court settlement. The money Collins received cannot be disclosed under the terms of the settlement, but the politics of the decision are fair game says the 36-year-old Collins, a tall, quiet man. He says the court fight may have ended, but the sneak attack he was subjected to has had ripple effects which are closing fire hall doors all around the province to him.
He passed every physical and written test in a recent application with the Coquitlam Fire Department, yet was turned down for the job. He got copies of the interview documents under the Freedom of Information act and says there are no real reasons given why comments on the evaluation sheets are out of line with the results of all the testing.
"I can show you what being blackballed looks like on paper," he says.
Municipal lawyers, Whistler Fire Chief Tony Evans, Mayor Ted Nebbeling and everyone else who had to present evidence in the case maintain Collins was fired because he left the scene of the Twin Lakes fire on Dec. 7, 1992. Collins contends municipal officials were searching for any reason to let him go after he participated in a drive to unionize Whistler's firefighters in 1992.
"I made no secret about the fact that I wanted the firefighter's union in the (Whistler) fire hall," Collins says. "I was one of the main people trying to bring them here in April of ’92."
He says professional firefighters in Whistler were talking to the International Association of Firefighters because they felt they weren't being treated fairly when it came to overtime. At the time, seven of eight full-time professional firefighters signed union cards and a vote was held — the union was not certified.
Collins, who served as a volunteer firefighter since June of 1985, was hired as a full-time firefighter in Whistler on Feb. 14, 1990. He says his involvement in the union campaign left anti-union forces within the rank-and-file of the municipality and fire department angry and bitter toward him — and when he checked out of the Twin Lakes fire to go attend his personal business they had the excuse they needed.
According to Collins, he arrived at the Twin Lakes fire to find out there was nothing for him to do at the site, so he was assigned to go to the fire hall to refill oxygen tanks. Once the tanks were refilled, Collins went about other tasks in the fire hall — refilling the pop machine, washing the assistant captain's truck and tidying up. When he returned to the fire, it was under control and there was still nothing for him to do.
He says he drove from the fire hall to Twin Lakes and checked out according to procedure. He was fired Dec. 18, 1992 because Fire Chief Tony Evans contends he was endangering the lives of other firefighters.
"It really choked me up that they originally fired me for endangering life and property and here I was back at the (fire) hall filling the pop machine."
"I think a lot of the legal bills incurred by the municipality could have been avoided and the taxpayers' money saved if someone would have said, 'We really don't have a reason to fire you' and the whole thing would have ended right there," Collins says.
But it didn't.
Collins was fired three times and re-instated twice over a two-and-a-half year legal battle that went before two different judges at the Supreme Court of B.C.
After all of the Discovery hearings, trials and appeals, Collins says no one has come straight out and told him what he was fired for. The last time municipal council fired Collins April 13, 1993 it was without cause. Collins now says he just wants to find out the real story behind his case.
Mayor Ted Nebbeling says he can't talk about the Collins case because he is bound by terms of the legal settlement. Nebbeling will say, however, that the Collins case has been dealt with and he considers it closed, adding the courts determined Collins had been legally fired.
"The letting go of Neil was fair and square, that was determined by the courts," Nebbeling says. "The only issue that was before the court was how much we should pay him."
Barry Williamson is the lawyer who represented the municipality in the Collins case. He says it is quite clear it is not necessary to give cause for the dismissal of Collins.
"On April 13, 1993 council decided to terminate his employment and not assert cause, after that the only issue that was to be resolved was compensation," Williamson says.
"Mr. Collins is of the view that there is an obligation on the part of council to tell him why they are dismissing him... Mr. Collins is wrong."
Nebbeling says Collins was seeking damages for the way the case has disrupted his personal life.
"Neil asked the court to look at the amount of mental anguish this case has brought him. I think we should focus on the fact that much of the mental anguish was brought on by Neil himself," Nebbeling says in reference to a Whistler Answer story in which Collins allowed himself to be photographed with his head on a chopping block.
The impact of the case to Whistler taxpayers may never be revealed because Nebbeling says the cost of the case will not be revealed.
In the meantime, Collins says he is going to continue looking for another job as a firefighter.
"Look around the province, not a lot of the departments are into hiring guys who are 36," he says. "As far as I'm concerned this was a lynching. By officials who were not happy with my union involvement and by a couple powerful volunteer (firefighters) who just didn't like the way I operated."