With a corps that is 97 per cent white and male, the Montreal fire department announced new measures to attract women and members of cultural visible minority groups on Tuesday, but some critics are pointing out a lack of specifics in the plan.

The plan was presented by department officials at a meeting of the city’s public security committee in city hall. Department deputy director Richard Liebmann said the hope is to double the number of female and cultural and visible minority recruits in four years and triple it over the next eight years.

“We’ve made efforts in the past but the efforts have been principally to try and explain the career path,” he said. “Now we realize that until we work with the schools, we still have the same restricted base to hire from.”

Much of the basis of the plan is, unlike prior efforts, to help the firefighting schools recruit a more diverse student base, which would produce a graduate pool that more closely resembles Montreal’s population. Over a quarter of Montreal residents are a member of a visible minority population.

“We worked really hard on recruiting in cultural communities and amongst women but our biggest challenge was we could only hire people who graduated from the schools,” said Liebmann. “As of this past year or two we’ve been working hard with the schools to increase recruitment and make sure the schools attract women and people from cultural communities and visible minorities.”

Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations Director Fo Niemi praised the plans aims, but said that while there strong steps outlined for the recruitment of women, the same cannot be said of how to reach out to minority communities.

“The plan has a lot of very lofty, laudable goals in terms of reflecting the population the fire department has to serve. However, it’s in the specifics of how it’s going to achieve that it needs some more rethinking and clarification, particularly when it comes to the hiring and integration of visible minorities and indigenous people in the fire department,” he said. “They have to send a message, which is ‘We want you and this is how we’re going to get you inside the department.’”

Projet Montreal city councillor Alex Norris said he entered the meeting wanting to know why the fire department has lagged behind other municipal institutions when it comes to reflecting the diversity of the public. He said he believes there’s a historic reason for the discrepancy.

“Fire departments around the world have had a disproportionately male, disproportionately white and homogenous workforce,” he said. “There’s an esprit de corps that comes with being a firefighter, it was historically the type of career based very much on physical prowess.”

Niemi pointed out that many minority groups and women didn’t see themselves reflected in the makeup of the fire department, which caused a loop of them being turned off and not seeing the job as a viable career option. Liebmann said part of the plan will focus on “demystifying” the job for populations that might never have been exposed to its realities and also working on integrating new recruits into the culture and making sure they feel comfortable.

“It’s difficult in some cultural communities as well because different cultural communities place different values on the career path and it’s not very high,” he said.

Liebmann noted that the job has evolved considerably over time, but that the fire department has failed at communicating that to potential recruits who might feel unqualified.

“Things have evolved. Our equipment is now lighter, our techniques have evolved, the profile of our calls has evolved,” he said. “We do a lot more medical responses now, so the physical demands are a little bit less. But everybody who is hired has to meet the exact same physical requirements because we make sure everyone is capable of doing the job.”

He noted that fire departments across North America have had problems recruiting women, as many fear believe women aren’t able to keep up with the job’s physical requirements. That’s a fear that he said has no basis in reality.

“I can tell you from personal experience, I worked from day one as a firefighter with one of the first women firefighters in Quebec and I’d put my life in her hands over and above a lot of male firefighters that I know,” he said.

Norris blamed the lack of action up until now on a “lack of political will,” especially compared to the SPVM and STM, which had both successfully diversified their ranks over the past years.

“I think it’s quite clear the leadership of the fire department wants to do this, is determined to do this and is sparing no effort to achieve that goal,” he said.