‘A betrayal’: Toronto’s city manager slams TDSB for naming Chief Pegg in lawsuit over blaze that destroyed school
Toronto Fire Chief Matthew Pegg speaks to reporters in Toronto in this file photo from Tuesday, February 14, 2017. The Canadian Press/Christopher Katsarov
Published Thursday, May 6, 2021 5:05PM EDT
Toronto's top civil servant is coming to the defence of the city’s fire chief in the wake of a lawsuit filed by the Toronto District School Board laying blame for a blaze that destroyed a school two years ago at the feet of the Toronto Fire Service.
In a scathing open letter sent to interim TDSB Director Karen Falconer Thursday, City Manager Chris Murray says he is “appalled” by the public release of the board’s $90 million statement of claim yesterday.
He called the move "calculated" and said that he is extremely disappointed in the "baseless and irresponsible allegations made against Fire Chief Matthew Pegg.”
The statement of claim released by the TDSB on Wednesday claims that a 2019 fire that destroyed York Memorial Collegiate Institute was the result of negligence on the part of the fire department, Ontario's Office of the Fire Marshal and Toronto police. The suit claims that firefighters prematurely declared that they had knocked down a small fire in the school’s second-floor auditorium, only to leave the fire still burning and unwatched overnight until it flared up in the early hours of the following day, resulting in the destruction of the school.
The lawsuit also claims that the Toronto Fire Service worked with the OFM to downplay responsibility in a report on the fire.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Falconer said in a statement Wednesday that the school board has recouped its losses through its insurer and that the lawsuit is meant to reimburse the insurance company.
She said the school board had “no choice” but to file the lawsuit, but did not go into detail as to why.
Murray tore into Falconer Thursday, saying that the lawsuit “could have only been intended to cause unwarranted harm for some undisclosed strategic benefit.”
“The City and Chief Pegg categorically repudiate the allegations contained in your statement of claim,” he wrote “We denounce the carelessness shown by the TDSB and its insurers in this matter. Most importantly, we reaffirm our confidence in Chief Pegg and his professionalism.”
The lawsuit brings an awkward tension between two publicly funded entities which are both generally well-respected and which tend to work closely together most of the time. It also comes at a time when Chief Pegg has a higher profile than ever, appearing in weekly city news conferences to provide updates on Toronto’s COVID-19 response as general manager of emergency management.
Murray acknowledged the tension between the school board and the city in the letter and added that “It is difficult not to view this spurious attack on Chief Pegg as a betrayal of our close relationship.”
He goes on to say that the city and its residents have much to thank Pegg for.
“Over the last year and more, few have committed more hours and effort to ensure the safety of our community -your schools included,” Murray wrote. “His leadership, integrity and professionalism has been a steadying factor for our residents and staff. We all owe Chief Pegg a great debt for his service to date. Put plainly, he deserved better.”
The letter goes on to advise Falconer to reconsider the lawsuit and to consider issuing a public apology to Pegg.
Pegg told reporters Wednesday that he cannot comment on the lawsuit as it is before the courts.
In a statement Thursday, the TDSB said that the allegations outlined in the statement of claim “are larger than any one person” and are based on “an extensive and thorough investigation by the TDSB’s property insurers.”
“They are exercising their right to recover policy payments and other costs,” the statement said.
The school board added that the defendants in the suit will have a chance to refute the evidence in court.
“The Defendants were provided with the draft Statement of Claim more than three weeks ago in hopes of resolving the dispute without formal litigation. Unfortunately, a resolution could not be reached, leaving the TDSB’s insurer with no choice but to proceed through the courts.”
It is not immediately clear whether the school board is bearing the legal costs for the lawsuit on its own.