Mr. Speaker, this is an interesting discussion. I suggest for the hon. member for Malpeque, in response to his answer to my question, that perhaps the more effective role at that time, rather than voting no, might have been to suggest an amendment, which may have made the private member's bill better for the firefighters.
However, I welcome the opportunity to acknowledge in the House the tremendous work and the efforts of emergency service volunteers, especially volunteer firefighters. Firefighters put their lives on the line responding to emergencies at a moment's notice, as my hon. colleague has suggested, making our neighbourhoods safer. Every community and every Canadian benefits from their selfless acts of heroism.
That is why I was so pleased to see our government recognize in budget 2007 that firefighters must have the proper training to effectively respond to emergencies.
The government, under the leadership of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance, provided $1 million to the International Association of Fire Fighters to support the hazardous materials training program, a move hailed by IAFF general president Harold Schaitberger in a March 21, 2007 press release, as a major advance for public safety in Canada, one they thanked the government “for listening and for acting decisively on this issue”.
These men and women, for whose contributions we all will forever remain grateful, protect our families, homes, businesses and the communities in which we live. Consequently, some volunteer firefighters and other emergency service volunteers often receive honorariums, most commonly in the range of only a few hundred dollars, in recognition of their vital contribution to the community.
I am not sure what amount of money could ever truly compensate an individual for putting his or her life on the line for others. However, these honoraria are paid by municipalities and other public authorities.
Under the current income tax rules, emergency service volunteers can receive up to $1,000 in such honoraria without having to pay any tax on this amount. If a volunteer receives an honorarium that exceeds $1,000, he or she would only have to include the amount above the $1,000 in income. In other words, if the honorarium were $1,200, only $200 would be added to the volunteer's income for tax purposes.
This special treatment is well deserved. It is a way to recognize the crucial role played by emergency service volunteers across Canada, who routinely give of their time and put themselves in harm's way with virtually no expectation of payment and in doing so, exemplify all the traits that we respect and admire. This is especially true in our smaller rural communities and towns where volunteer firefighters play a vital role, which many in larger cities may not fully appreciate.
As columnist Robert Aaron once noted, and I will paraphrase, it is in these places where neighbours look out for each other, where they are willing to risk their lives for each other.
Mike Walsh, past president of the Canadian Volunteer Fire Services Association, echoed that sentiment, remarking that volunteer firefighters “answer the call every day, literally putting their lives on the line for the people of their communities”.
A few Septembers back in my home riding of Macleod, I had the honour to be part of the High River Fire Department's 100th centennial gala. It truly was a memorable evening, as I heard first-hand of the contributions that our firefighters had made throughout the years, the good they had done, the sense of community that they had fostered, and I witnessed the respect and the admiration their neighbours felt for them.
This is why I always look forward to meeting with firefighters, such as the Lethbridge Fire Fighters Association, which myself, along with my colleague from Lethbridge, had the pleasure of sitting down with this past April. If I may take a moment, the member for Lethbridge has consistently been among Parliament's strongest advocates for firefighters and emergency service volunteers in his years in Ottawa, and I applaud him for that.
The legislation before us today seeks to recognize the importance of such emergency service volunteers, proposing a graduated income tax deduction that would see the size of the deduction increase with the number of hours volunteered.
To be more precise, emergency service volunteers would benefit from $1,000 deduction from income if they volunteered for over 100 hours or more and a $2,000 deduction if they volunteered at least 200 hours.
This issue is not new, though. In recent years very similar private members' bills, Bill C-325, introduced in the 37th Parliament, and Bill C-273, introduced in the 38th Parliament, similarly sought a deduction for emergency service volunteers based on hours volunteered.
I note, however, that Parliament declined to endorse both pieces of legislation. Indeed, the Standing Committee on Finance, after undertaking a thorough review of Bill C-273 in November of 2005, recommended that the House of Commons not proceed further with the bill based on a litany of concerns, such as: the definition of the term “volunteer emergency services” and what would it include; the definition of the term “emergency” and what it would be restricted to; the activities that would qualify in determining the number of hours of volunteering; the existence of accurate, reliable record keeping and reporting capacity to determine the number of hours of volunteer emergency services; the extent to which the number of hours of volunteer service in the proposal had been set at the appropriate level; whether the authority responsible for keeping records would be a municipal authority or an entity approved by the municipality; whether the term “volunteer” would be synonymous with unpaid; the relative merits of a tax deduction versus a refundable or non-refundable tax credit; the extent to which provincial, territorial tax revenues would be affected by the proposed measure; and the extent to which this type of measure should be designed, only following consultation with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
Many of these concerns are still present in the legislation before us today and will require further examination as we progress. Among them is the recurring question of fairness and equity that has arisen during previous incarnations of this debate. Basically the issue, as portrayed by certain observers, is whether this measure would be fair and reasonable from the perspective of other volunteers who also selflessly volunteer their time, but are not classified as emergency service volunteers. To illustrate this, examples of people who work in hospitals, or with people with disabilities, or with children in need are often evoked.
Ironically enough, in previous debates on similar legislation, it has traditionally been Liberal members who have made such claims. Indeed, on October 6, 2003, in this very chamber, the current Liberal member for Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine articulated just that when she remarked:
—I fear that the hon. member's proposition may go too far. While it is very generous toward emergency service volunteers, it may be perceived as being unfair to other taxpayers who are also volunteers.
I recognize that emergency service volunteers want to be recognized for what they do, but...I am concerned about the fact that we are asking the House to put a value on one type of volunteerism as opposed to others.
Clearly, as the House acknowledged previously, a rigorous examination surrounding the proposal outlined in Bill C-219 is merited as we move forward.
I think often of our volunteer fire departments in our own communities, those of us who have the privilege of representing rural ridings. As my hon. colleague from Malpeque mentioned, many who represent their constituents in the House have been volunteer firefighters.
We all agree that we need to look at this in the most appropriate fashion. However, we need to recognize that we have to be very cautious in picking winners and losers and who will receive a tax credit and who will not receive one.
I think of one of the individuals who actually opposed me in my nomination process in 2004, with whom I got to be very good friends, Gordon Colwell, from the town of Okotoks in my riding. He is an amazing, compassionate individual, one who is the prime example of the volunteers we are discussing here today.
We all have friends. There is the mayor of my hometown of Clareshome. He is a firefighter who spends countless hours involved in putting his life on the line for the rest of us.
I also had the experience just last fall of having a fire on my farm. I was not even present. I could not count the number of neighbours who arrived at my farm with water trucks and firefighting equipment. That begs the question, do we acknowledge and offer tax credits to those individuals who did not ask for it, who came to help?