In any event, I have a bit of a statement, Mr. Chair. Certainly I would welcome any questions later.
I wish to begin by thanking the committee for the opportunity to present on Bill C-219, a bill that will provide a small degree of compensation in recognition of the work our volunteer emergency workers contribute on behalf of their neighbours and communities.
The bill, as you know, has a long history--and several variations--among the members of all political parties. It speaks to our rural communities directly and primarily.
I also wish to acknowledge the work of all those who volunteer their time to assist their communities, local organizations, and charities, and who contribute to assist their neighbours, and indeed strangers, within their respective communities. This bill in no way detracts from the good work that the thousands of volunteers across Canada do, and neither should it be interpreted in that manner.
I will be specific as to why Bill C-219 addresses volunteer emergency workers directly. There are essentially two reasons. One reason is that the activities they are responding to place them personally at risk. Fires, rescues, accident scenes--these are not situations into which people venture without an awareness of some personal risk. In rural communities, volunteer emergency workers do precisely that.
The second reason is that these volunteers are not able to determine when it is they will be called upon. Their obligation is to respond to an emergency. Thus, a farmer in the midst of bringing in a crop must place that crop at risk of foul weather to respond to a call for assistance. A small business owner must be prepared to shut his business and thus suffer the economic loss incurred in order to respond to a call for assistance.
In other words, Mr. Chair, when the beeper goes off, you go. With the exception of training, these individuals are always on call.
For the most part, others who volunteer are not called upon to confront personal risk, and neither are they expected to respond to a call without warning. Our voluntary emergency workers are expected to do both.
Bill C-219 offers those in the category of volunteer emergency workers a small degree of compensation in recognition of the financial costs they incur to provide their communities and their neighbours with this contribution. As important as the small degree of compensation is the fact that the federal government and the federal Parliament would, through this bill, recognize and appreciate their efforts.
I'd like to reiterate two key points presented to the committee this past Monday by the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. I believe these points place the issue before the committee in perspective.
The Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary is a non-profit organization made up of 4,200 volunteers across Canada. The auxiliary provides assistance to the Coast Guard and Transport Canada with search and rescue and safe boating programs. This comes from their brief:
In 2007 alone, our members conducted a total of 1,829 search and rescue missions at the request of the Canadian Joint Rescue Coordination Centres. Since its inception, members of the CCGA have responded to over 48,000 maritime SAR incidents.
Every year, about 25% of all marine SAR incidents in Canada are handled by Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers. In addition to these taskings, the auxiliary also maintains the emphasis on training its members, who took part in almost 1,600 search and rescue exercises last year alone.
And the Federation of Canadian Municipalities stated this before the committee:
In fact, 91% of fire departments in Canada are served exclusively by volunteer firefighters and officers. Virtually all communities of less than 10,000 are served by volunteer fire departments, and most communities of less than 50,000 have a blended service. Indeed, actually the city we're in right now has volunteer firefighters protecting its rural areas. So this is a very widespread activity.
Where would these communities be without these volunteers? After reading some of the comments expressed at the committee, I can certainly tell you that they're not playing cards. They are definitely not playing cards. They take time from their business, they leave a crop in the field, they go and do the emergency, and they get back to their business as rapidly as they can.
The amendments brought to my attention as necessary by the principal parliamentary counsel for legislation are essentially housekeeping amendments. According to counsel, they make adjustments to the numbering of the provisions resulting from changes to the Income Tax Act that have occurred since Bill C-219 was first introduced. I've noted that when the committee last addressed the issue of the contents contained in Bill C-219 in its 19th report in November, 2005, the committee stated that “...the Committee is generally supportive of the intent of Bill C-273”, which was the previous private member's bill, “and feels that those who provide voluntary emergency services should be recognized by the federal government through the tax system”.
The committee did put forward a number of questions at the time their support was tabled, most of which I believe can be dealt with in a straightforward manner. I have answers to each of those questions if you want them read into the record.
I'd like to thank the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs for providing a copy of their responses to the questions raised in Bill C-273, which they have revised to address the issues raised during these hearings on Bill C-219. I have a full copy of the document they prepared, although it is not translated; I provided it to the clerk for translation and circulation earlier. I would urge all members of the committee to read the document prepared by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs if the questions raised in November, 2005, are of concern. As I said a moment ago, I can read those into the record if you like.
A report prepared by the Library of Parliament with respect to the issue of utilizing the Income Tax Act to respond to the contributions of voluntary emergency workers states the following:
The current Income Tax Act contains a provision exempting from taxation the first $1,000 received by an emergency worker for voluntary services performed as an ambulance technician, firefighter, or a person who assists in the search and rescue of individuals or in other emergency situations. Payments must be received from a government, municipality or a public authority. The emergency worker must not be regularly employed, or paid as an employee, for their services as an emergency worker by the government, municipality, or the public authority. This exemption was enacted in 2001.
According to the parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Finance, in his remarks to the House this past February:
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.
The provisions of Bill C-219, Mr. Chair, are in direct reference to those emergency service volunteers who perform the same tasks the parliamentary secretary refers to, but do not receive any honorarium.
I also noted from the testimony of finance department officials before the committee the last time similar legislation was discussed in June of 2005 that no reference was made to the provision referred to above, nor was the department able to provide the committee with any indication as to the costs that communities would incur without the assistance of volunteers generally and volunteer emergency workers specifically.
That's key, Mr. Chair. Volunteer firefighters out there take time away from their families to do training, and some of them in small fire departments do as many as 128 calls a year. What I'm hearing from them is that they're getting frustrated because this is costing them money and time away from their businesses.
They want to see some recognition. This small recognition, I believe, would hold them in their jobs and give the credibility with their families to continue as emergency workers.
The Department of Finance appeared then as well and remains more concerned, I believe, about the costs of such an initiative than about the necessity of the effort. Will there be a cost to government? Absolutely. Is the cost worth the effort? I also believe absolutely.
As was pointed out to the committee in the past, the question is not the cost to provide the small financial compensation to those who volunteer; it is to address the issue of equity for those who provide volunteer emergency services in rural communities that are not able to provide any remuneration or honorarium for that service.
The last couple of points, Mr. Chair—