Support for Volunteer Firefighters Act

An Act to amend the Canada Labour Code (volunteer firefighters)

This bill was last introduced in the 41st Parliament, 2nd Session, which ended in August 2015.

This bill was previously introduced in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session.

Sponsor

Christine Moore  NDP

Introduced as a private member’s bill. (These don’t often become law.)

Status

Defeated, as of Feb. 26, 2014
(This bill did not become law.)

Summary

This is from the published bill. The Library of Parliament often publishes better independent summaries.

This enactment amends the Canada Labour Code to prohibit reprisals against volunteer firefighters who must be absent from their work place or fail to appear at work in order to act in that capacity.

Elsewhere

All sorts of information on this bill is available at LEGISinfo, provided by the Library of Parliament. You can also read the full text of the bill.

Votes

Feb. 26, 2014 Failed That the Bill be now read a second time and referred to the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities.

Support for Volunteer Firefighters ActPrivate Members' Business

February 25th, 2014 / 6:10 p.m.
See context

NDP

Jean-François Larose NDP Repentigny, QC

Mr. Speaker, today I have the honour of rising to speak to a vital topic. We need to get to the heart of the issue so that we can help volunteer firefighters, who are so essential to our communities.

We find ourselves in a rather unusual situation where civilian first responders are being kept from performing their duties. We must start with mutual respect and an understanding of what is required if we want society to function and if we want current dynamics to be respected. I was dumbfounded to learn that a bill had to be introduced because the private sector is keeping volunteer firefighters from doing their work.

This is a worthwhile bill that will cost the federal government very little. It can send a clear message to the private sector that all forms of volunteer work and civic engagement—especially in essential sectors—are necessary and should be encouraged. Individuals engaged in such work should not be impeded, intimidated or ignored.

I am my party's philanthropy critic, and this situation does not apply only to volunteer firefighters, but also to everyone involved in the community and volunteer sectors. If we start impeding people from contributing to the well-being of society over the long term, our society will be weaker and poorer as a result. It will be dangerous.

When volunteer firefighters are dealing with a crisis, whether it is a flood or fire, the standards are becoming increasingly restrictive. Services in the municipalities are increasingly professional. Volunteer firefighters are required to be more and more effective and they must all participate, without exception. If 18 firefighters are called to an emergency, they must all participate. How can we accept that one or two people are prevented from being there during an emergency?

That is what is happening now. People who work for private companies and government services are prepared to put their personal lives aside to help others, to support them and save them. They are there for us during a flood or a train explosion, when there are victims and consequences, as we have seen.

If firefighters in every municipality had not come out because of the restrictive standards, what would have happened? Unfortunately, our community does not have the means to hire full-time firefighters.

Support for Volunteer Firefighters ActPrivate Members' Business

February 25th, 2014 / 6:10 p.m.
See context

NDP

Jean-François Larose NDP Repentigny, QC

Mr. Speaker, as I was saying, my hon. colleague introduced an extraordinary bill. It is not very costly, and it addresses a problem that can be fixed in the blink of an eye. Yet again, however, the government is trying to avoid the issue and pretend it is not that important. The government often says that it wants to work together and is waiting for suggestions. Here we have a suggestion that could go through very quickly.

The Conservatives say that because only 5% of federal public service employees are volunteer firefighters, it is not up to the government to fix this problem, but there is no cost associated with this bill. Some provinces have already implemented legislation like this, and it is working very well. The government looks pretty lazy in this case.

When it is a Conservative bill and they want to talk about helping volunteer firefighters, their bill is extraordinary. When anyone tries to bully our volunteer firefighters or prevent them from responding, that is a problem. I do not understand. Following that logic, should there not have been volunteer firefighters in Lac-Mégantic? Did some businesses in neighbouring communities prevent firefighters from responding? If there are volunteer firefighters who collect employment insurance benefits and work from home, will the government tell them that Canadian labour standards do not help them and that it needs them to work in an office instead of respond to help the community when there is an emergency? We would end up with fewer firefighters, or maybe none at all who can respond.

Are they trying to privatize firefighting and make it even more costly? We are lucky that some people are prepared to dedicate body and soul to volunteer for the good of a community and its businesses. That is so important when there is a fire. These people take their own time away from their families to train, to be available, to stay connected to people and to help us out of difficult situations.

We cannot yet afford to have full-time, paid firefighters in all of our communities, which is why we have volunteer firefighters. How is it that, although these days the government is saying that essential services are wonderful, the Conservatives do not want to participate in our discussions about the obstruction and blocking of those services? We have introduced a bill. Why not send it to committee? Why not support it so it can be studied? Why not hear from witnesses and prove how problematic this issue is?

I will talk about what I know. I wore a uniform for much of my life. I was part of those essential services. I saw friends who volunteered, who took courses, who put their families aside so that they could help their communities, in the broad sense. Not once did I ever see those people hesitate in any way to be there for their communities or to help others. When I had a chance to share a meal with them and ask them what they thought of being a volunteer firefighter, they said it was amazing, but that their employers sometimes prevented them from being present and sometimes made things difficult. Their employers intimidated them and threatened to dismiss them if they were not available to work. That is a real problem.

It is absolutely crucial that we co-operate and come up with standards to ensure that everyone can work together. Actually, I think my colleague's bill is rather sad, because this kind of obstruction is unacceptable. It should not exist. Congratulating our volunteers and thanking them for their commitment is all well and good, but it is absolutely unacceptable that their employers prevent them from volunteering when they are prepared to save children or to save seniors from a fire—which happened recently—simply because the employers need them to sell a product. This is civic engagement in a global sense. I recognize that some businesses and employers who have volunteer firefighters as employees are also making a sacrifice, as this has repercussions on scheduling or on the operation of their business, in terms of ensuring that they have enough staff available at all times. That is to be expected.

If we need such a bill, it means there is a problem. Unfortunately, in our society, we tend to solve problems through legislation. I am completely open to having a dialogue, but unfortunately, that does not happen in the House of Commons.

We find ourselves in a situation where they absolutely do not want to listen. The Conservatives have it in their heads that their idea is the only good idea. They are not prepared to hear that a problem needs to be fixed as quickly as possible. We are even proposing a very inexpensive solution. The problem could be solved very quickly. Unfortunately, once again there is obstruction. They are not interested because it is not their idea. I just cannot understand that.

We have an opportunity to solve a problem, to educate the community, to listen to society and to make it possible for our volunteer firefighters to do their job in any circumstances. The government must set an example. The bill will not necessarily have repercussions for SMEs, but it does set an example.

The provinces have clearly taken a position by pointing out that volunteer firefighters are essential and that their work should not be hindered. Why does the federal government not do the same and set an example?

The Conservatives want to set an example by establishing a volunteer firefighter tax credit, but they are not willing to set an example with a bill. Tax credits for volunteers is a good idea. I tabled a bill in that regard. I completely agree with it. However, first and foremost, I would like to see volunteer firefighters protecting communities in emergency situations—like the one that recently affected our seniors or the train disasters—instead of being told by their employer that he would rather see them working at the office than saving people's lives by fighting a fire. That is wrong.

Support for Volunteer Firefighters ActPrivate Members' Business

February 25th, 2014 / 6:20 p.m.
See context

Liberal

Francis Scarpaleggia Liberal Lac-Saint-Louis, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to start by saluting those who have served as volunteer firefighters over the years in my community, the West Island of Montreal. They are sterling individuals. My constituents and I take our hats off to them.

In particular, I would like to mention two individuals, Peter Neville and Wayne Belvedere, who are residents of the town of Baie d’Urfé. Peter and Wayne are pillars of the community. It is hard to imagine what West Island community life would look like without them and the volunteer contributions they have made over the decades, contributions far too numerous to count.

Peter Neville and Wayne Belvedere are well-known and respected for their generosity of spirit. Both have worked side-by-side as volunteer firefighters, and also in support of various community causes and initiatives. I believe that if we looked into the matter we would discover that volunteer firefighters are more than just firefighters; they are the underpinnings of our communities in so many different ways. Their involvement is not limited to responding to fires. Their presence and influence radiate all through the community, through numerous channels and volunteer activities.

Both Peter Neville and Wayne Belvedere are loyal, long-time Rotarians. Their community engagement in the service of others knows no limits. They are models of civic participation and both were well-deserved recipients of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal last year. They made their home town of Baie d’Urfé stronger, as well as the West Island as a whole, through their involvement in charities and grassroots initiatives, including the Baie d’Urfé Volunteer Fire Department.

Sadly, we no longer have volunteer firefighters in the West Island of Montreal. Allow me to take a moment to explain why that is the case. It is not because the volunteer spirit has fled the West Island. Rather, the reason is structural and relates to a reorganization of a municipal government on the Island of Montreal that took place almost 15 years ago, and since then as well.

Around the year 2000, the Government of Quebec thought it would be a good idea to take all of the municipalities on the Island of Montreal, including the City of Montreal and numerous independent municipalities, and merge them into a concept known as “One island, One city”. This created quite a wave of protests in my riding of Lac-Saint-Louis in the region of the island of Montreal known as the West Island. All these cities and towns were merged into the City of Montreal and their firefighting services became part of the City of Montreal firefighting service.

A couple of years later there was a movement to de-merge. It was called “de-merging”, a term I know we do not hear often. However, there was a movement to de-merge these formerly independent municipalities from the new City of Montreal, and they regained their independent status. They did get some of their powers back, such as their municipal councils and mayors. Unfortunately, as a result of the negotiations that took place involving the City of Montreal, the Government of Quebec, and these newly independent municipalities, they did not get their firefighting services back. Those remained under the jurisdiction of the City of Montreal, which does not allow volunteer firefighters. All firefighting is now within the purview of professional firefighting services.

Here we are talking about a bill that is problematic for a number of reasons.

Before we get to that, I would like mention that we on the Liberal side of the House do not share the government's anti-labour perspective. We certainly value the role of organized labour. On the other hand, we do not support everything organized labour would do on any given day. For us it is not a matter of faith, as it is for the NDP, to support every demand of organized labour, but we support organized labour, and we understand its role and its importance.

We believe that organized labour should be consulted before changes are made to the Labour Code. In fact, we found that organized labour, or firefighters associations, have not been consulted about the bill. We find this a violation of a principle we hold quite dear, the idea that we should consult widely before making changes to the Labour Code, and second, that the Labour Code should not be changed through private members' bills.

In this regard, we rest our view on the opinions of members of organized labour. I will quote Mr. Hassan Yussuff, who is the secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress. He said when he appeared before the human resources committee during the study of another private member's bill:

Amendments should not be made through private members' bills. They should be made with concerted, pre-legislative consultation that engages employers, unions, and government.

We have a representative of the Canadian Labour Congress, a representative of the union movement in Canada, suggesting that this is not the route to take and that consultation is primordial.

Let me also quote from Mr. John Farrell, the executive director of the main employer group representing federally regulated employers, who also appeared before the human resources committee during the study of another private member's bill, Bill C-525:

This critical consultation process is completely bypassed when changes to the labour relations regime are proposed through the mechanism of one-off private members' bills. It provides no meaningful way for pre-legislative consultation to take place in an open and transparent manner, and it seeks changes without the required engagement of practitioners, recognized third-party neutrals, and the resources of government agencies charged with the responsibility to implement, adjudicate, and monitor the industrial relations system in the federal jurisdiction.

Last I quote a member of the NDP, a member of this House, the member for Hamilton East—Stoney Creek, who said, on January 28, 2014:

I believe it is irresponsible on the part of the Conservative government to allow a private member's bill to amend Canada's labour relations legislation. If there were any case at all for changes to our labour relations legislation, then there must be consultations with all the stakeholders, and a full study before proceeding to draft any such bill. It should absolutely be done by a government bill, not a private member's bill.

There was not a lot of support among those who are involved in management-labour relations for taking this route. I firmly believe, as a private member, that consultation is a key principle. Consultation in labour relations and in changing the Labour Code is a kind of sacrosanct principle that should be respected. Unfortunately, the bill does not respect that principle.

I am not aware of any case where a federal government employer, in other words, a department or agency of the government, has said to a volunteer firefighter, “I am sorry. You cannot go and put out that fire. We need you at the office”. I do not know of any cases. Maybe we would have known of some cases if proper consultations had taken place.

Support for Volunteer Firefighters ActPrivate Members' Business

February 25th, 2014 / 6:30 p.m.
See context

Conservative

Ed Komarnicki Conservative Souris—Moose Mountain, SK

Mr. Speaker, I am thankful for the opportunity to speak on Bill C-504.

The Government of Canada, of course, is committed to ensuring that workplaces are fair, safe, and productive, and that they contribute to a prosperous economy for all Canadians. However, as the previous speaker mentioned, I know of no employer who has prevented an employee under this particular circumstance from doing volunteer firefighting work.

The main objective of Bill C-504 is to provide support to volunteer firefighters who are employed in federally regulated enterprises. The bill proposes to amend the Canada Labour Code to ensure that volunteer firefighters are supported when considered for employment or when called upon to perform their duties during working hours.

We have carefully studied the bill, and we would like to assure Canadians and business owners that the bill attempts to solve a problem that does not really exist.

First and foremost, our government recognizes the sacrifice and hard work carried out by volunteer firefighters across Canada, and there is no question about that. Who can forget the disaster at Lac-Mégantic this past summer? There is no way the small community's fire department could have dealt with this tragedy without the help of its volunteer firefighters.

These volunteers are a beacon of courage for all of us. They are a shining example of the bravery shown in thousands of Canadian communities by men and women who freely give their time to keep us and our communities safe. Our government recognizes their critical role and that is why we created the volunteer firefighters tax credit, which is available to those who provide at least 200 hours of eligible service per calendar year at one or more fire departments.

In 2011, more than 37,000 volunteer firefighters took advantage of this tax credit, which is a fairly significant number. In other words, under the leadership of this government, all men and women across Canada who serve as volunteer firefighters get real action with real results.

No one doubts the hon. member's sincerity, and certainly we hear the passion displayed, in wanting to protect the estimated 4,200 volunteer firefighters who work in federally regulated industries. However, we cannot support the bill.

First, there is little evidence that federally regulated employers are unsupportive of their employees who act as volunteer firefighters. I think the previous speaker alluded to that. The truth of the matter is, that is the situation across the country.

The labour program, which is responsible for the Canada Labour Code, has not received a single complaint from a federally regulated employee who has been dismissed, suspended, laid-off, demoted, or disciplined for fulfilling their volunteer firefighting duties; not one single complaint.

Second, Bill C-504 would have a disproportionate impact on small employers, who represent 80% of all federally regulated employers.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that small employers would have to manage unpredictable absences in their organizations while not necessarily having back-up resources to complete the work left behind. The bill would mean an additional burden on employers who would have to manage additional red tape.

Let us not forget that our government has reduced red tape and regulatory burdens on Canadian businesses to provide them with the required flexibility to grow, create jobs, and strengthen the economy. The idea is to reduce red tape for businesses, not increase it. Our economic action plan measures have produced results. The last thing we want to do is to move backwards.

Finally, there is no indication that volunteer firefighter departments, or even volunteer firefighters themselves, see a need for legislation.

A survey was recently conducted by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs in which recruitment and retention was identified as a challenge by volunteer firefighter departments. However, a lack of support from employers was not identified as the main cause for this challenge. Rather, and in many parts of Canada, a lack of local employment poses the greatest challenge for fire departments in small and medium-size communities concerning the recruitment and retention of firefighters.

Although the intent of the bill is to support volunteer firefighters, it would add little to no additional support.

What the bill truly represents is another NDP attempt to create regulation for the sake of regulation, without any forethought to any consequences and when no regulation is required.

The bill is also inconsistent with other provisions provided in the Canada Labour Code. For example, it introduces the concept of good cause, which would leave room to multiple interpretations and could lead to disagreements between employers and employees, creating a situation that does not need to be created.

It also fails to define under what circumstances a volunteer firefighter would be granted leave from work. An important part of a volunteer firefighter's duties are deemed non-urgent situations, such as training and fire hall maintenance.

I am not so sure anyone here wants their communities unprotected from the ravages of fire. Of course, every one wants to be protected from the ravages of fire. However, there is little evidence that discrimination against employees who act as volunteer firefighters actually exists.

As I mentioned earlier, the bill would have a negative impact upon small and medium-sized employers, while adding no additional protection to those who serve as volunteers.

For all these reasons, the government cannot support the bill and will be voting against it.

Not to be misunderstood, to be sure, our government is committed to ensuring that each and every workplace in Canada remains fair, safe, and productive. That is what is guiding each and every one of our decisions now and going forward.

It seems to me that, so far, the relationship between employers and employees has been excellent and that volunteer firefighters have been able to attend and protect citizens from fire whenever it was required. It does not appear to be a problem. It has not been identified as a problem. Why would we need this legislation at this particular time to legislate a situation or to try to cure a situation that does not exist—a problem that employers and employees have been able to work out on their own terms?

In fact, many employers themselves are volunteer firefighters, and when there is a call and a need by the community or society that needs protection, they are first to go. They see it as a community effort, a duty to the community, and they work that out amongst themselves.

It is our view that this legislation is not necessary, certainly not in a federally regulated sphere.

Support for Volunteer Firefighters ActPrivate Members' Business

February 25th, 2014 / 6:35 p.m.
See context

NDP

Mylène Freeman NDP Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC

Mr. Speaker, I have the honour to speak in the House to support Bill C-504, An Act to amend the Canada Labour Code (volunteer firefighters), introduced by the hon. member for Abitibi—Témiscamingue, who is doing excellent work.

In the House, I represent the riding of Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, a rural riding that includes 42 municipalities.

As you might guess, not all of these municipalities have a fire department that employs full-time firefighters. It is often volunteer, part-time firefighters who ensure the safety of my constituents.

That is why it is very important for me to support this bill. It is the least I can do for the men and women who are dedicated to our safety. The bill proposes a tangible, realistic no-cost solution to support those who keep our communities safe.

The municipal officials in my riding also officially support the bill. The Argenteuil and Papineau RCMs have both given their support to the bill. Those two RCMs represent a number of municipalities. Most of the municipalities in my riding, roughly 35, are quite small.

I will read the Argenteuil RCM motion for support, to illustrate the importance of such a bill at the local level, in my riding. This is an excerpt from the minutes of the Argenteuil RCM meeting that was held last summer:

WHEREAS the Support for Volunteer Firefighters Act would amend the Canada Labour Code to allow volunteer firefighters to be absent from their work if they are called to a fire;

WHEREAS said Act would also legally protect volunteer firefighters from dismissal or other disciplinary measures imposed by employers, without just cause, in the performance of their duties;

WHEREAS in rural areas, most firefighters do this job in addition to their primary job;

WHEREAS recruiting and retaining firefighters in small and medium-sized communities is difficult;

WHEREAS, according to statistics, it is difficult for fire departments to get their forces together between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. because many employers do not let volunteer firefighters miss work;

WHEREAS this bill enables fire departments to maintain effective response teams at all times and responds to concerns expressed by part-time and volunteer firefighters in rural stations;

WHEREAS similar legislation already exists in Quebec;

They unanimously supported the bill introduced by my colleague from Abitibi—Témiscamingue.

Each reason set out in the motion is better than the last. My colleague from Abitibi—Témiscamingue is proposing an important measure for volunteer firefighters in our rural communities.

The arguments coming from the other side of the House, from the Conservatives, as to why they are not supporting the bill, are simply mean-spirited. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Labour and for Western Economic Diversification said the following:

The bill claims to protect the employment of volunteer firefighters working in a federally regulated business. I think it is important to note that according to the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs an estimated 4.9%, or 4,200, of the 85,000 volunteer firefighters in Canada are hired by federally regulated businesses.

We know that she is opposed to this policy, which would be of help to volunteer firefighters and to the municipalities recruiting them, because the bill does not interfere with provincial jurisdiction.

This is basically about protecting the portion of the volunteer firefighters in Quebec who are not already protected, so that everyone has access to the same type of legislation.

I know that the Conservatives try to manage everything from their offices and that they do not like to hear proposals from the other parties. However, the NDP defends policies that respect the provinces.

If we treat the provinces as allies and work with them, we will be able to protect all volunteer firefighters.

Bill C-504 only affects volunteer firefighters who work for federally regulated companies. This legislation would complement similar legislation that already exists in Quebec. Bill C-504 addresses an inequity towards volunteer firefighters who work for a federally regulated company in Quebec, and we hope that this bill will encourage the other provinces to enact similar legislation.

That is what you would call legislative leadership, and I congratulate my colleague from Abitibi—Témiscamingue for taking this step forward.

The Conservatives are complaining that this bill does not do enough. However, as a firefighter would say, you have to take the ladder one rung at a time.

I want to talk about the three measures in the bill that illustrate this first step of the ladder towards real legislative leadership:

246.1 (1) No employer shall, without good cause, prevent a person from acting as a firefighter called on an occasional basis (in this Act referred to as a “volunteer firefighter”) if that person has informed the employer of their obligations and advised the employer when, to act in that capacity, they must be absent from their work place, either by leaving work suddenly or by failing to appear at work.

This is the most powerful measure in the bill and it is very simple. It ensures that the volunteer firefighter is able to serve his community, whether it is to fight a fire, carry out an emergency plan or do anything else.

When we talk about volunteer firefighters in the House, I often think about my time in high school, since my school bus driver, Georges, was a volunteer firefighter. He had a list of the phone numbers of all the people he had to drive to school in the morning. As soon as he got called in for his volunteer firefighter duties, he would call us—because he was the chief volunteer firefighter—to say that he would be late or that someone else would pick us up. He always did his job and made sure that we would still get to school.

However, that required him to manage two tasks at the same time, especially because our day started so early. We had to travel two hours if we wanted to go to French school. Basically, he did everything he could to get us to school on time, and he served his community at the same time. This kind of measure would protect people like Georges, who was punctual and, when necessary, went off to save families in his community.

I would like to move on to the second clause of the bill:

(2) No employer shall, without good cause, dismiss, suspend, lay off, demote or discipline an employee because they are a volunteer firefighter or take into account the fact that an employee is a volunteer firefighter in a decision to promote or train them if the employee has informed the employer of their obligations and advises the employer when, to act in that capacity, they must be absent from their work place, either by leaving work suddenly or by failing to appear at work.

This second measure is important because it states that an employer cannot punish an employee who is a volunteer firefighter and who exercises his or her right under the first clause of the bill. On the job, there are always reasons why people do not have the opportunity to advance. People who serve their community should have opportunities to advance.

The following is the third clause of the bill:

(3) No employer may, without good cause, refuse to employ a person because they are a volunteer firefighter.

To conclude, this bill consists of three very clear, tangible steps that are designed to protect the volunteer firefighters who make sacrifices for their community. Once again, I want to thank the volunteer firefighters in my riding for their irreplaceable service to our communities.

Support for Volunteer Firefighters ActPrivate Members' Business

February 25th, 2014 / 6:45 p.m.
See context

Conservative

Bev Shipley Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour for me to speak again today, this time about Bill C-504. I think everyone in the House appreciates that the member has brought forward an interesting bill that has the best of intentions.

All of us have the utmost respect and appreciation for first responders in this country, particularly volunteer firefighters. These are individuals who risk their own safety to save lives, property, and their own communities. We owe them much.

However, what sometimes looks good on paper in reality does not always meet what is needed and what it was meant to fulfill. Unfortunately, this bill fits into that category.

One of the first things we should consider is who we are trying to help. The bill seeks to amend the Canada Labour Code to protect volunteer firefighters from negative repercussions from their employers when they take time off from their work to go and fight a fire or deal with another emergency in their community.

As we all know, the Canada Labour Code applies only to federally regulated industries. Of the 85,000 volunteer firefighters in this country, it is estimated that only around 4,420 work in federally regulated industries. In other words, this legislation would only apply to about 5% of all volunteer firefighters in Canada.

Imagine for a minute that two best friends are both volunteer firefighters. They live across the street from each other. One works in a federally regulated industry, but the other is one of the 95% of volunteer firefighters who do not. They both answer an emergency call. They both leave their work. They both fight the fire. They both risk their safety to help others.

If this law were to be put into place, do members think that they would each be treated differently when they got back to work? Do members think that they might get fired by their manager for leaving work to help put out a fire that might in fact be at his house, his neighbours' house, or one of their businesses? No. In fact, since 1985, the labour program has not received any complaints of a reprisal related to volunteer firefighter duties. There has not been one.

This is one of the severe shortcomings of the hon. member's presentations in support of this bill. She has not provided any examples of a situation in which a volunteer firefighter has been penalized by his or her employer for going out and fighting a fire. That is quite significant.

An notional argument has been made that some of the fire department heads have said that the lack of this legislation inhibits their ability to recruit volunteers. However, a report by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs indicated that a primary reason they have difficulty recruiting local volunteer firefighters is that potential volunteers do not work close enough to the area they live in to respond to an emergency, not that they fear a reprisal from their employer.

I can speak to that in terms of distance and length. In my municipality of Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, there are number of volunteers and small villages, and many of those in rural areas work in larger urban areas. The comment I just made about having access for immediate response becomes a much larger issue.

Furthermore, in a sample of more than 3,000 collective agreements across the country, the issue of voluntary firefighters is only mentioned in two of them. The question then is whether this is really a problem. Is it really an issue that needs legislation? Do we really want to change a process that has been working well for so many years? Do we really want to tell the employers of the 5% of volunteer firefighters and the volunteer firefighters themselves that we are going to give them some more forms to fill out and processes that they will have to follow just to do something that really already works well?

It seems the New Democrats wish to create laws for the sake of creating laws, but we respectfully disagree with this approach. So why do we not do something that will help not only the 5% of the volunteer firefighters under Canadian labour law, but also do something for all of them? Of course the hon. member knows that this has already happened.

In budget 2011, our Conservative Government of Canada brought in the volunteer firefighters tax credit. It is available to volunteer firefighters who provide at least 200 hours of eligible services per calendar year. This is an example of the real, fair application for all volunteer firefighters, with tangible results all the way across Canada. In 2011, more than 37,000 Canadian volunteer firefighters took advantage of this tax provision. It put about $450 back into the pockets and the hands of volunteer firefighters who helped their communities with fires or deal with other emergencies. This is Canada's way of thanking a group of people who volunteer to carry out dangerous work on our behalf.

We should keep in mind that this is not a job that everybody can or, in fact, wants to do. It requires a level of physical strength as well as courage. These are a special breed of individuals who deserve our deepest appreciation for what they do. Who really appreciates these people the most? It is the folks in our communities, not only their neighbours but also the people who own the pizza parlour or the barber shop, or the business person who owns a factory, or the local farmer. All of them are employers and all of them benefit from the services that these volunteers provide.

It is well worth noting that in my business as a farmer, I have had to call on the fire department to come to a situation. I also noticed, when I was mayor of our municipality and involved in municipal work for a number of years, that not only do we have volunteers who are working for businesses, we also have a number of business owners who are volunteer firefighters, and in some cases the owners and the employees all drop their work and come to do their duty as volunteer firefighters. So, whether or not they are employees, all of them benefit from the services these volunteers provide. All of them want to have volunteer firefighters in their communities and they also want to have them as part of their business protection. They quite rightly see it as a good investment.

There are over 3,000 volunteer fire departments in Canada, and the majority of them, as in my riding of Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, are in small and medium-sized communities. In many cases, the volunteer firefighters provide the only emergency services in the area. They are relied on to act quickly to respond to fires and to other emergencies.

In these communities, business people recognize the valuable contributions of these volunteers, and they continue to accommodate them without the need for additional legislation. Volunteer firefighters are part of every community in this great country of Canada, and their employers know that they provide a unique and an invaluable service that protects property and yes, in some cases, saves lives. The goodwill and co-operative spirit between volunteers and their employers have existed for many years, and we expect that to continue for many years to come.

In short, I do not agree with the NDP that we should try to fix something that is not broken. So we on this side will not be able to support this proposal.

Support for Volunteer Firefighters ActPrivate Members' Business

February 25th, 2014 / 6:55 p.m.
See context

NDP

Claude Gravelle NDP Nickel Belt, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to begin by thanking the hon. member for Abitibi—Témiscamingue for her leadership on Bill C-504. She is a real MP who shows leadership for Abitibi—Témiscamingue and for Canada as a whole.

My riding of Nickel Belt comprises mostly small communities. There are some full-time firefighters in Sturgeon Falls and some in Valley East. They are supplemented by volunteer firefighters.

I cannot believe what I am hearing from members on the government side and members of the third party about this piece of legislation. Bill C-504 is about federal leadership.

Let me talk a bit about Nickel Belt. I have a big riding that starts in the north in Foleyet, which is serviced by volunteer firefighters, and it goes to Mattagami and Gogama. I will stop at Gogama right now.

I received an email today from a firefighter from Gogama. I just wanted to know roughly how many calls those firefighters had per year. Gogama is a very small community of a couple of hundred people. The firefighters get 60 to 70 calls per year involving motor vehicle accidents, extrications, fires, medical calls, and all kinds of calls that volunteer firefighters would respond to.

There are even smaller communities in my riding, like Cartier, Onaping, and Levack. I will stop at Levack for now.

Levack has always been served by volunteer firefighters. Levack-Onaping is a special case because there are several mines in the area that are serviced by volunteer firefighters. They have been called to these mines to put out some fires. Those mines employ hundreds of people. I want members to imagine what would happen if one of those mines was burning and the firefighters could not show up. What if the place was to burn down? What would happen then?

I heard a Conservative member talking about the economic action plan. I am talking about a bill for firefighters, and he was talking about the economic action plan.

I am not going to be like the member for Mississauga—Streetsville and tell members I saw this, because I really did not see it, but I can just imagine how many bonfires were started because of the economic action plan, by people sitting around throwing books about the economic action plan into the fire just to warm up. That is just about all those books are good for, especially the last one because there is nothing in it. It is just an imaginary budget.

I am going to move on to Killarney, which is another town in my community served by volunteer firefighters. I have skipped over several communities to get to Killarney because it had a special cause not too long ago. Killarney is a tourist area. People work in the summer there and are on EI during the winter. As a result of government changes to EI, the volunteer firefighters did not want to volunteer anymore because they felt they were being punished.

As I only have a minute left, I want to read an email I received from another community in Nickel Belt:

The only thing I can add at this time is that many of our members, including myself, have been told under no circumstances can we respond to a fire emergency while on shift at work. This at times is a perilous situation.

Can members imagine that? If they have kids or grandkids—they must have some family—I want them to imagine their house burning down and volunteer firefighters being unable to respond to the call.

I say the same thing to the Conservative and Liberal members. I ask them to imagine having a car accident and needing to be extricated, except volunteer firefighters cannot help because they cannot leave their place of employment. What a real shame it would be to lose lives because employees could not leave their job sites to save lives or extinguish fires. What a real shame that would be.

Support for Volunteer Firefighters ActPrivate Members' Business

February 25th, 2014 / 7 p.m.
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NDP

Christine Moore NDP Abitibi—Témiscamingue, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to first take a moment to respond to my Liberal colleagues.

Unless the Prime Minister appoints me as labour minister while allowing me to remain a member of the NDP, I am currently only allowed to introduce private members' bills. In this case, the only way for me to amend the Canada Labour Code is through my private member's bill. I am not part of the government, so I cannot introduce a government bill. It makes sense that an opposition bill comes in the form of a private member's bill.

I consulted with various fire services. I telephoned people across the country and I even got formal support from Enbridge, for one, who agreed to support my bill because the company's contingency plans depend on volunteer firefighters. Another employer, the Canadian Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, also supports my bill because it believes it could be useful. Consultations were held, but there could be more if this bill gets enough support to be referred to committee.

I used my office budget to undertake those consultations. My budget is far more limited than a minister's, but I consulted all the same.

As for real-life examples, there are some employers who refused to make their employees available. In some communities, when people want to become volunteer firefighters, the fire station asks them for a letter from their employer indicating that it is willing to allow them to leave in the event of a fire, and sometimes employers refuse. What are those people supposed to do? There is no mechanism for filing a complaint.

At present, employers are fully entitled to refuse to allow employees to leave. Will these people risk losing their jobs for a volunteer position? Unfortunately, the answer is usually no, so they say nothing. They would really like to do something, but their hands are tied. This gets overlooked. It is unfortunate, because this can mean that these people are excluded from the fire services because they are not available to respond to fire calls. It would cost too much to train them and keep them on the service if they cannot respond to fire calls.

Someone else said that my bill will impose an administrative burden. Similar legislation exists in Quebec for employees under provincial jurisdiction. Shortly after that legislation came into effect, two cases were brought before the courts, and in both cases, the volunteer firefighters won. After that, there was no longer any need to go to court, because the law was in place. Not one business in Quebec under provincial jurisdiction has complained that the provincial legislation imposed an administrative burden, and my bill does not require any paperwork whatsoever.

This can be resolved in one minute. Employees can simply say to their employers that they are volunteer firefighters and want to be able to respond to fire calls when they come in. Then the employer replies that legislation exists requiring it to comply, and when the employees receive fire calls, they simply have to inform the secretary when they leave and when they return. It takes 23 seconds to solve the problem. I do not understand how this could impose any administrative burden. It has been tested.

With regard to the specific duties that could be assigned to firefighters, if my colleagues believe that improvements could be made, and if my colleague from Souris—Moose Mountain believes that we should be more specific about certain elements, I urge them to think right away about amendments they could make in committee. I do not believe that I know everything and I recognize that I am not perfect. However, I believe that this is a very good starting point and that, with a few amendments, we could have a very good bill. We need to send it to committee to improve it.

The Conservatives say that only 5% of firefighters will be affected. However, when there is a fire, you have to have an adequate team, a minimum number of firefighters, to respond. If you need 18 firefighters and only 17 arrive, they cannot enter the house. All 18 firefighters have to be there and the 18th might be part of the 5% under federal authority.

Support for Volunteer Firefighters ActPrivate Member's Business

November 7th, 2013 / 5:15 p.m.
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NDP

Christine Moore NDP Abitibi—Témiscamingue, QC

moved that Bill C-504, An Act to amend the Canada Labour Code (volunteer firefighters) be read the second time and referred to the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities.

Mr. Speaker, I am obviously very pleased to once again be able to speak to my bill, Bill C-504, which would provide support for volunteer firefighters. Before I speak to the bill itself, I would like to talk about fire departments, since they are directly related to my bill.

Fire departments do not only respond to fires, but they also respond to calls to extricate car-accident victims from cars or to help people who might have medical problems in an area not accessible by a regular ambulance, such as a hunter who has fallen in an area that is difficult to access. They do much more than simply respond to fire calls, and I think that is important to note.

Fire departments are organized differently in rural and urban areas. In urban areas, there are enough calls to warrant having fully trained professional firefighters.

However, in rural areas, there are not enough calls to justify a full-time staff. Although firefighters are sometimes permanent and hold administrative or other jobs, we can obviously not have a full staff of firefighters at a fire station in a village of 1,000 people that serves other communities in the area with 300 or 400 people. That would make no sense and would not be cost-effective. Therefore, in the regions there is no choice but to use volunteer firefighters.

It is important to understand that the term “voluntary” does not necessarily mean “unpaid.” It does not mean that they will not be paid for their work. Rather, the term refers to their goodwill. When they decide to be volunteer firefighters, it is not because someone twisted their arm or told them what to do. This decision comes from an inner willingness to help and serve their community. What motivates people to become volunteer firefighters is their desire to save lives, to keep neighbours or friends from losing their homes or to save property accumulated over the years. It really is their goodwill that motivates volunteer firefighters to serve their community.

When answering a call, firefighters must gather the minimum number of firefighters required before intervening. This number may vary depending on the fire. Volunteer firefighters cannot enter a building or carry out any effective operations before this team is assembled. Often, they will pour water on the fire for as long as it takes until they assemble the team they need. Each additional minute they need to gather this team may means they cannot save lives, or recover property, or prevent greater damage.

We all agree that life is precious. The value of property damage is very real as well. I think it is important to consider the millions of dollars in claims submitted to insurance companies every year. Acting more quickly can save lives, in addition to saving belongings that are often irreplaceable because of their sentimental value. It can also mean thousands of dollars in savings.

One of my constituents wrote me after I introduced my bill to point out how difficult it is to assemble the necessary team of firefighters. He had been a volunteer firefighter for over twenty years and he knew that when fighting a fire, the first few minutes are the most important. According to him, firefighters should not be criticized, because they often save lives even though it is not always easy to do when it is -30°C or -35°C or when it is dark. It is not fun.

Someone who has been a volunteer firefighter for 24 years in Rouyn-Noranda also wrote me to say that his employer cannot let him leave to answer a call if there is no one else to replace him. He can let him go at the second alarm if there is someone else to replace him.

It is important that we make employers understand the importance of the work firefighters do and recognize it by entrenching it in law. Roger Rousseau, of La Sarre, also wrote to me saying that a firefighter's performance depends on the employer's co-operation.

The key factor for effectiveness and quick response is availability. The more firefighters are available on a 24/7 basis, 365 days a years, the more effective they will be. Fire services have difficulty bringing together an adequate team during the day, between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. It is increasingly difficult to gather these people during those hours.

I would also like to say that many companies with operations across the country rely on volunteer firefighters to implement their emergency plans. We need only think of Enbridge, CN, CP and TransCanada. All these companies rely on volunteer firefighters to respond to catastrophes that could happen in rural areas, which also require a quick response in the event of potential accidents. Volunteer firefighter services are essential for the Canadian economy across the country.

We cannot predict when a catastrophe will happen, but we can be prepared and make sure that the odds are in our favour. This bill will help Canada be ready to respond to catastrophes. The Insurance Bureau of Canada recently released a study showing that we are not prepared. We have to wake up and stop thinking that everything is fine. We have to tell ourselves that we can take concrete action to help us be better prepared.

The goal of my bill is to give a volunteer or part-time firefighter who works in a federally regulated entity the right to be away from his work if called to intervene and if the employer was informed of his employee's obligations. The bill allows people to respond to calls if employed by a federally regulated business. All the firefighters have to do is inform their employers. Of course, they would not just take out their pager and tell their employers that they are volunteer firefighters and that they have to go. The employer must be informed in advance and must be warned that it could happen. The employer would then be required to let the firefighter leave.

It is important to specify that the employer is obligated to let him leave, unless there are valid reasons not to. There could be times when that obligation would not apply. That is important to understand, and there is some logic behind it. Obviously, if a plant stops working because the individual controls an essential piece of machinery, the employer has a valid reason to ask him to wait until a replacement can be found. If there is only one security guard at a bank, for example, it makes sense that he cannot just up and leave. There are security risks. There are logical reasons that could allow an employer to require the employee to stay, if the employer has valid reasons not to allow him to leave. However, if there are no such reasons, he needs to let the employee leave to answer the call.

This bill also prohibits reprisals against volunteer or part-time firefighters who must be absent from their work place or fail to appear at work in order to act in that capacity. That includes, for example, disciplinary measures because someone responded to a fire alarm or because someone telephones in the morning to say that he fought a fire from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. so he cannot come to work because he did not sleep. That protects firefighters from disciplinary measures that the employer may wish to impose because he telephoned at the last minute. It is very concrete.

This prohibits employers from refusing to hire a volunteer or part-time firefighter. For example, if I were a part-time firefighter and an employer under federal jurisdiction refused to hire me because he did not want to deal with me having to leave to respond to fires, it would be illegal.

Most of the time, there is good co-operation, but sometimes that is not the case. I would like to take the time to provide a concrete example so that people understand this problem a little better.

In Quebec, a similar law exists for employees under provincial jurisdiction. It affects only provincially regulated employees. My bill will protect all employees under federal jurisdiction. It will therefore go beyond the two laws that separate federal and provincial jurisdictions. It would protect all firefighters in Quebec.

There is no similar legislation in the other provinces and territories, but this bill could reasonably open the debate and encourage the other provinces and territories to follow suit.

Here is a specific example. Right now, if a mortgage advisor who works in a caisse populaire in Quebec has to leave his job to respond to a fire, his employer is obligated to let him leave because these financial institutions fall under provincial jurisdiction. However, if the same person, who is trained by the fire department, leaves his job at the caisse populaire to go do the same job at a bank, his employer is no longer obligated to let him leave to respond to a fire because banks fall under federal jurisdiction.

It does not make sense for a firefighter to no longer be protected because he changed jurisdictions. It is important to correct the imbalance. Municipalities are having more and more trouble recruiting firefighters because the training is much longer than before and people prefer to devote more time to their families for various reasons.

If the people the fire department does succeed in recruiting cannot respond to fires because their employer will not let them leave work, the fire department cannot risk hiring them and spending thousand of dollars training them. The fire department needs to know whether they will be able to respond to calls. It is very simple.

It is about enhancing the role of firefighters in our communities. With this bill, the Parliament of Canada would be sending a clear message that we believe in the work of firefighters and that it is worth freeing them up to allow them to fulfill their obligations. That is why this bill should be sent to committee.

A few legal corrections may need to be made. I never claimed to be perfect, but it would be really unfortunate if, for partisan reasons, we do not take the time to send this bill to committee and find ways to improve it, if there are things that need to be corrected from a legal standpoint.

It is well worth sending this bill to committee, to enhance the role of firefighters in our communities and ensure that they are protected. Thus, even if it needs improvement, the bill could enable firefighters to act more quickly and save lives. Eighty-five per cent of firefighters in this country are volunteer firefighters. This means about 127,000 people. I would also like to point out that this bill would not cost the government a cent.

In the throne speech, the government talked about the ability to respond and intervene when natural disasters strike. Accordingly, having firefighters that can respond when a natural disaster strikes fits into what was said.

It is important to strengthen the resilience of our communities and ensure that we can meet their needs. We can do that simply by sending this bill to committee, then passing it for the well-being of our communities and our firefighters.

Support for Volunteer Firefighters ActPrivate Member's Business

November 7th, 2013 / 5:30 p.m.
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Conservative

Ted Opitz Conservative Etobicoke Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague for her speech on her private member's bill. She is a hard-working member with whom I have had the privilege of working on the defence committee. She spent several years in the Canadian Armed Forces, and I would like to thank her for her dedication. I know that when she talks about volunteer firefighters, she is sincere in demonstrating goodwill. However, I would remind her that when we gave a tax break to volunteer firefighters, no one in her party supported this government in doing so.

The relationship between volunteer firefighters and their employers is generally quite strong. By convention, the relationship is very good between employers and volunteer firefighters, so there has not really been a need for this kind of legislation, because employers are very receptive to the great work volunteer firefighters do, which I think all members in the House will agree on.

I would like to ask the hon. member if she thinks that perhaps what she is proposing may damage the relationship between firefighters and their employers.

Support for Volunteer Firefighters ActPrivate Member's Business

November 7th, 2013 / 5:30 p.m.
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NDP

Christine Moore NDP Abitibi—Témiscamingue, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would first like to clarify that if the tax credit for volunteer firefighters had been introduced alone, not together with many other measures, I would have been happy to vote in favour of it. Given the opportunity to vote only on that measure, I would not have hesitated to support it.

The member knows how things work in Parliament: the government bundles good measures with plenty of bad ones. That is the problem.

Just to be clear, there is no way to get statistics on which employers do not let their employees respond to fires, but we know it happens.

A bill forcing employers to let volunteer firefighters respond has a specific goal: if there is a law, people will not hesitate to release an employee who has to respond to a fire. Employers will understand that legally, they are required to let the employee respond. They will therefore find a solution and work things out. Without that legal obligation, employers are less willing to find a solution, to find a way to let the employee respond.

That is all there is to it. In Quebec, there have been no complaints since the law came into force, or very few anyway. The legal obligation has made employers realize that they have to come up with a solution so they can let their employees respond.

Support for Volunteer Firefighters ActPrivate Member's Business

November 7th, 2013 / 5:35 p.m.
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NDP

Christine Moore NDP Abitibi—Témiscamingue, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thought it was simple, but I will try to give my colleague a clear explanation.

Volunteer firefighters have another job in addition to being a firefighter. For some, their other job is federally regulated. For example, they may work for a bank or the postal service. At present, the provincial law requires employers under provincial jurisdiction to release firefighters. However, if the other job is under federal jurisdiction, the employer does not have to release the employee to allow him to respond to a fire call.

What we are doing is amending the Canada Labour Code so that employers under federal jurisdiction are required to release employees who are also volunteer firefighters. That is what will happen.

A number of other aspects concerning firefighters are under provincial or municipal jurisdiction. For that reason, they are not included in this bill. I chose to include only aspects under federal jurisdiction. That is what we do at the federal level.

Support for Volunteer Firefighters ActPrivate Member's Business

November 7th, 2013 / 5:35 p.m.
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Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo B.C.

Conservative

Cathy McLeod ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Labour and for Western Economic Diversification

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to speak on the second reading of Bill C-504, an act to amend the Canada Labour Code.

First of all, I, too, like many people in this House, want to not only salute our volunteer firefighters, but our search and rescue folks, and the many people throughout our country who work in our rural and remote communities and ensure that we have a sense of safety. We know that when we have trouble they will be there for us. Again, I think all of us agree, and we salute the very important work that they do.

The bill claims to protect the employment of volunteer firefighters working in a federally regulated business. I think it is important to note that according to the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs an estimated 4.9%, or 4,200, of the 85,000 volunteer firefighters in Canada are hired by federally regulated businesses. We are talking about a very small portion of the workforce.

There are 3,200 volunteer fire departments throughout Canada, with most of them serving small communities with less than 10,000 residents. In many communities, they are often the only local emergency first responders. As I said, if one has ever travelled through a community that is rural or remote, knowing they are there is critically important.

I know that the hon. member for Abitibi—Témiscamingue tabled this private member's bill with the best of intentions. That said, I do have a number of concerns that I would like to raise.

First of all, I think the changes proposed in the bill would actually create more problems than solutions. The sponsor of the bill claims it would help volunteer fire departments with recruitment and retention in smaller-sized communities. However, according to a survey conducted by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, the biggest challenge that fire departments face is a lack of employment rather than unsupportive employers.

Having a strong rural Canada and natural resource development is what we spent all day talking about. We talked about it impeding the ability for our rural and remote communities to enjoy the resources that would provide them with employment opportunities and the prosperity they deserve and want.

It is also important to note that in the Red Tape Reduction Commission it was clear that in imposing additional regulations on employers, such as this bill would do, it would not only be counterproductive, but harmful. The costs of red tape and regulations have gone into the billions of dollars. It is a very onerous burden on our communities. Of course, that is why we are working to reduce the regulatory burden on Canadian businesses and provide them with the required flexibility to grow, create jobs and contribute to our recovering economy.

Many may recall, in 2008, that we amended the Canada Labour Code to provide an unpaid leave for members of the reserve force. Some people might ask why we are not willing to do the same for the volunteer firefighter. However, I think there is an important distinction.

Reservists are deployed for a longer but determined period of time, which makes a formal approach to managing their absences from work the best policy decision. Having the time to recruit, train and allow reservists to go for six months, a year, or whatever time of deployment, is a lot different from saying that someone must be allowed to walk out the door immediately, which is what is needed for our emergency response.

Volunteer firefighters are frequently absent from work for short, but indeterminate periods of time. As such, the goodwill agreement between the volunteer firefighters and their employers is best suited to meet the needs.

I noted a question earlier about the relationship with municipalities. As a former mayor, we had a volunteer firefighter department. There was generosity by the employers in terms of letting their employees go on these responses because they knew it could be them or a family member. The communities and the employers were incredibly generous, especially when it did not unduly disrupt what was happening.

In some ways, Bill C-504 is a proposed legislative fix to a non-existent problem. Across Canada, only two provinces have adopted this legislation, and they are Quebec and Nova Scotia. Collective agreements are telling us the same story. When reviewing a sample of more than 3,000 collective agreements, only two contained provisions related to volunteer firefighter duties.

Therefore, in the absence of a problem, the right approach to this is the status quo. We can trust employers and employees to come to an agreement which satisfies both the call of duty and local business needs.

Furthermore, there are many questions that have been left unanswered with this proposed legislation. It fails to clearly define certain concepts and conditions. For example, when would an employer have good cause to prevent an employee from leaving work? It is very unclear. Does that mean that with good cause, an employer could dismiss, suspend, lay off, demote, or discipline an employee for serving as a volunteer firefighter?

Also, when and how would an employee be required to inform the employer of his or her obligations as a volunteer firefighter?

Bill C-504 also fails to specify for which volunteer tasks an employee could leave work. There are a large number of responsibilities for volunteer firefighters.

My son is currently a volunteer firefighter, but they know he has to work it around his work schedule. He is a nurse in the intensive care unit and would have to travel 30 minutes to respond, so it would be very impractical in that case to have legislation that would compel his employer to allow him to go.

We know that there are a variety of tasks. Our volunteer firefighters have emergency responses, of course, but there is training, equipment and fire hall maintenance, fire prevention and education, inspections, fundraising, administration, and so on. There are many tasks, and we have not really clarified what they could respond to.

In conclusion, Bill C-504 is far too ambiguous. For these reasons, the government simply cannot support it.

I ask members to please not get me wrong. We recognize the very crucial role that our volunteer firefighters play in our communities and have taken action through such things as the provision of the volunteer firefighter tax credit. As the House may remember, that provision is available for firefighters who provide at least 200 hours of eligible service per calendar year at one or more fire departments. I am very proud to say that it benefited more than 30,000 firefighters in 2011.

The chiefs, firefighters, and volunteer firefighters in my communities have been asking for this volunteer firefighter tax credit for many years, but I have never had one of them approach me with the suggestion that there was any issue with their ability to come and go from work, especially in terms of the goodwill relationship.

In short, we have taken measurable action to support the men and women who bravely serve as our volunteer firefighters. They absolutely deserve our respect. They respond to emergency calls. They rescue people in distress and often save lives. Bill C-504 would not provide genuine protection, but would create confusion and inequity while putting an unnecessary burden on businesses across Canada.

We are certainly committed to ensuring that workplaces remain safe and productive and contribute to a prosperous Canadian economy. We will continue to work towards this commitment, but for all the reasons I mentioned earlier, our Conservative government cannot support this legislation.

Again, I do appreciate the member's reasons for bringing this bill forward. Her intentions were very honourable, but the best thing to say in summary is that this is a legislative solution in search of a non-existent problem.

Support for Volunteer Firefighters ActPrivate Member's Business

November 7th, 2013 / 5:45 p.m.
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Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Liberal Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to get up and speak to this particular bill on behalf of the party. I want to commend the member for Abitibi—Témiscamingue for bringing this forward for debate. She has brought it forward as a well-intentioned bill; but certainly, as my colleague from Kamloops—Thompson—Cariboo has indicated, there are aspects of this bill that remain unaddressed or vague or somewhat strange in the number of ways it could be applied. I am just not certain as to where the problem was that precipitated the bill's coming forward, so I was surprised to see it coming from a member who represents a rural constituency.

I have 50 volunteer fire departments in my riding. They go from Dominion to Donkin to Guysborough, Cheticamp and Port Hawkesbury. Every community has a volunteer fire department. We all stand and offer respect and gratitude to those who offer themselves up to help look over their family and friends in those rural communities. I have done a fair amount of work with the volunteer firefighters, not just in my riding, but nationally I was able to bring a private member's bill forward in the 37th Parliament. The essence of it was a tax deduction for those who put in 200 hours. The Conservatives took that and put it in a bigger omnibus bill. It was probably a rose among many thorns, so we were not able to support it at that time, but had it been broken free I know that my colleagues in my party would have supported it.

At that time, I was able to speak with a great number of volunteer fire department chiefs from across the country and a great number of volunteer firefighters. Never over the course of those discussions did this ever come out as an issue. Certainly in my consultations with the fire chiefs, they have been consistent year after year. Brent Denny from Cape Breton regional fire services has been a strong advocate for the fire chiefs. He is on the national executive and continues to do great work for that organization and for firefighters. They have been consistent year after year in identifying their key concerns, asking for government to designate 10 MHz of spectrum on the public safety broadband, which would provide volunteer fire services and first responders with state-of-the-art communications. This is something they have been advocating for over the last number of years. Improvement to fire services on first nations communities is another issue. They have banded together and are trying to rally for the creation of an independent national fire marshal for first nations communities.

We are very much aware of those initiatives, but this particular one was never heard coming from those whom it would most impact. Since receiving the private member's bill, I have communicated with those people and they still do not see it as being something that is, pardon the pun, a burning issue.

With regard to my party, I want to recognize the work by the member for Wascana who succeeded in passing Motion No. 388. This motion introduces a one-time $300,000 benefit for firefighters who were killed or disabled in the line of duty. It also provides firefighters with priority access to vaccines and medications, very similar to what front-line health care workers have to their avail now.

It calls for the inclusion of firefighter safety in the National Building Code. Again, that motion that was presented by the member for Wascana reflected issues and concerns that have been brought forward by firefighters and representatives over the years.

The other thing that concerns me, and I would think it should concern the members of the NDP as well, is that what we are doing is we are asking the government to change the Canada Labour Code. We know the Canada Labour Code is the bedrock, the foundation, for the relationship between employers and employees. We know it is fundamental.

We have seen the government put forward legislation in this chamber that has been an outright offence to that relationship. We saw the changes that it wanted to undertake in moving from a card check system to a system with a secret preferred ballot. That is a complete change to the relationship between employer and employee.

We have heard from unions that said if the government were to change the Canada Labour Code, it should be done through consultation and consensus. It should not be one-offing. The Sims report that was tabled in the late 1990s said we should not be political with this. The government of the day should not be involved in this. The relationship between employer and employee should be one that is built through consultation and consensus.

If we are going to attack the government for their wrong-minded approach on those changes to the labour code, then I think there has been a certain degree of consistency on the part of the opposition.

I do not know enough about the bill, and I was hoping to learn more through this debate this evening. I have not seen anything in the debate to make me say, “Oh, I get it now. I see where the problem was.” I would hope that over the course of this debate the member for Abitibi—Témiscamingue can bring forward some actual fact, some research, some position papers or voluntary positions put forward by those most impacted. Maybe she could give us some cases where hardship has been met by volunteer firefighters.

In the time that we have had to look at this issue, we just have not seen that. If that comes out over the course of the debate, then we will certainly take that into consideration. Making a change to the Canada Labour Code is something we should not take lightly as legislators.

I think my time is winding down. Each of us in rural communities, whether you are a paid firefighter or a volunteer first responder, know that probably the volunteer firefighters have it even tougher because they are expected to be trained. They have a full-time day job but are expected to be trained just as well as full-time firefighters. They are expected to deal with the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual impacts of being a first responder, of rushing into that house while everyone else is running out, showing up at the scene of a head-on collision on a highway, using the jaws of life or scraping an 18-year-old kid off the dash of a car. When those volunteer first responders do that type of thing, they then have to go back to the hall, change their gear and go back to work.

We believe what they do is important, what they do is noble. We appreciate their efforts. If we believe that in some way this helps those firefighters, then we will support the bill.

Support for Volunteer Firefighters ActPrivate Member's Business

November 7th, 2013 / 5:55 p.m.
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NDP

Matthew Kellway NDP Beaches—East York, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am rising today to voice my support for Bill C-504, and to thank my colleague from Abitibi—Témiscamingue for bringing forward such a practical and important bill.

I can only express profound disappointment at the twisted arguments, I have no other word for it, that have come forward from both the Conservatives and Liberals. On the one hand, the bill is criticized by the Conservatives for intervening in this relationship that we should just trust, but then the criticism goes on to say it is not prescriptive enough in its terms. They are ignoring that the very virtue of the bill is the fact that it touches on these things so lightly and leaves to the employer and the volunteer firefighter the opportunity to work out and inform the terms of good cause, et cetera, among themselves. Then we have the Liberals who come in and somehow draw this comparison between the desecrations visited on the Canada Labour Code by that government and the offences they caused to working people with this bill. It is absolutely beyond me how the member from the Liberal Party even dares make such a comparison.

Let me say that this bill puts forward for our consideration, and hopefully ultimately supports, a very concrete and realistic proposal, at no cost to government or employers, to keep our communities safer. The bill proposes to amend the Canada Labour Code to prohibit reprisals against volunteer or, in the terminology of the province of Quebec, part-time firefighters, who must either leave work or fail to appear at work to act in their capacity as firefighters.

Coming from the riding I come from, which is in the big city of Toronto, I have to put a bit of an urban twist on this one. In Toronto, we have a paid professional firefighting force. However, the implicit assumption I am making is that volunteers are volunteers and firefighters are firefighters, wherever they are found. There is implicit in this bill a clear statement about the critical importance of professional firefighters, whether volunteer or paid, to our own safety, the safety of our families and the safety of our communities.

I am happy to say that I live in a community that recognizes the important place of firefighters in our community and the risks they take, and are always prepared to take, for the safety of others.

Thanks in large part to Bob Murdoch and Gene Domagala, two long-standing, unfaltering and irrepressible pillars of the Beach community in my riding, and to the Centre 55 Community Centre, every year our community commemorates the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Present, and explicitly honoured at the commemoration every year, are firefighters, because 341 of the nearly 3,000 people who died on that day were firefighters. These were men and women who were not caught up in those tragic events on that day, but men and women who, as a matter of duty and incredible bravery, walked into an inferno for the sole purpose of saving others. The firefighters who perished on that day were members of the fire department of New York. However, those deaths and the bravery exhibited that day stand as a representation of all firefighters, in all places, every day. If members care to look, they would find on the website of the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation, a list of nearly 1,200 names, all fallen firefighters, all fallen in the discharge of their duty, and all Canadian.

It is an inherently dangerous job. I know it through 9/11 and the events of that day. I know it through the list of fallen firefighters. I say in all due modesty, and much is due, that l know this through my very brief experience not so long ago at the fire academy, in Toronto, on Eastern Avenue. Every year, the Toronto fire department and the Toronto firefighters' association invite Toronto's elected officials to participate in some firefighter training and take some time to walk in the boots of a firefighter.

I had the opportunity to participate, and, specifically, to enter a building with a mock fire and a burning bed and attempt the rescue of occupants in the house.

I want to thank the Toronto fire department and the Toronto firefighters' association for that experience. It confirmed for me that the job is dangerous. It is both physically and psychologically challenging. It is, in a word, scary. I suppose the firefighters who work together develop a means of communicating and working together as a team, but I was surprised, and indeed shocked, by how incredibly difficult it is in the circumstances of smoke, fire, and darkness to communicate with others.

The foregoing is to suggest that there is critically important and dangerous work firefighters, paid professionals or volunteers, do.

On the volunteer side of the equation, we know that the provision of volunteer firefighting services is built into the emergency response plans of some very large and economically significant corporations: Enbridge, Canadian National Railway, Canadian Pacific Railway, and TransCanada. These companies represent a large and important part of the infrastructure of our economy.

Sometimes, regrettably, tragically, this is not just about plans but is about what might transpire. It is about actual catastrophes. Over the past year, volunteer firefighters have been there to assist in two Canadian catastrophes that caught all our attention, no matter where we live in this country, catastrophes that will never be forgotten.

When fireballs and explosions from a train derailment rocked Lac Mégantic this past summer, killing almost 50 people and razing the small town, it was volunteer firefighters who were first called to action, and there they stayed, on the front lines of recovery efforts in that town, for weeks.

Of course, it is not just in the event of fire that we find volunteer firefighters. They are there to respond to natural disasters, as was the case this past summer with the floods in Alberta. With the assistance of corporate partners, volunteer firefighters provided portable charging machines and batteries and distributed much-needed funding to flood victims, among the many other important tasks that were required to restore normalcy in flood affected areas.

It is in this context of the stuff firefighters are made of, their courage and their dedication to our safety, and the critical work they do in times of disaster, that I want to return to this bill and its modest but critically important proposal.

It would give volunteer part-time firefighters who work for a company under federal jurisdiction the right to be absent from work if they are responding to a fire call and if the employer has been informed of this obligation ahead of time. It would prohibit reprisals against volunteer part-time firefighters who, to act in that capacity, must be absent from their workplaces, either by leaving work suddenly or by failing to appear at work. Also, it would prevent employers from refusing to hire people because they are volunteer or part-time firefighters.

In all of this, the legitimate concerns of employers of volunteer firefighters have been taken into consideration by my colleague in the drafting of this bill. The amendments to the Canada Labour Code would not allow for the departure of a volunteer firefighter if the result was endangerment of his or her co-workers.

However, at the beginning and end of the day, the fact remains that in rural and remote areas of this country and in small towns, Canadians depend on volunteer firefighters to protect, in part, their safety. Across this country, there are over 100,000 volunteer firefighters. That means that 85% of all firefighters in this country are protecting 80% of our communities.

Here in the House of Commons we should be doing what we need to do to ensure that Canadians are safe. That is, in part, at least, our responsibility. My colleague from Abitibi—Témiscamingue has made our job a bit easier today by putting forward this bill. I will be supporting it, and I encourage all members of this House to do the same.