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.