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House of Commons Hansard #76 of the 35th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was self-government.

Topics

Voluntary FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

6 p.m.

Reform

Herb Grubel Reform Capilano—Howe Sound, BC

Madam Speaker, I rise to praise the motion placed before the House today by the hon. member for Haldimand-Norfolk. I share totally his views about the great job done by volunteer firefighters. They are a dedicated, hard-working group of people to whom all of us owe a great debt.

In my riding of Capilano-Howe Sound several communities rely heavily on the work of volunteers. In Squamish, 55 volunteers complement a core of six full time firefighters. Pemberton and Lions Bay rely entirely on 20 volunteers for their protection from fire.

In the beautiful resort community of Whistler, 11 professionals rely on the help of 36 volunteers. I feel particularly close to this group because I have attended their annual ball. These people not only know how to have fun, they also show their dedication to public welfare by using the occasion to raise substantial funds for charity. I feel closer also to these Whistler firefighters because I have seen them in action when they took care of a chimney fire in the house of one of my neighbours. Hearing the roar of such a fire in the stillness of a snowy winter evening is an unforgettable experience. Seeing their professionalism in dealing with this inferno has made me an eternal fan of theirs.

I would also like to tell you, Madam Speaker, that Whistler is a very dry and hot place in the summer. Trees and bushes grow between the many wooden houses. I have often descended into the valley on the chair lift and was very uneasy thinking about the scene before me, how easily a small fire could spread through the community, leaping from house to house through the low brush, fanned by the famous Squamish winds. The property damage would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. There would be great risks for people and animals. However I find myself reassured by the knowledge that the large contingent of very competent firefighters is there, quickly and at all times, to deal with any small fire before it erupts into a major conflagration.

At any rate, I hope that they will forever be able to maintain the enviable record they have established during the 30-year history of the Whistler community. No fire has ever gone out of control.

The professional and volunteer firefighters in my riding can be counted on, not just to fight fires, but to provide valuable services in all kinds of other emergencies. Just a couple of weeks ago they had to use the jaws of life to free from a car a severely injured motorist and two others. Their efforts came too late for the two who died in the accident.

The Whistler firefighters are superbly skilled in their task. Last year they won first place in a provincial competition testing their rescue skills. They are about to enter this competition again and I wish them the best of luck.

I support the idea that the federal government should make a solid contribution to the well-being of these dedicated people. They save citizens local taxes which would have to be raised if they were to be replaced by professionals.

Therefore It seems very fitting that the private member's motion being discussed should urge the government to raise the amount of fees which are freed from taxation. However, given the government's current financial conditions, members must be very vigilant not to add to the deficit. In this spirit, I therefore suggest that the proposal be modified to make it less costly. I propose that the government raise the allowance annually by the increase in the consumer price index, using the $500 limit in 1980 as a base. In my view this approach would be fair and I am sure that it would be acceptable as such to the volunteer firefighters who make such great contributions to public welfare.

The sentiments which I have expressed are not just mine. They are also shared by my hon. colleagues from the Reform caucus, in particular those representing the following ridings: Prince George-Bulkley Valley; Kindersley-Lloydminster; Fraser Valley East; Kootenay East; Nanaimo-Cowichan; Okanagan-Shuswap; Macleod; Saanich-Gulf Islands; Lisgar-Marquette; Yellowhead; Athabasca; Surrey-White Rock- South Langley; Okanagan Centre; Surrey North; Calgary Southeast; Okanagan-Similkameen-Merritt; Wild Rose; Lethbridge; Red Deer; and Calgary Northeast.

Voluntary FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

6:05 p.m.

Liberal

Guy Arseneault Liberal Restigouche—Chaleur, NB

Madam Speaker, I have been listening quite closely to the comments of the various members of the three parties. I gather there is some support for the motion.

I wonder if we could have unanimous consent to approve the following motion and then continue on with the debate. I would like the unanimous consent of the House for the following motion. I move:

That this motion be votable.

Voluntary FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

6:05 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mrs. Maheu)

Could I have some precision on the motion. Are you suggesting that we stop the debate now or do you want debate to go on?

Voluntary FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

6:05 p.m.

Liberal

Guy Arseneault Liberal Restigouche—Chaleur, NB

I know it is a little unusual, but with unanimous consent we can do that because we do have some speakers who want to continue speaking. I would ask for unanimous consent that the motion be votable at the end of the hour.

Voluntary FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

6:05 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mrs. Maheu)

The House has heard the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Voluntary FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

6:05 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

(Motion agreed to.)

Voluntary FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

6:05 p.m.

Liberal

Guy Arseneault Liberal Restigouche—Chaleur, NB

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to be able to speak to this motion which, I think, is very important to all Canadians.

I would like to start by commending the hon. member for Haldimand-Norfolk for all the work he has done on this very important issue. It is not the first time he has raised this issue in the House. I remember very clearly having worked with him on this issue in the last parliamentary session. It is very encouraging to see someone who does not forget the issues he considers important. I commend the hon. member for Haldimand-Norfolk for his tenacity and his dedication. I am proud to rise today in support of this motion.

I had written in my notes that I was disappointed that the motion was not votable but I see that this has been changed with the unanimous consent of the House. I am very proud and very happy to say that the motion is now votable. I thank the hon. members, my colleagues. I urge all hon. members to maintain a spirit of co-operation in this House.

This motion is in keeping with the government's policy of restoring integrity and equity to the political system. The government looked at the issue of student loans and at other things and set out to ensure that the loan values honestly reflect the cost of post-secondary studies. The time has come to apply this equity principle to volunteer firefighters.

Volunteer firefighters do exceptional work. The dedication they bring to their communities is very important. They encourage volunteerism in our country.

I am very pleased to be able to speak this evening on this issue. I am also pleased that the member for Haldimand-Norfolk has brought it to the House once again. His motion asks that the voluntary firefighter's tax exemption be raised from $500 to $1,000 to make it more meaningful in the context of inflation and the valuable service these volunteers provide to their communities. Such a move is in keeping with the government's policy of restoring integrity and especially equity to the fiscal system.

The government has looked at the issue of student loans and set out to ensure that the value of the loans honestly reflects the cost of studying. If I can compare the volunteer firemen with the students, they are doing a service to the community and it is costing them money. Therefore, we should have some type of equity built into the system. I believe this motion does that.

We have heard the member from the Reform Party and the member from the Bloc Quebecois speak about the firefighters in their regions. I suspect their thoughts would be unanimous right across Canada, that these firefighters do exceptional work in their communities. These are volunteers. They do work that goes far beyond the call of duty. They even encourage the spirit of volunteerism.

In this day and age everyone is out for the almighty dollar and we see limited numbers of people getting involved in their communities. A lot of them are becoming armchair activists. These firefighters are the people out on the front line and it is our responsibility to make sure that we, not necessarily reward them financially every time they do something, but put justice in the system so it is not costing them to be a volunteer. I would suspect that should go for other groups as well.

The firefighters in my area, and I am sure other members will be speaking about their firefighters, are no different from those in other areas. They are all well trained. They are on duty24 hours a day, basically on call on weekends, at night, in the middle of storms when we are home asleep or comfortable reading the newspaper or pursuing our favourite pastime, watching the parliamentary channel. These people are well trained in first aid, CPR and emergency operations.

Their work is pleasant in certain circumstances, but quite often it is not. They are on the scene of emergencies. They are on the scene at fires and car accidents. Quite often these scenes bother them, but someone has to do the job.

They help young people in distress. I know the volunteer firefighters in my area are always involved with educational programs and fire prevention. They are helpful. They are in malls. In fact just last weekend we were in the mall in my hometown. I had my son with me. We were walking along and who do we see but a number of firemen giving out pamphlets to the parents and the children were receiving balloons. They were giving out safety advice to the parents on how to protect their children in crowds, how to keep better rapport with the children. That is beyond the call of duty. These are volunteers. They not only teach children about fire safety, they teach parents how to be safe with their children.

Quite often they raise money for community events. They raise money for charities. They raise money for their own uniforms quite often. They raise money for equipment that the community cannot afford such as the jaws of life. It is usually the firefighters who hold bingos and some even have auxiliaries that help out. They hold bingos, sell tickets and have door to door campaigns. They are always involved with this type of activity.

Often the only remuneration these men and women receive is some type of honorarium to cover the out of pocket expenses incurred while dealing with fires and assorted emergencies or attending training sessions.

The Income Tax Act exempts from taxation the first $500 of allowances received by volunteer firefighters. Since 1980 this level has remained constant at $500. As a result of this constant $500 level the government is now penalizing a lot of these volunteers. Because of inflation it is costing them more money to be volunteer firefighters than if they stayed home and did nothing.

Our volunteer firefighters are now paying for the service they actually provide to the community. This is over and above the time and effort they have already donated. If we were to add up all of the hours, we would never be able to afford these firefighters as full time workers. Nor could we ever afford volunteers in other sectors if we had to pay them. Therefore, it is only fair that the government increase this exemption from$500 to $1,000.

These volunteers no doubt have saved communities right across this country millions of dollars. The cost of this measure is well below the savings generated by these volunteers.

The expenses incurred by the voluntary firefighters often exceed this tax exemption of $500. The cost of gasoline, car insurance, clothing and dry cleaning, for example, has become prohibitive. So, it would be in the interests of voluntary firefighters to increase the tax exemption.

In conclusion I congratulate the member for Haldimand-Norfolk. As I mentioned before he presented this motion in the last Parliament. I congratulate him for his tenacity and his devotion to this cause. I support this motion and I hope all members will see fit to support it when the time comes.

As the member for Restigouche-Chaleur, I would like to thank all the volunteers in my region.

I want to salute and thank the voluntary firefighters.

Voluntary FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

6:15 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Steckle Liberal Huron—Bruce, ON

Madam Speaker, it is a great pleasure for me this evening to speak on this important private member's motion. I congratulate the hon. member for Haldimand-Norfolk for his hard work and diligence in the preparation of this motion and for his dedication to the volunteer firefighters who put their lives on the line every time they are called out.

The member has been working for a long time to get this motion passed in this House. I am confident all members will see the benefits of this motion and will call on the government to consider amending the volunteer firefighter's tax exemption from $500 to $1,000.

The Income Tax Act currently exempts $500 from taxation. This had been increased from $300 to $500 in the 1980 taxation year. Looking at inflation since that time based on 14 years it is certainly due time we recognize the firefighters for their efforts and the kind of work they do for their communities.

This is not the first time this motion has been presented. In one form or another it has been brought into this House on other occasions. This topic was discussed even as far back as 1982 and again in 1983. In 1989 the member for Haldimand-Norfolk reintroduced the motion.

I trust the next time we speak on this issue we will be passing the motion into law and finally giving volunteer firefighters the increased level of tax exemption they deserve. I saw the spirit and goodwill which can prevail in this House this evening in allowing this motion to become a votable one. I applaud members opposite and on this side as well for their diligence in doing this.

In the past members who opposed similar motions were worried about pitting one volunteer group against another. This is not the case in this evening's debate. All the motion says is that it is time to give proper recognition to our firefighters, recognition in the form of increased tax exemptions. This is not a question of developing a new exemption, but recognition of

the fact that the current exemption is not sufficient because of the effects of inflation over the past 14 years.

All across the country thousands of brave men and women, volunteer firefighters, offer their services to fire departments, fire associations and auxiliaries. Even in larger communities volunteer firefighters are heavily relied upon by full time firefighting forces. Without volunteer firefighters full time departments would not be able to provide the level of protection and service needed by communities.

I would like to read into the record the names of some of the departments and auxiliaries I represent as the MP for Huron-Bruce. I think of the towns of Zurich, my own home town where I have family members serving on that fire department, Wingham, Kincardine, Lucknow, Southhampton, Seaforth, Exeter, Hensall, and Bayfield. For those who do not know my riding there are places such as Dashwood and Huron Park which would be pleased to be recognized as also having volunteer fire departments.

I look forward to this coming Saturday when I will have breakfast with firefighters from the Brucefield Fire Department. I also had the pleasure of serving as one of the board members of the Bayfield volunteer fire department during my many years in municipal politics.

I congratulate all the firefighters of Huron-Bruce for the exceptional job they have done for us all these years. These brave men and women provide an invaluable service to the people of their communities. They literally have the lives of their friends, families, and neighbours in their hands every time they are called out. They serve their communities with honour, dignity and pride. It is for this reason we must acknowledge their importance and allow them exemptions of $1,000 in recognition of their important duties to their community.

The hon. member for Haldimand-Norfolk has better knowledge than some on the importance and value of volunteer firefighters. I can think of no better example of the dedication and bravery of volunteer firefighters than the Hagersville tire fire. That fire was deliberately set and took the time of many firefighters for many days. The extremely dangerous and volatile situation forced hundreds of families to be evacuated from their homes.

Who came to the rescue and became the first line of defence for the people in that area? Of course it was the volunteer firefighters of the local communities. They were outgunned by the fire but they persevered. After many long days, sleepless nights and personal sacrifice and hardship, they were able with some help to defeat the fire.

This is a great example of the dedication and professionalism of volunteer firefighters. Most of the time these individuals are ordinary people: farmers in our communities, store owners, plumbers, electricians, and so on. Once they are called upon to put on their hats and boots they become the protectors of their communities.

Often when called these men and women are docked pay from their wages so they can serve their communities. I would like to recognize the employers who in many cases continue to pay the wages of their employees when they are out fighting fires for their communities or doing those other services normally attributed to fire departments.

In addition to the financial cost, they experience personal sacrifice in terms of loss of time with their families and physical and mental strain. I am sure many of us tonight can relate to an incident where family members were called away from an important family occasion because of a fire or because of an emergency within the community.

Volunteer firefighters do not just protect their communities, they also volunteer their time and resources to charitable causes and community events. As the hon. member for Haldimand-Norfolk has already mentioned, these men and women volunteer for everything from supporting and organizing minor hockey and softball to raising money for the needy and organizing holiday events and celebrations.

They are an integral part of their community. After all, what we are really talking about is a sense of responsibility of community and volunteerism. In today's world of financial hardships, increases in violent crime and deterioration of family values, we are relying more and more on the help, protection and generosity of others.

I am sure that every member has in the past and will continue in the future to volunteer in some capacity to some worthwhile charity or cause. In every community across this vast country volunteers are lending a helping hand to many different people and worthwhile causes. The elderly, the young, the disadvantaged and the disabled all rely on a growing group of generous people for support.

We must do everything we can to encourage these types of actions and therefore when it comes to giving some tax breaks to a group of people who protect their communities, I fully support this initiative and feel its passage is long overdue.

In conclusion, I would once again like to commend my colleague from Haldimand-Norfolk for being persistent in giving the volunteer firefighters of Canada the recognition and support they deserve.

Voluntary FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

6:25 p.m.

Liberal

Murray Calder Liberal Wellington—Grey—Dufferin—Simcoe, ON

Madam Speaker, I welcome the opportunity to speak today on the motion presented by my colleague from Haldimand-Norfolk.

The motion recommends that the government amend the voluntary firefighter's tax exemption from $500 to $1,000 in order to account for inflation and recognize the value of their services to the community. Most Canadians probably do not recognize the importance of our volunteer firefighters and I would like to look at some of the stats.

Nationally there are 76,000 volunteer firefighters. Over65 per cent or 17,000 of the 26,000 firefighters in Ontario alone are volunteers. Ninety-five per cent of the province's 653 fire departments are staffed in whole or in part by them.

The legislative reference to this motion is section 6(1) of the Income Tax Act. This section exempts the first $500 from taxation of allowances received by the firefighter. Raising the level or threshold is not a new idea. In the 1980 fiscal year the amount was increased from $300 to $500 as was previously stated and there have been no increases since 1980 despite substantial increases in inflation and the cost of living.

There are really two issues here: first, to update the tax provision which is outdated and no longer representative of today's buying power; second, the issue of fairness in providing recognition to those thousands of volunteers. Clearly without volunteers many communities would not have fire protection.

This is not an exaggeration but a recognition that many rural communities simply do not have the financial resources to pay for full time firefighters. Even with volunteers many communities in my riding are still dependent on shared services with their neighbouring municipalities. I would like to take a couple of minutes to give members a personal position on this.

In the late 1960s we had a fire on our farm. We have a poultry farm. It was a three storey building, 21,000 square feet, and it caught on fire. It is dead centre on our farm. We had a century old farmhouse. There was a drive-in shed and two more barns on the other side.

The heat was so intense it broke every window on one side of the farmhouse. There was a 2,000 litre propane tank in front of the barn. The firefighters helped us that night to move that tank away. There would have been a huge hole in the ground had that not been done. They could not save the barn, but they saved the house, the drive-in shed and the two other barns. A lot of it was in jeopardy of their own lives.

What would the cost be of increasing the exemption? I believe this point was raised earlier by another speaker. The cost of full utilization of the new exemption is estimated to be $38 million. This is a lot of money and yet what volunteer firefighters provide our communities offsets this lost revenue. Without these volunteers a community would either have to forgo fire protection or hire a full time force at a staggering price, a lot more than what I have just mentioned. The resulting increases in municipal taxes necessary would be prohibitive.

Let us move on beyond dollars and take a closer look at these people in our community. These volunteers are busy people who hold down full time jobs and yet have time to devote to their community. I know that every Thursday evening in many of the towns and villages in my riding firefighters hold drill practices. Often they will go on training sessions held in different parts of the provinces at their own expense.

A volunteer force is a term used to distinguish it from a paid or professional force. These are terms I do not like to use because there is nothing unprofessional about these volunteer firefighters. Beyond firefighting they are called upon to perform a host of other duties. They are trained in CPR, first aid, highway accident rescues and other emergencies.

Regarding highway accident rescues, it could be a father heading out to an accident in which his own son or daughter could be involved. That is a great emotional point.

One emergency in particular that comes to mind in my riding is the tornado touchdown both in Grand Valley and the Orangeville areas. This week marks its grizzly anniversary.

Beyond these duties firefighters selflessly devote their time to parades, fire safety awareness campaigns, sponsorship of local causes and fundraising events to help sustain their service. Not only do they do their own work for nothing but they also have to go out and raise money for their own fire department. Almost all of this is done at their own personal expense in terms of time and money.

I believe that this motion is significant in that it provides recognition by this House of the work our volunteer firefighters do and I am thankful for the opportunity to speak in support of it.

Voluntary FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

6:30 p.m.

Liberal

Andrew Telegdi Liberal Waterloo, ON

Madam Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise on this motion and to commend my colleague from Haldimand-Norfolk in his initiative.

There is no question that increasing the deduction from$500 to $1,000 for volunteer firefighters is long overdue.

In my capacity as local councillor I have had exposure to both professional and volunteer firefighters. In my community the quality of life would not be the same if it did not have volunteer firefighters. In a rural community it would be impossible to have a professional firefighter force.

When we talk about volunteer firefighters we are talking about volunteerism at its best. There is a real melting pot, what the community is about, and there are people who respond at all hours of the night, leaving their jobs to do so. There is no question that their employers are to be commended as well. I

really hope that at some point we do something to recognize firefighters in general.

I have attended far too many funerals involving firefighters. I recall part of the firefighter's prayer: "God, if it is your will that in the line of duty to save a child or a life I give my life, then I ask that you take care of my children and my wife". That kind of selfless devotion to duty and devotion to our fellow human beings is to be commended and recognized. I believe that this issue should be redressed and redressed now.

Voluntary FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

6:35 p.m.

Liberal

Len Hopkins Liberal Renfrew—Nipissing—Pembroke, ON

Madam Speaker, I too compliment the hon. member for Haldimand-Norfolk on this initiative. There is nothing greater than a good volunteer fire department in the community. We all hope that we never need it, but that when it is needed it is there.

When I was first elected to a municipal council in my home township, I was appointed chairman of the local fire committee and public works committee. We started a very good fire department made up of a group of people who wanted to work for their community, who had been doing some work in it but had no equipment with which to work. We ended up giving them some equipment.

Over the years, they like those in many other rural communities have built up their resources and firefighting equipment. They have taken special courses, visited schools to talk about fires and how to prevent them, and have gone into homes to make inspections.

As the hon. member for Haldimand-Norfolk knows, these are not just everyday citizens out there fighting fires. They are indeed professionals in their own way. They deserve our credit. They deserve to have the volunteer firefighter's tax exemption as recommended by the hon. member for Haldimand-Norfolk.

The hon. member for Restigouche-Chaleur mentioned the jaws of life. What could be more important in today's robust and rapidly moving world with the highway traffic and railway traffic, particularly if it runs through the middle of a built up community, than to have the jaws of life on those highways and roads in order to save people's lives. Our firefighters are very, very well trained to operate the jaws of life.

They carry out all these dedicated tasks together in their home community, but it goes far beyond that because they work with fire departments in neighbouring communities. Within a matter of a very short time a number of these departments can come together to fight a large regional fire.

I believe that rural Canada, our small villages and towns, are very well served by volunteer firefighters. I think they deserve the attention of this House. They deserve the consideration of this House for a greater tax exemption. It costs them a lot of money for clothing that is ruined and that does not come cheaply.

We are not asking much for them. The hon. member for Haldimand-Norfolk probably knows many of these people. It is nothing for them to have to buy new clothing after a fire. They have to buy protective clothing as well which costs a lot of money.

Fire departments do raise money on their own. It is a co-operative thing for them to do. There is a good rapport among those firefighters and their families. They do fundraising and it is up to our communities to support them because they are there to support us in time of need.

It is very important too that all Canadians, including volunteers, realize that if it were not for volunteers in every walk and every area of life such as recreation and firefighting, there would be many qualities of life that we would not have in rural Canada today and indeed in larger communities as well.

Let us not just talk here in terms of rhetoric in the House of Commons about giving a tax deduction to volunteer firefighters. I think we should mean business on this because these people are a very important part of every small community in this country.

If we did not have volunteer firefighters to support and to look after people at times of grass fires, bush fires, brush fires, house fires, barn fires and road accidents, as has been mentioned it would cost this nation and individual taxpayers a lot more money than it is costing today under our volunteer firefighters program.

Let us give these people every good turn that we can and say thank you to them by giving them a tax exemption.

Once more I compliment the hon. member for Haldimand-Norfolk and other members in the House who have spoken today on behalf of the volunteer firefighters across Canada.

Voluntary FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

6:35 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mrs. Maheu)

Is the House ready for the question?

Voluntary FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

6:35 p.m.

Some hon. members

Question.

Voluntary FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

6:35 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mrs. Maheu)

Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

Voluntary FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

6:35 p.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Voluntary FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

6:35 p.m.

An hon. member

On division.

(Motion agreed to.)

Voluntary FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

6:35 p.m.

The Acting Speaker (Mrs. Maheu)

The time provided for the consideration of Private Members' Business has now expired.

It being 6.42 p.m., the House stands adjourned until tomorrow at 10 a.m. pursuant to Standing Order 24(1).

(The House adjourned at 6.42 p.m.)