Mr. Speaker, I am extremely pleased to speak this Friday afternoon in support of the initiative by the hon. member for Malpeque and his Bill C-219, An Act to amend the Income Tax Act (deduction for volunteer emergency service).
I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the volunteer firefighters of Quebec, including those in my riding of Saint-Bruno—Saint-Hubert. I have a great deal of admiration for those who devote their free time and sacrifice time spent with family to help their community and rescue people in difficulty. I think it is only right to encourage these people, these volunteers, who risk their lives for the common good, and to show them our appreciation and give them a pat on the back to encourage them to keep up the good work.
Emergency service volunteers are recognized under the provincial and federal income tax acts. Currently, the first $1,000 received in a year for volunteer work is not taxable. Bill C-219 will increase that deduction to $1,000 for the first 100 hours worked and to $2,000 when the number of hours worked in a year has reached 200. This bill by the member for Malpeque comes from the heart and is intended to support people who help their community. We should thank the hon. member for this initiative.
In Quebec, out of roughly 24,000 municipal firefighters, more than 18,000, or roughly 75%, are volunteer or part-time firefighters. In other words, three municipal firefighters out of four are volunteer or part-time firefighters. Although we may not be going through the same volunteer shortage that other countries are experiencing right now, we do have to wonder about the future.
Volunteer firefighters have always been able to join the fire department without any specific provincial hiring or training criteria applying. In other words, it is up to the municipality involved to decide what training these firefighters must have in order to be hired at the fire department. While some require the nine initial modules of training, in other words, level I, others do not require any training. Often, the decision is based on local risk or available budgets. In that context, many volunteer firefighters have joined the ranks without any training. That is why qualified instructors are currently recognizing the skills these firefighters have acquired. In other words, they are verifying whether the firefighter's experience over the years corresponds to the municipality's desired level of training. Inevitably, this may have an impact on volunteer firefighting.
Éric Lacasse, president of the Association québécoise des pompiers volontaires et permanents stated, “I do not believe we will see an abandonment of the field, but with the skills assessment, clearly, firefighters with more experience will not be interested in investing time in training, especially since they are generally older and have been doing this work for many years. We must not forget that this is not their permanent or primary job.”
According to Mr. Lacasse, we should not expect major upheavals in the years to come, “I think that the wave of people annoyed by the skills assessment and who wanted to leave have already left. The most obvious impact, I think, will be the injection of young blood into fire departments. The average age will then be somewhere between 20 and 30 years old.”
How does the volunteer firefighter system work? I would like to talk about how the program works.
As in France and elsewhere, volunteer or part-time firefighters in Quebec have another job that ensures a steady income. Since they have occupational constraints that must be respected, the fire department provides them with digital or voice pagers so they may be reached when needed. On average, each fire brigade comprises approximately 20 firefighters who take turns being on duty. Thus, each volunteer firefighter is generally assigned one week of duty per month. However, some departments call upon all their firefighters at once. There seems to be no standard method of operation. When a firefighter is on duty, he or she must be available 24 hours a day, although they do not necessarily have to remain in the fire station, thanks to modern communication devices. When an emergency centre receives a call, the firefighters who must respond are notified at the same time.
A volunteer firefighter who is working at his or her regular job may get a call to respond to a fire.
Typically, prior agreements have been reached with the employer. Everything depends on the employer's flexibility. Some are reluctant, while others have no problem with this constraint, depending, of course, on the nature of the business. However, in most cases, an employee who leaves work to fulfill his or her duties as a volunteer firefighter receives no financial compensation whatsoever.
Therefore, it makes sense to clarify that, under section 154 of the Quebec Fire Safety Act, an employer can be fined from $200 to $1,000 for refusing to allow an employee to leave work to act as an on-call firefighter without good cause. However, the firefighter must have already informed the employer of his or her duties as a firefighter and must advise the employer in the event the firefighter must leave work precipitously to respond to a fire. The employer must also be informed of the nature and frequency of such interventions.
Furthermore, every employee is required to communicate with the employer before leaving the workplace. Of course, this section applies to firefighting activities, not to prevention, training or maintenance. Also, a labour commissioner serving as conflict arbitrator is empowered to determine whether the employer's refusal to cooperate is justifiable if the absence of the employee from work could result in a loss. If the employee considers himself or herself to be a victim of discriminatory measures, he or she may appeal to the labour commissioner.
With respect to payment, municipalities are responsible for determining rates of pay. Some firefighting organizations pay firefighters about $10 per hour spent fighting fires, while others pay up to $20. I would note that these amounts are paid only for time spent fighting fires, not for time on call. Wealthier municipalities may offer various lump sums to their firefighters, but this practice is less common.
Firefighters do not sign a contract upon entering into service. They go through a 12-month probationary period. Upon successful completion of the probationary period, the firefighter is taken on strength for an indeterminate period of time. This means that they can be released from their commitments at any time.
Last week, following a federal-provincial meeting, this Conservative government, led by the Minister of Labour, proposed a bill to protect the jobs of reservists. It wants to require businesses to hold the jobs of reservists who temporarily leave their jobs to go to fight in Afghanistan. It wants to prohibit companies from refusing to hire reservists because they could be called to go to war. It wants to give privileges to reserve soldiers who have student loans. In short, the Minister of Labour's bill would free reservists from professional and financial restrictions that often make them hesitate to serve in Afghanistan.
What a surprise. Could it be that this government wants private businesses to do more than it does? Does it want these businesses to treat their part-time employees better than the government itself treats its full-time employees? This government is not leading by example. It wants to place restrictions on companies that it will not abide by itself. It wants everything for its soldiers and for the war in Afghanistan, but nothing for volunteer firefighters, people who save lives.
By not supporting this bill, the government is clearly showing once again that it has a military rather than humanitarian focus and that this deliberate choice is not restricted to Afghanistan. Here, every day, this Conservative government is obsessed with law and order, prison, firearms, prison sentences, war, machine guns, drones and military helicopters. It is not promoting the death penalty internationally, but it no longer stands in solidarity with countries and agencies that want to prohibit the death penalty.
This government is not telling us the truth when it talks about the torture of prisoners in Afghanistan.
This Conservative government does not have the same values as the nation of Quebec. It does not share the values of solidarity, and it will therefore never be able to defend the interests of Quebeckers and volunteer firefighters.