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House of Commons Hansard #53 of the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was troops.

Topics

The House resumed from February 1 consideration of the motion that Bill C-219, An Act to amend the Income Tax Act (deduction for volunteer emergency service), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11 a.m.

Conservative

Gary Schellenberger Conservative Perth—Wellington, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am privileged to join in today's debate on Bill C-219, if for no other reason than to spend a moment talking about what emergency service volunteers, especially our volunteer firefighters, mean to communities across Canada.

I do not believe that anyone in the House would argue the notion that we as a society tend to have an elevated view, and rightly so, of those among us who don the uniform of the firefighter, if not for the risks they take, then for the noble purpose for which they take them in the service of others and their communities.

It is little wonder that Edward F. Croker, a New York City fire department chief in the early 1900s and a pioneer in the movement to safeguard against fire hazards, once remarked:

When a man becomes a fireman his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work.

That sentiment of gratitude and respect is especially true in smaller communities and towns in Canada, places where, amazingly to many of us, firefighters serve voluntarily in addition to their regular 7 to 3, 3 to 11 or 11 to 7 work duties. Or he or she may be a small business owner.

These men and women are ready to serve their communities at any hour, night or day. They serve in circumstances of grave danger to their own personal safety. As Mike Walsh, past president of the Canadian Volunteer Fire Services Association, noted:

Volunteer firefighters are the first-line defenders against many domestic threats involving fire, medical emergencies, hazardous materials, motor vehicle accidents and rescues....

With every call and every fire, these brave men and women face consequences that we would rather not contemplate, because our heroes are not supposed to die.

But they do. They are heroes like Gary Bryant. Mr. Bryant was a member of the 24-person Wolfe Island volunteer fire department in the Kingston, Ontario area. A few years back, Mr. Bryant tragically passed away in the line of duty. His colleagues and friends remembered him as a human being who put his community before himself. As one close friend noted, “To Gary, everybody came before him”.

Wolfe Island volunteer fire chief James White recalled a man who was very eager to join the fire department because he wanted to “give back to the community”, a community for which he would make the ultimate sacrifice, a sacrifice few of us have the inner strength to even consider. That is why, as Chief White sombrely remarked, we should “be proud of him because he died as a hero to us”, a hero to us in life and in death. And so we honour and thank them all.

As legislators, though, we can and do thank them with more than mere words. We can thank them by supporting their efforts. That is why I was so pleased when my government's last budget included an important measure to assist firefighters to ensure they have the training they need to safely and effectively react to emergencies.

A key part of that means helping them deal with hazardous materials, including chemical and biological emergencies. Do members know that volunteer firefighters are an integral part of our emergency measures plans all across Canada? That is why budget 2007 provided $1 million to the Canadian arm of the International Association of Fire Fighters to help put in place a hazardous materials training program, which is available to all first responders such as firefighters.

IAFF general president Harold Schaitberger hailed that announcement as a major advance for public and first responder safety in Canada and expressed his gratitude to the government for “listening to the IAFF and acting decisively on this issue”.

Local fire departments also welcomed the announcement. Bruce Carpenter, a firefighter in St. Catharines, Ontario, and the IAFF's 13th District vice-president for Ontario and Manitoba, said:

With the announcement in Budget 2007 to fund the IAFF's training programs in Canada, the Conservative government has demonstrated that it's serious about public safety and about protecting Canadians and Canadian first responders from the aftermath of a haz-mat or CBRN incident.

The income tax system also includes measures to support our emergency service volunteers. Presently under the current Income Tax Act rules, volunteers can receive honoraria from a public authority of up to $1,000 exempt from income tax, meaning they pay no tax on the first $1,000 they receive from a public authority.

That brings us to the measure under debate today, one that is very similar to two unsuccessful ones proposed and previously debated in the 37th and 38th Parliaments, one of which, in fact, was voted against by the Liberal member sponsoring this bill.

This proposal, somewhat like the previous two, seeks to establish a tax deduction for emergency service volunteers who do not qualify for the existing $1,000 income tax exemption. More precisely, the proposed bill would allow qualifying emergency service volunteers to deduct from their income tax between $1,000 and $2,000 depending upon the number of hours volunteered.

However, as we move forward, we must recall that very similar proposals have been defeated twice after concerns were raised by members of this House and at the Standing Committee on Finance, concerns ranging from equity, physical cost and complexity to the definitional issues and effectiveness.

For example, some people have suggested that such a proposal would provide no relief for volunteers with little or no taxable income. Others contend that it will only add administrative complexity for both the volunteer organizations and the volunteers themselves, while yet others feel that it fails to clearly define who should be considered an emergency service volunteer. These concerns and many others were raised by the all party Standing Committee on Finance when it recommended that the House not proceed with a nearly identical piece of legislation in 2005.

What is surprising, considering that a Liberal member has sponsored this legislation, is the degree to which some of his current colleagues have been critical of similar legislation in the past and the tenor of that criticism.

Let us consider that his Liberal colleague from Richmond Hill once stated that such a measure:

--would hardly be fair or reasonable from the perspective of other persons who also contribute to society.

For instance, consider the plight of a single parent of young children working at a fast food restaurant. This person probably has little time to devote to volunteer activities and thus could not gain access to the deduction because he or she is raising young children, and yet the worker's income is fully subject to taxation.

Or what about his Liberal colleague from Notre-Dame-de-Grâce—Lachine, who scorned such a proposal, remarking that it would be “difficult to justify to other Canadians who work at low wage jobs” and that it would “put a value on one type of volunteerism as opposed to others”.

As well, the Liberal member for Halifax West dismissed a similar bill by simply saying:

I do not see that this bill is going to make it more likely that we will have more volunteers in our society.

Plainly as we move forward there will be certain questions that must be addressed when undertaking a thorough examination of the issues surrounding such a proposal, but what cannot and will not be questioned is our unresolved gratitude and admiration for those brave men and women who give of themselves so selflessly, heroes like Gary Bryant.

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11:10 a.m.

Bloc

Paul Crête Bloc Montmagny—L'Islet—Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup, QC

Mr. Speaker, speaking to a bill like this one is a wonderful way to start the week. This bill would improve tax deductions for volunteer firefighters. It would also apply to volunteer ambulance technicians and to volunteers who assist in the search and rescue of individuals or in other emergency situations. It would apply to anyone considered to be a first responder.

The initiative of the member for Malpeque deserves our support; however, we must be careful not to turn this into a partisan issue.

The maximum deduction for a volunteer firefighter is currently $1,000. I have represented a rural area for 15 years, and I know what a valuable contribution volunteer firefighters make to society. There are a few women, but the volunteers are primarily men. These men have other jobs and agree to training so that they are prepared to fight fires. They also work hard on fire prevention.

I currently represent the regional county municipalities of Montmagny, L'Islet, Kamouraska and Rivière-du-Loup, but I have also represented Témiscouata and Les Basques in the past. I had the opportunity to attend several competitions in these regions to showcase the work done by these volunteers. I can say that one does not agree to be a volunteer firefighter in order to fulfill an administrative role. These people must carry heavy equipment and be prepared to face dangerous situations, and are occasionally called on to save lives.

In turn, our society has decided to offer them a $1,000 tax deduction, to which I think they are fully entitled. The member is suggesting that we increase the deduction to $2,000 when an individual volunteers 200 hours in a year. This is not too much to ask. This amount better reflects the current reality facing these volunteers. I hope that, after the debate in this House, the vote will enable us to examine this bill more closely.

My Conservative colleague who spoke before me alluded to previous debates, when it was argued that this measure was not totally warranted and would not necessarily help boost volunteerism. We have to consider these remarks as constructive proposals.

The committee members will have to make sure that this measure is in keeping with the spirit of the Income Tax Act, but also that this additional recognition is feasible. The men and women who do this work do it voluntarily; it is a choice they make. They are compensated for what they do, but often this compensation amounts to no more than they are already making at their regular jobs.

People tend to make a personal choice to become a volunteer firefighter. They are contributing to the quality of life in their community. Essentially, their aim is to prevent, as much as possible, fires that cause property damage and sometimes cost human lives. There have been disasters in the past.

Volunteer firefighters have been around for some time now. Decades ago, there were far more fires out in the country than there are today. Mutual insurance companies had to be created so that people whose homes had unfortunately been destroyed by fire would have a future. A number of prevention measures were developed, and one duty of volunteer firefighters is to promote them.

Initially, volunteer firefighters stepped forward out of the goodness of their heart in the event of a fire. Over the years, their job has become increasingly complex. They have to take a number of training courses, and the cost of that training is not necessarily covered by the tax deduction. It covers only costs associated with fighting fires or providing emergency assistance.

From the standpoint of recruitment to renew the ranks of volunteer firefighters, this measure serves as an added incentive or benefit for someone who has obtained his employer's authorization to leave work when called to respond to an emergency. Such a person should not be penalized, but should be able to benefit from this very minor tax advantage, which at the very least would enable him to keep on volunteering.

Under the bill presented by the hon. member for Malpeque, a person who meets specific criteria—they get a $1,000 deduction for the first 100 hours of work and up to $2,000 when the number of hours worked in the year reaches 200—is sent a T4/Relevé 1 form by the government for this income. The first $1,000 will be excluded from the slips since that amount is not taxable.

The purpose of Bill C-219 before us is to improve the tax exemption by making it $1,000 when a person has worked 100 hours and $2,000 when that person has worked 200 hours, in order to take into account roughly the average salary that a volunteer firefighter could make.

However, if the person is employed in a non volunteer capacity to provide the same services or similar services, then they cannot benefit from the federal deduction. It is not a question of granting a deduction to someone who already performs a similar task in their regular job, but to someone who made the personal choice to devote themselves to this type of role in their community when they already have an entirely different job.

The big cities have permanent and regular firefighters. Throughout rural Quebec and Canada the people concerned have to take very rigorous and demanding training to help them not only prevent fires, but also develop a sense of discipline to cope with any emergency situation. On occasion I have seen—with my own two eyes—that this training means people react properly and quickly to cardiovascular problems, when a person has a heart attack for example, or to any other difficult situation. The fire training they receive can also apply to many other situations. Often this results in a life being saved to carry on in an acceptable manner, rather than resulting in a death.

In that sense, our society, which must be judged not only by its capacity to produce wealth, but also by its capacity to share it, has an opportunity to recognize in a much more valid and sustained way the work done by volunteer firefighters. The members of the Bloc Québécois and I, personally, will support this motion. We hope the discussion in committee improves the situation. According to information we have received from volunteer firefighters, this measure would truly be welcome and would correspond better to the current reality in our various municipalities. We believe the initiative of the hon. member for Malpeque deserves our support.

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

NDP

Peter Stoffer NDP Sackville—Eastern Shore, NS

Mr. Speaker, on behalf of the federal NDP, it gives me great pleasure to rise on this important bill. I want to thank the hon. member for Malpeque for bringing it forward.

Most of us in our ridings across the country have volunteer firefighters and they do an outstanding job. Every Tuesday in my riding is a training night for all the firefighters. They train hard and afterwards they get together in a camaraderie on what they are doing.

It takes a very special person to answer a call at three in the morning in a winter storm and go to a house fire or to deal with an issue of a medical emergency. These people do this with very little or no pay whatsoever. In fact, they do not even want a thank you. They do it because they know they are serving their community. They know it because they feel in their heart of hearts that what they are doing is just and it is right.

On Sunday on the CBC in Nova Scotia there was a half hour show talking about what is happening in rural Canada. Many communities are starting to lose their volunteer firefighters. They are not losing them because of a lack of interest, they are losing them because of the economic reality of rural Canada. I remember very well in Newfoundland and Labrador during the cod crisis of the early 1990s many communities basically lost their best and brightest. The first thing to go, besides people moving down the road, was the firefighter.

Can we imagine a community that loses its volunteer firefighters and can no longer provide any kind of fire coverage for its community? The insurance companies come along and if we do not have fire protection of some kind they are not sure if they are able to insure the particular homes or properties. That puts these communities and families at great risk.

At the end of the day, there will be volunteer firefighters across this country willing to answer the call. In many cases they know they are risking their lives for the benefit of everyone. That is why this bill is important. That is why it should be supported across all political lines and it should be done fairly expeditiously.

I would like to expand on a bill that I have and not just piggyback on volunteer firefighters, but we need to look at volunteers in this country as a whole. In Nova Scotia alone volunteerism generates approximately $2 billion of economic activity. Imagine what it would be like in Ontario, Quebec and the bigger provinces.

Without volunteers we simply would not have the society that we have today. I am sure that many of my colleagues in the House of Commons and in the Senate have volunteered many hours of their time and their family's time over the years to benefit their community. That is the beauty as many of us, as busy as we are as MPs, still in some way manage to volunteer to help out in our community, be it fundraising, looking after our community or whatever it may be.

If it were possible to expand the debate, I think that all volunteers who show a certain number of hours per year, and my bill specifically says 250 hours, should be entitled to a $1,000 tax credit.

Years ago when I represented the Eastern Shore as far as the Ecum Secum Bridge in Nova Scotia, I knew a Lions Club member that would volunteer to drive people from Sheet Harbour all the way into Halifax, which is well over an hour drive, and he did this on his own. He did not ask for remuneration or anything of that nature and that was when gas was at 75¢ a litre. Now, at $1.18 a litre in Halifax, we can imagine how expensive it is for that person to volunteer to do that. However, he still does because he knows it is the right thing to bring people with disabilities or people with very low income into Halifax to either do major shopping or see their medical professionals.

It is people like that who we need to honour every day and not just in this House of Commons but in the Senate as well. At this time I want to send a special kudos over to our colleague from London who himself was a long term firefighter before he entered the halls of Parliament. He deserves a great round of applause for his great work as well.

My own brother-in-law was a firefighter at the Vancouver airport for over 32 years and he has just retired. He fortunately never had any major incident of any kind to affect his health or his life and he feels very blessed by that.

However, he knew many other firefighters who came down with various illnesses and cancers because of the chemicals they were exposed to. These were paid firefighters. Imagine the number of volunteers out there.

The volunteer firefighters in the areas of Fall River, Musquodoboit Harbour, Lake Charlotte, Chezzetcook, Eastern Passage, the whole crew, are some of the best citizens in this country. They love what they do, but the reality is they need more support.

The city I live in has only so much money to provide in terms of equipment and everything else. The government and all parliamentarians need to understand that giving them a little stipend like this may be beneficial to at least cover the costs.

I again want to thank my colleague from Malpeque for bringing this very important bill forward and I hope it will pass very soon. In fact, it would be lovely if it was in tomorrow's budget, but we will have to wait until four o'clock to see if indeed that is the case.

Once again, a tip of the salt and pepper cap to all volunteer firefighters and especially their families. Those who volunteer also have families who worry about their return. I want to thank the families, the individual members, and all communities right across this country.

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

Scott Simms Liberal Bonavista—Gander—Grand Falls—Windsor, NL

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to speak to this particular initiative.

First I want to congratulate my hon. colleague from Malpeque for bringing this forward. We have been discussing, debating and voting on this for many years, certainly within almost the last decade.

What a gift this is. Someone earlier mentioned how this would entice people to get involved in the volunteer service for emergency workers. It will go a long way, especially in our rural areas for several reasons.

First, let us take a look at the incentive. Over 100 hours of service will provide a $1,000 tax credit and over 200 hours, which a vast majority do easily, a $2,000 tax credit.

What I like about this is that it is a beautiful gift and finally an acknowledgement by the Government of Canada to say that it believes in what they are doing.

I said it before and I will say it again. These are people who volunteer their time. When there is a fire or a disaster, these people are the first to go into that fire. More than that, when the community needs their support to raise money and raise awareness, volunteer firefighters are the first to get out. They come out for their community and they do it voluntarily.

I do rise in support of Bill C-219, a bill that would have a tremendous effect on all of rural Canada, especially in rural Newfoundland and Labrador and certainly in my own riding.

A couple of weeks ago in the House I rose to present a petition signed by thousands of people from all over Newfoundland and Labrador calling upon the government to put the bill into law and make the necessary amendments to the tax code.

Why do I support Bill C-219? I will flesh out some of the more important reasons. A lot of it comes down to numbers, quite frankly. I represent over 86,000 people in my riding. Over 115 communities in my riding are protected by 52 volunteer fire departments, ranging from 15 to 20 and beyond.

In the province of Newfoundland and Labrador there are 315 volunteer fire departments consisting of 6,200 volunteers, people who put their lives on the line and risk it all for the sake of safety, for the sake of their communities and for the sake of their families. There are also 27 ground search and rescue teams consisting of 872 volunteers, a phenomenal amount of volunteer time put into search and rescue.

When they leave the comfort of their homes, more often than not in harsh weather conditions, they do not know if they will return to their families. That is a fact of life that all emergency responders have to live with.

To provide an incentive of a $2,000 tax credit is a small gift but, beyond the monetary value, this would finally acknowledge that the Government of Canada sees what they are doing and it wants to reward them for it. We want them to be recognized across the country for what it is they do and the time they spend doing it, not just for safety but again for the community.

Most of us would not want to know the feeling of having someone seriously injured or worse, someone who has perished in a vehicle crash. These people are first on the scene. Most of us have never experienced the unique smell of burning insulation, the intense heat, the roar of a burning structure or the uneasy feeling of being unable to see anything upon entering a burning building to rescue someone in peril.

What must the volunteers be thinking as they respond to an emergency call: Is this a false alarm or is it a real fire? Will I return? Will I see my family once again when this is all over? The worse possible thing that could happen: is there a child inside? Does a child's life need to be saved?

Our ground search and rescue teams are there to assist in finding lost individuals, whether it be along our coast, in the forest or someone trapped on a rock face injured or unable to move for fear of falling.

Yes, it is a life-threatening task that we ask these volunteers to do and they do it so valiantly.

Our emergency volunteers carry out their duties in a professional manner in the same way that our paid emergency service workers do. Often, volunteers' street clothes are damaged or destroyed because they did not have time to change into their fire protection clothes or ground search and rescue apparel. They incur expenses with their personal vehicles getting to the fire hall daily for training. They spend countless hours at the fire hall training and cleaning their equipment and emergency vehicles with little or no compensation.

The hon. member for Sackville—Eastern Shore touched on training night. In my hometown of Bishop's Falls, Wednesday night is training night. The feeling of camaraderie between men and women firefighters is second to none. They feel so good about their community. Once in a while they even let me attend. How noble.

I must say that the little bit that we can do here today by voting for this and seeing this into law is such a small thing for us to do but such a great acknowledgement for the sacrifices that they make.

I will give two examples from my own riding where volunteer services have become crucial and essential.

Emergency service volunteers were called into action because of floods in the town of Badger several years ago. It was a state of emergency. It was one of the most devastating floods the province has ever seen. The amount of hours that volunteers put in, not just volunteer firefighters, search and research workers and ambulance workers, but our town councillors and our municipal politicians, many of whom are volunteers as well, but they all do it for the sake of the community and the sake of their family.

I respectfully submit that we should support this as such a crucial element of us saying, yes, that these people are intertwined in our communities and are absolutely essentially.

I would like to take a moment to read something called “What is a Firefighter”.

He's the [person] next door...He [she] has never gotten over the excitement of engines and sirens and danger. He's [she's] a [person] like you and me with wants and worries and unfulfilled dreams. Yet [they] stand taller than most of us.

He's [she's] a fireman.

He [she] puts it all on the line when the bell rings.... A fireman is at once the most fortunate and the least fortunate...[they are people] who save lives because [they have] seen too much death. He's [she's] a gentle [person] because he [she] has seen the awesome power of violence out of control. [They are] responsive to a child's laughter because [their] arms have held too many small bodies that will never laugh again. [They] appreciate the simple pleasures of life--hot coffee held in numb, unbending fingers--a warm bed for bone and muscle compelled beyond feeling--the camaraderie of brave men [and women]--the divine peace and selfless service of a job well done in the name of all [people].

Those are the people we have come here to talk about today. We need to acknowledge these people and the volunteer time that they put in to ensure the community comes first. It is a sacrifice that is not compensated whatsoever and it is about time the Government of Canada said yes to these people. A simple measure is all we ask: a $1,000 tax credit up to a $2,000 tax credit. It is absolutely essential.

I asked that this House pass it unanimously but was unsuccessful. However, despite that, I still call upon the government to include this in its budget. Maybe time is short but imagine these volunteer firefighters in the middle of a blaze, in the middle of a situation that is life or death. Now we are talking about time being short. We are talking about finally being able to thank them for all they have done and to thank their families.

I believe in our volunteer emergency people because they are the backbone of rural Newfoundland and Labrador for what it is today.

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11:35 a.m.

Conservative

David Sweet Conservative Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale, ON

Mr. Speaker, I welcome the opportunity today to address the hon. members of the House on Bill C-219.

The bill, if adopted, would entitle emergency service volunteers to claim either a $2,000 deduction if they volunteer 200 or more hours or a $1,000 deduction if they volunteer at least 100 hours or more but less than 200 hours.

Today I would like to use this time to acknowledge the role of emergency service volunteers and others to talk about their motivation and to acknowledge the valuable contributions these Canadians make to our country.

First, I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. member for Malpeque on the principle of the bill. Emergency service volunteers deserve to be recognized for their valuable contributions to the safety, security and well-being of our communities.

There are numerous examples that come to mind in which emergency service volunteers have played an important role in this nation: the tornado that whipped through Edmonton in 1987 and left large numbers of Edmontonians homeless; the Manitoba and Saguenay floods; the crippling 1998 ice storm in Quebec and eastern Ontario in which my family was trapped and became victimized; the 2003 forest fires in British Columbia; Hurricane Juan, which battered the east coast in the fall of 2003; and, of course, on a day to day basis, intervening to rescue Canadians from danger and to alleviate their pain and suffering.

In all those instances, disaster relief volunteers provide crucial assistance at critical times. They aid distressed victims and help bring calm out of chaos and generosity out of calamity. They all make me feel proud to be Canadian.These fine citizens make us all proud to be Canadian.

There are many kinds of volunteers who deserve recognition and there are many different ways to recognize these contributions. This may be surprising to some members of the House but Statistics Canada estimated that there are approximately 11.8 million Canadians from all parts of this country who volunteered in 2004. As we can imagine, each one of these volunteers makes a valuable contribution to their communities in many different ways. Some volunteers help to improve the quality of life of our seniors. Some coach our children's sports teams. Some prepare, serve and deliver meals to others in need. Some provide education services and advocate on important issues. Some help to protect our environment by monitoring ecosystems and cleaning our beaches, just like in my own riding of Ancaster—Dundas—Flamborough—Westdale where the Hamilton Area Eco-Network does a great job of managing one of the UNESCO biosphere reserves in this country.

In 2004, volunteers freely donated over two billion hours of their time, which is an average of 168 hours per volunteer. I know it would never happen but since we are talking about 11 million Canadians and two billion hours of their time, we should think for a moment what would happen if, just for a week, all volunteers stopped doing what they had been doing and what kind of country this would be.

Imagine how overrun the regular resources of local police departments would be if the auxiliary police were not available.

At every sporting event I have ever attended I have seen the St. John Ambulance van, our historic volunteer emergency medical service, sitting over on the side ready to help anybody in a medical emergency. Imagine if it were not around.

Imagine if Roots youth drop-in centre in Dundas, Ontario were not there to help youth make the right decisions rather than get on the wrong track and end up in a lifestyle of crime.

How about Mission Services, Good Shepherd, Wesley Urban Ministries or the Olive Branch that is in downtown Hamilton that serve meals, pick people up off the street and ensures that those who are on the margins of society are helped so they can become contributing citizens.

Two weeks ago at the Ancaster food drive 70,000 pounds of food was collected. That would be consumed in three weeks alone. Imagine if those kinds of people were not around but, fortunately, we never need to be concerned about that.

We do need to be concerned about why these volunteers give their time so generously. For context, I will take this opportunity to describe the findings of a recent Statistics Canada survey that sheds light on this question. Perhaps it should not be surprising that the survey finds that most Canadians do not appear to expect financial assistance or incentives as a reward for volunteering.

The Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating conducted in 2004 found that none of the principal reasons for volunteering are related to financial gain whatsoever. For example, 92% said they volunteered because they wanted to make a contribution to their community. Seventy-seven per cent volunteered because they wanted to put their skills and experience to work. Almost 60% volunteered because they had been personally affected by the cause of the organization that they support.

Canadians cited several other reasons for volunteering as well. They see volunteering as a way to explore their own strengths. They have friends who volunteer and they want to share in that experience. They want to fulfill religious obligations or beliefs. For some, volunteering is a way to demonstrate or acquire skills in order to open doors for new opportunities for themselves.

The same Statistics Canada survey asked Canadians why they did not volunteer or why they did not volunteer more. We have to search well down the list of reasons to find financial cost.

In fact, Statistics Canada found that the main barrier preventing individuals from increasing their volunteering contributions was a lack of time. Seven in ten Canadians cited time limitations, not financial considerations, as the reason for not volunteering more or not volunteering at all.

Time is not the only barrier to volunteering. Some find they are unable to make a year-round commitment to volunteering. Some might consider becoming a volunteer but have never personally been asked to do so. Perhaps they just need an invitation to get them started. Still others cite health problems.

Although recognizing this important group of volunteers is something I am sure all Canadians would agree is worthy, I do believe that it would be irresponsible to have this discussion without exploring the motivations and expectations of our volunteers.

I also think that during the course of this discussion we should explore additional methods to acknowledge and encourage efforts at volunteering because there are many ways. Sometimes it is simply raising awareness of the volunteers' cause or enhancing the experience of volunteering. For example, one way we can recognize the efforts of volunteers in Canada is through public awards and honours. There are a multitude of awards distributed each year that recognize the outstanding contributions of all volunteers. For instance, the Governor General's Caring Canadian Award is bestowed on a long service volunteer who has contributed substantially to families and groups in his or her community.

Volunteers, including emergency service volunteers, are also recognized by the Government of Canada through the Thérèse Casgrain Volunteer Award. This award was established by the Government of Canada in 2001 during the International Year of the Volunteer.

Provincially there are many examples as well. In British Columbia, the provincial emergency program recognizes volunteers annually in each of its five programs: search and rescue; emergency social services; air search; amateur radio; and road rescue.

The Ontario volunteer service award ceremony acknowledges, among other achievements, the bravery of those who serve as police officers and volunteer firefighters. In addition, many emergency service volunteers have also been awarded the Ontario Lieutenant Governor's Medal for Bravery.

In conclusion, all of us in this House support and respect the work of emergency service volunteers. On that we have unanimity. However, we have a responsibility to all Canadians to do our homework when making policy.

Once again, I want to commend the hon. member for Malpeque for bringing this legislative initiative forward and for recognizing the significant contribution emergency service workers make to our communities. That being said, there are still some questions about this initiative that I look forward to hearing the member address both here in the chamber and perhaps at committee in the future as well.

I believe we need to study this measure carefully to make sure that it is the appropriate way to acknowledge the work of emergency service volunteers to whom we are all grateful for their service.

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11:45 a.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I want to participate in this debate and support the hon. member for Malpeque who has brought a very important issue to the House regarding the contribution that firefighters and public safety officers in general make to society.

The International Association of Fire Fighters has been the lead group to speak on behalf of public safety officers. It has dealt with a number of areas, whether it be the treatment of hazardous goods or the markings on train cars with respect to an emergency plan should there be a derailment.

There is another very interesting point which has been advocated for in this place for a number of years. It is the public safety officers compensation fund in the event that a public safety officer loses his or her life in the line of duty.

The bill that was previously before this place on behalf of firefighters and other public safety officers was to provide for the families and the survivors of police officers, firefighters and other public safety officers who had lost their lives in the line of duty. This bill has been advocated for by the IAFF because a similar fund has existed in the United States for a number of years.

In fact, the amount of money paid in the United States initially was $100,000. It was paid by the United States government to the families of public safety officers who had lost their lives in the line of duty. After 9/11 that amount was increased because there were many firefighters and volunteers who had lost their lives during that horrific event. The government raised the amount to $250,000 on behalf of those public safety officers. Many of those public safety officers are now suffering from serious long term illnesses as a consequence of being in an environment that contained dangerous fumes and toxic substances.

All of this leads nicely into the bill that the member for Malpeque has put before the House. Those of us from urban centres can talk about the excellent firefighting services that deal with the concentration of populations in urban centres and the economies of scale in having that kind of a service. However, in the suburban, rural and remote areas of Canada, those who are called on to serve Canadians and to put their lives on the line are not part of a major policing or firefighting authority. They are volunteers.

I was once told that only about 15% of what firefighters do actually deals with fighting fires or other fire related emergencies. Firefighters spend the rest of their time educating the public, supporting community events, raising money and being on call. Firefighters are always on call. They are the ones who go in to a burning building when everyone else is running out. That is the difference. This is the characteristic that we are trying to recognize in this bill.

Volunteer firefighters do not receive the same kind of recognition . They are there and are ready to do the same job. It is similar to military reservists who are trained to the same levels as are full time military personnel. The reservists go into theatre and put their lives at risk. It is the same with these volunteers. They have to have the same kind of training. When an emergency occurs, when property and lives are at risk, they are called on at a moment's notice to go in when others are running out.

I want to congratulate the member for Malpeque for bringing this bill forward. It is an important bill from the standpoint that it is a recognition by Parliament that if recognition cannot be done in terms of a public safety officers compensation fund or some other blanket support, this is one additional step to show the respect, trust and reliance that is placed on these professionals, who are prepared to risk their health, safety and lives on behalf of Canadians.

Mr. Speaker, I move:

That Bill C-219, An Act to amend the Income Tax Act (deduction for volunteer emergency service) be adopted at second reading and be referred to committee.

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

Does the hon. member have the unanimous consent of the House to move the motion?

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

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

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

(Motion agreed to, bill read the second time and referred to a committee)

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would seek the consent of the House to allow the member for Malpeque to have a few brief moments to thank the House with regard to his bill since he would not now have his normal right of reply.

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

Does the hon. member have the unanimous consent of the House to move?

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

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

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Income Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

An hon. member

No.

Suspension of SittingIncome Tax ActPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

I was going to ask for unanimous consent to see the clock for the next order of the day, but I will suspend sitting until 12:02 p.m.

(The sitting of the House was suspended at 11:52 a.m.)

(The House resumed at 12:02 p.m.)

AfghanistanGovernment Orders

Noon

Conservative

Peter MacKay Conservative Central Nova, NS

moved:

Whereas,

the House recognizes the important contribution and sacrifice of Canadian Forces and Canadian civilian personnel as part of the UN mandated, NATO-led mission deployed in Afghanistan at the request of the democratically elected government of Afghanistan;

the House believes that Canada must remain committed to the people of Afghanistan beyond February 2009;

the House takes note that in February 2002, the government took a decision to deploy 850 troops to Kandahar to join the international coalition that went to Afghanistan to drive out the Taliban in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and that this deployment lasted for six months at which time the troops rotated out of Afghanistan and returned home;

the House takes note that in February 2003, the government took a decision that Canada would commit 2000 troops and lead for one year, starting in the summer of 2003, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul and at the end of the one-year commitment, Canada’s 2000 troop commitment was reduced to a 750-person reconnaissance unit as Canada’s NATO ally, Turkey, rotated into Kabul to replace Canada as the lead nation of the ISAF mission;

the House takes note that in August 2005, Canada assumed responsibility of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar province which included roughly 300 Canadian Forces personnel;

the House takes note that the government took a decision to commit a combat Battle Group of roughly 1200 troops to Kandahar for a period of one year, from February 2006 to February 2007;

the House takes note that in January 2006, the government participated in the London Conference on Afghanistan which resulted in the signing of the Afghanistan Compact which set out benchmarks and timelines until the end of 2010 for improving the security, the governance and the economic and social development of Afghanistan;

the House takes note that in May 2006, Parliament supported the government’s two year extension of Canada’s deployment of diplomatic, development, civilian police and military personnel in Afghanistan and the provision of funding and equipment for this extension;

the House welcomes the Report of the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan, chaired by the Honourable John Manley, and recognizes the important contribution its members have made;

the House takes note that it has long been a guiding principle of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan that all three components of a comprehensive government strategy--defence, diplomacy and development--must reinforce each other and that the government must strike a balance between these components to be most effective;

the House takes note that the ultimate aim of Canadian policy is to leave Afghanistan to Afghans, in a country that is better governed, more peaceful and more secure and to create the necessary space and conditions to allow the Afghans themselves to achieve a political solution to the conflict; and

the House takes note that in order to achieve that aim, it is essential to assist the people of Afghanistan to have properly trained, equipped and paid members of the four pillars of their security apparatus: the army, the police, the judicial system and the correctional system;

therefore, it is the opinion of the House,

that Canada should continue a military presence in Kandahar beyond February 2009, to July 2011, in a manner fully consistent with the UN mandate on Afghanistan, and that the military mission should consist of:

(a) training the Afghan National Security Forces so that they can expeditiously take increasing responsibility for security in Kandahar and Afghanistan as a whole;

(b) providing security for reconstruction and development efforts in Kandahar;

(c) the continuation of Canada’s responsibility for the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team;

that, consistent with this mandate, this extension of Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan is approved by this House expressly on the condition that:

(a) NATO secure a battle group of approximately 1000 to rotate into Kandahar (operational no later than February 2009);

(b) to better ensure the safety and effectiveness of the Canadian contingent, the government secure medium helicopter lift capacity and high performance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance before February 2009; and

(c) the government of Canada notify NATO that Canada will end its presence in Kandahar as of July 2011, and, as of that date, the redeployment of Canadian Forces troops out of Kandahar and their replacement by Afghan forces start as soon as possible, so that it will have been completed by December 2011;

that the government of Canada, together with our allies and the government of Afghanistan, must set firm targets and timelines for the training, equiping of the Afghan National Army, the Afghan National Police, the members of the judicial system and the members of the correctional system

that Canada’s contribution to the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan should:

(a) be revamped and increased to strike a better balance between our military efforts and our development efforts in Afghanistan;

(b) focus on our traditional strengths as a nation, particularly through the development of sound judicial and correctional systems and strong political institutions on the ground in Afghanistan and the pursuit of a greater role for Canada in addressing the chronic fresh water shortages in the country;

(c) address the crippling issue of the na2istently undermines progress in Afghanistan, through the pursuit of solutions that do not further alienate the goodwill of the local population;

(d) be held to a greater level of accountability and scrutiny so that the Canadian people can be sure that our development contributions are being spent effectively in Afghanistan;

that Canada should assert a stronger and more disciplined diplomatic position regarding Afghanistan and the regional players, including support for the naming of a special envoy to the region who could both ensure greater coherence in all diplomatic initiatives in the region and also press for greater coordination amongst our partners in the UN in the pursuit of common diplomatic goals in the region;

that the government should provide the public with franker and more frequent reporting on events in Afghanistan, offering more assessments of Canada’s role and giving greater emphasis to the diplomatic and reconstruction efforts as well as those of the military and, for greater clarity, the government should table in Parliament detailed reports on the progress of the mission in Afghanistan on a quarterly basis;

that the House of Commons should strike a special parliamentary committee on Afghanistan which would meet regularly with the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, International Cooperation and National Defence and senior officials, and that the House should authorize travel by the special committee to Afghanistan and the surrounding region so that the special committee can make frequent recommendations on the conduct and progress of our efforts in Afghanistan;

that, the special parliamentary committee on Afghanistan should review the laws and procedures governing the use of operational and national security exceptions for the withholding of information from Parliament, the Courts and the Canadian people with those responsible for administering those laws and procedures, to ensure that Canadians are being provided with ample information on the conduct and progress of the mission; and

that with respect to the transfer of Afghan detainees to Afghan authorities, the government must:

(a) commit to meeting the highest NATO and international standards with respect to protecting the rights of detainees, transferring only when it believes it can do so in keeping with Canada’s international obligations;

(b) pursue a NATO-wide solution to the question of detainees through diplomatic efforts that are rooted in the core Canadian values of respect for human rights and the dignity of all people;

(c) commit to a policy of greater transparency with respect to its policy on the taking of and transferring of detainees including a commitment to report on the results of reviews or inspections of Afghan prisons undertaken by Canadian officials; and

that the government must commit to improved interdepartmental coordination to achieve greater cross-government coherence and coordination of the government’s domestic management of our commitment to Afghanistan, including the creation of a full-time task force which is responsible directly to the Prime Minister to lead these efforts.

He said: Mr. Speaker, I am honoured to have the opportunity to participate and to address this House on such an important issue as was just outlined in the motion presented to the chamber.

I want to begin my remarks by doing something that is seldom done in this place and that is to express appreciation and respect for members opposite for taking part in this important debate. I am firmly of the belief that this sincere effort to forge consensus on this important subject augurs well for this Parliament and for the future of our country.

This is perhaps the most important debate facing our Parliament and our nation today. It has important broad implications for Canadians, Afghans and for the world.

It is also worth expressing special acknowledgement of the role of the Leader of the Opposition, the deputy leader of the opposition, and other members of the Liberal Party for bringing forward consensus at a critical time that can result in a truly Canadian position. This is rare in this often partisan-charged air of this chamber. We are seeing democracy in action, the very thing that we seek to protect and promote in Afghanistan.

By putting aside our political differences and our party lines on an issue such as this, we demonstrate to our fellow Canadians and those who put their faith in us that we can see the bigger picture, that we can come together on a cause that others from our country are literally prepared to die for and do what is right and just.

Coming together on this motion is demonstrative and reminiscent of previous times in our country's history when soldiers were deployed, when it was patriotism over partisanship.

I am personally grateful that we appear ready to rise above the rancour and personal sniping, and put forward a message to Canadians, Afghans and those around the world who are watching this debate, including the Taliban, that we are united.

We are a substantive and serious Parliament, responsive and responsible, on issues that matter. Behind the people who we send to far-off places to promote the values that we believe in, those acts of parliamentary union elevate us, and bring credit and credibility to public office holders.

As the Prime Minister has stated, the government broadly accepts the report and recommendations of the independent committee on Canada's future role in Afghanistan.

I want to thank John Manley, Pamela Wallin, Derek Burney, Paul Tellier and Jake Epp for their extraordinary dedicated efforts and important insights into the question of Canada's future role in Afghanistan. It is a comprehensive and well written report. It will contribute much to the debate before the House.

Subject to the conditions laid out in the motion before this House, this government supports extending Canada's responsibility for security in Kandahar to the end of 2011. That date would coincide closely with the benchmarks on development outlined in the Afghanistan Compact.

The government is already moving ahead to carry out several of the key recommendations made by the independent panel. A new cabinet committee has been struck.

Furthermore, the Privy Council Office established an Afghanistan task force made up of senior members of the government and the public service. Together with David Mulroney of Foreign Affairs Canada, the task force has coordinated this file over the past year.

These two groups will improve the coordination of the government's work in Afghanistan. In order to keep doing what we are doing in Afghanistan, we are pursuing discussions with our allies and partners to bring more troops into Kandahar.

We are also exploring all available avenues to ensure that our soldiers get the equipment they need.

To date Poland has come forward with two Mi-17 medium-lift helicopters to be made available for Canadian use at Kandahar airfield. We thank Poland sincerely for that contribution, and others we hope will follow suit, for we know that every little bit helps.

The government is committed to ensuring that our men and women in Afghanistan are positioned for success. With the proper equipment and support, we believe that success will come sooner.

I ask all members to weigh carefully the independent panel's report. It was comprehensive and instructive in the recommendations.

I urge all members, as well, to support this motion before us. It matters to Canadians, our soldiers and to the international community. The world is watching, including the people of Afghanistan and their oppressors. A falter or slip in support does in fact embolden and strengthen the terrorists to return and wreak havoc upon the people of Afghanistan again.

Canadians can be proud of what we are doing, proud of the role that we are playing, a leadership role in the international community's efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. We have played this role before, in the first and second world wars, and in Korea.

Whenever the world rallied against an aggressor, Canada was there early and saw those victorious efforts through. Canada is there again, once again at the forefront of a struggle with grave and global consequences.

Our role within the United Nations mandate, mission to Afghanistan, has been earned through commitment, hard work and sacrifice, and we have won the respect of the Afghan people, our international allies and partners.

On the backs of our soldiers rests more than just a uniform, but the pride and the purpose of a grateful nation. Those who take on the task of military service are our best citizens.

The simple title of soldier is worthy of respect and gratitude, and Canadians, in growing numbers, are expressing these sentiments in words, cards, letters and acts of thanks. At red rallies, speaking events, airports, halls, places of work and on the street, soldiers are feeling that gratitude.

Yes, the mantle the leadership can weigh heavily. It has costs that are deeply felt by Canadians. The sacrifices of Canadian soldiers are remarkable by any standard at any time in our nation's history. Their willingness to stand against terror and tyranny, against oppression and indignity, is a credit not only to our country but to all humanity.

All the same, there are times when we, as a country, must take a stand and assert ourselves. We have to assert ourselves by promoting our fundamental values and interests, and by being clear about what we are prepared to do to defend them. We cannot expect others to do the heavy lifting for us. If we truly believe in this mission, we must realize that actions speak louder than words.

The time for action is now. Afghanistan needs us. Stabilizing Afghanistan is a noble and critical cause. Let us consider the circumstances.

Here again, I ask all to consider the circumstances that led us to this point. The Afghans want us there. The people of Afghanistan were living in the grip of fear every day under the Taliban. They were deprived of the simplest things and denied hope for a better future. That hope, as basic as the air we breathe, was choked by the Taliban.

The United Nations wants us there. NATO needs us there. The Manley panel has recommended we persevere in the mission. If not this mission, then when? When would we be better justified to play a part?

Afghanistan is a Canadian mission. It is not a Conservative or Liberal mission. We had two positions. We now have one. Yet, we know there are those in this House who will oppose this mission and this motion.

On one side we have a position held by the government and the Liberal Party, we believe, to essentially support the continued presence of Canada in Afghanistan.

This reflects our international obligations as well as our commitment to the Afghan people, whom we have said we would protect and help to further their own development and capacity building to allow them to assume full responsibility for their own national sovereignty and security within their borders. That goal can be achieved, but it will not be achieved if we bring our soldiers home.

Liberals and Conservatives agree that the mission should wrap up in 2011. Liberals and Conservatives agree that we must focus on our efforts on training, development and reconstruction.

We agree that we are in Afghanistan on a military mission and that military decisions are to be made by those on the groun who are able to assess the situation and make important operational decisions in the theatre.

This position also reflects our obligations to our fellow Canadians serving in Afghanistan: our men and women in uniform, our diplomats and our development workers. We applaud them all. They believe deeply in the mission and they must know that they have clear, unambiguous support from home for their important work.

Clearly, it needs to be pointed out again that military means alone will not assure success. The enormous contributions of CIDA, DFAIT, Canadian Border Services, RCMP, municipal police and other government agencies, in addition to what the military is doing, I believe, will prevail.

I want to applaud those heroes for all they do, including our fine Ambassador Arif Lalani, Bob Chamberlain, Karen Foss and others at the PRT, and I welcome Elissa Golberg to her new role in Afghanistan.

At the same time, we have the position of the NDP and the Bloc which is to pull Canadian troops out of Afghanistan as early as next year. Simply put, reality seems to have escaped these two parties.

We believe we should stay and finish the job. We do not want to abandon the Afghan people or turn our back on the international community. Staying in Afghanistan is not the easy thing to do, but staying there is the right thing to do.

The world needs to understand why we are in Afghanistan. By helping the Afghan people, we are helping ourselves. We cannot ignore the conflicts going on around the world.

In a world that seems to be growing smaller by the day, no nation is immune to terrorism. We are not shielded from the horrors that touch other countries, and we ourselves have been touched. Canadians were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York.

Terrorists have also attacked other places, killing innocent people in Washington, London, Madrid and Bali.

Let us never forget that the worst terror attack prior to 9/11 to hit North America was the bombing of Air-India, the flight that left Vancouver and took 329 lives. As we sit in the House, the very symbol and essence of Canadian democracy, we should remember always that these attacks were an unprovoked assault on democracy and on all civilized nations on values that transcend religion and culture, an attack on reason itself.

The attacks have continued. Last week two separate and deadly explosions set off near the Arghandab Valley took the lives of over 100 Afghans and injured four Canadians. The magnitude of the pain and suffering reverberated around the globe, and reminds us of the brutality and the lack of humanity that are the Taliban. We mourn the loss of all innocent lives in Afghanistan and express our sincere sympathies to their families.

We are reminded time and time again that Afghanistan is not someone else's problem. It is our problem too. If Afghanistan were to once again become a safe haven and an incubator for terrorism, Canadians and the people we are there to serve would be in increased danger, the world would be a more dangerous place. The Afghan people want and deserve the same things that Canadians want. They want to live free from oppression. They want dignity and human life respected and protected. They want a better life for their children. They want hope. They want opportunity.

With an incubator and an exporter of the threat of terrorism represented in Afghanistan, Canadians undoubtedly would face increased danger because freedom, democracy and human rights and the rule of law, all things we embody and embrace as a nation, would be under threat. All of this would be an abomination to those who preach hate and practise murder if we were to walk away.

Make no mistake about it, our security and that of our allies is at stake in Afghanistan, along with the people of that country and region. That is why we are there. We are there with our allies, our partners in both NATO and UN. Over 60 like-minded and determined nations in various roles are contributing to the peace, security and betterment of the country.

This is why we cannot abandon the vital leadership role that we have been assuming in Afghanistan until we reach that critical tipping point, until we are able to give it the ability to assume a larger role and govern itself completely free of the shadows of Taliban terror.

It pays to do a retrospect and from time to time to look back, not only ahead, to assess what has been accomplished. Addressing the root causes that have allowed Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorism is challenging. Long term stability in Afghanistan means helping the Afghans develop the tools they need to govern themselves justly, to realize their social and economic potential and to provide for their own security. These are the essential elements of the Afghanistan compact, signed in early 2006, which guides the international community and the Afghan government's efforts. Canada participated in the formation, the drafting and is a signatory of the compact.

Canada's engagement follows this international blueprint. Our mission is multifaceted, involving numerous government departments and agencies. It draws upon national strengths and combines these with those of our allies and our partners. Helping the Afghans rebuild their country after decades of conflict is a monumental task, a task made more difficult by the insurgency that ebbs and flows into Afghanistan across the Pakistan border.

We must never forget that in Kandahar province, in geographic terms, we are in the south with the largely open Pakistan border. We call upon Pakistan, even in the midst of its own internal problems, to elevate its efforts to stop recruitment from refugee camps, to provide better security at the border, known often as the Durand Line, and to crack down on insurgency within their own lands.

Let us not forget that by working with our allies and our partners, we are achieving real and substantive progress on the ground.

Consider the seeds of democracy that have been planted, which are now taking root within this once tumultuous country. It pays to calculate the difference today compared to a short five or six years ago in Afghanistan.

Over 10 million Afghans, including women who had previously been forbidden to participate in public life, now register and vote in national elections. Women do not just register to vote and cast ballots. They place their name on ballots and they are elected to public office. Over 25% of the Afghan parliament is made up of those brave women. The Afghan people selected their government through free and fair elections.

There is freedom of expression, freedom of expression that simply did not exist previously. Today there are seven television and forty radio stations broadcasting. Over 350 newspapers are published. There are extraordinary accomplishments and will undoubtedly lead to more.

This informal debate, this issue of national awareness both here and in Afghanistan is of critical importance as it develops its own national awareness and identity.

None of this environment for public discourse or exchange of ideas existed in Afghanistan a few years ago. There were no universal suffrage, no democratically elected government, no free press until Canada and others said yes to Afghanistan's call for help.

We did what we have done previously. We answered to call from a nation in need. The progress in other areas is equally striking. Consider Afghanistan's crippled infrastructure is being rebuilt, schools, hospitals, clinics, place of commerce. Irrigation canals are transforming the countryside. Land that once lay barren is fertile ground, allowing for alternative crops to grow instead of the scourge of poppy for heroin production and proliferation. Today in Afghanistan over 6,000 kilometres of new and refurbished roads allow farmers to bring their crops to market.

I do not have to tell politicians present the important of roads in any country. These roads make a daily difference in the lives of Afghans. This past Christmas, during a visit to the Arghandab district, we saw a bridge near Ma'sum Ghar, an impressive structure by any standard, connecting two villages across a flood plain that had previously divided them, presumably for centuries. It has transformed their way of life, their ability to do commerce with one another and their ability to exchange in normal life activities.

Make no mistake about it, the lives of ordinary Afghans have improved. Per capita incomes have doubled in the last three years. Afghans certainly feel today a hope for a better future that is reflected in polls and in the most important measure, and that is in the words, actions and deeds of the people of Afghanistan themselves.

That future, as with all countries, will depend on their youth. Great work is underway to ensure the children of Afghanistan are empowered to create the peaceful and stable future for themselves. Schools are being built. Places of learning are out of the shadows and now prominent everywhere. Thousands of teachers are being trained. Today six million children are being educated in Afghanistan, a truly transformative development. This is a spectacular rise in student employment, up from only 700,000 during the Taliban's brutal rule. Most notable, two million of the Afghan students today are girls, girls who would never have been permitted inside a classroom just a few short years ago. This is empowering and a powerful change for a generation of young Afghan females.

More than 80% of Afghans now have access to basic health care, something that was as low as 7% a few years ago. That is progress undeniably. Infant and child mortality rates have plunged, a remarkable success. Because of massive efforts of vaccinations and inoculations, diseases like polio and tuberculosis are in retreat. This is something all Canadians should rightly be proud of.

In a very real and positive way, international assistance is having a profound impact upon the lives of Afghan people. Millions have returned as a result of a change in conditions inside their country, and perhaps this is the clearest sign of hope revisited on those who have left their war-torn country, returning home for a future in a place they call home.

This progress has been made despite the violent efforts of the opposition, the Taliban and the insurgents, insurgents who have no use for the ballot box. Why? Because they know the only way they will return to power is through violence. Their plan is simple. What the Taliban insurgents seek to do is sow chaos, feed fear, drive the allied military forces out and reverse the progress being made on democratic and human rights inside the country.

We cannot and will not let the insurgents succeed. To this end, maintaining and improving security on the ground is essential because security enables governance, reconstruction and the development initiatives to flourish.

There cannot be democracy without security. There will be no development, no reconstruction, no prosperity and no hope for the Afghan people without security. There is an inextricable link. Afghanistan could, once again, become a breeding ground and safe haven for terrorism without security.

The way forward is clear. The way to success is clear. We must keep our resolve. All I have said thus far should not be interpreted as blind to the challenges and obstacles that still exist. Clearly we can all agree there is much left to do in Afghanistan. Yet it is essential that we continue to help the Afghan government to extend its authority throughout Kandahar province and the entire country. It must have an increased presence and visibility, particularly in the south.

I know the Prime Minister, other members of the present government and the previous government have made this point repeatedly to President Karzai and members of his administration.

The Canadian Forces will accelerate their efforts to mentor and train the Afghan security forces so they can eventually fully defend their own borders and sovereignty.

Members here should know that there have been notable improvements in the capabilities of the Afghanistan National Security Forces. I have met and spoke with President Karzai and my counterpart, General Wardak, on numerous occasions on this subject, as have others. They and the government of Afghanistan understand the urgency to accept and accelerate the pace at which they must grow their security forces.

With Canada's help, I note that 35,000 Afghans have graduated from the national army training centre in Kabul, a remarkable graduation rate. In Kandahar, our forces are mentoring six army battalions, or kandaks. The Canadian police are also monitoring and mentoring the improvements within the Afghan National Police force, another important contribution to its national security.

We are helping the Afghan National Army and police develop their own ability to plan and conduct operations. We are providing them, as well, with equipment and uniforms. Professionalizing their forces is clearly a priority.

We have seen improvement in other areas, and let me give an example of a concrete change that has occurred. During the battle of the Panjwai, the largest ground operation in NATO's history, Canadian Forces were in the vanguard. The Afghan National Army at that time did not play a decisive role in this engagement.

Now, 18 months later, the Afghan National Army is a significant force that can make its presence felt in Kandahar province. It demonstrated that very recently in an operation where it was shoulder to shoulder with Canadian Forces in liberating a village. It was celebrated with notable enthusiasm by the local people, with gratitude for the freedom that was bestowed by this exercise.

As the capabilities of the Afghan security forces in Kandahar increase, Canada will be able to hand over more responsibility to them. Until that time, Canadian Forces must continue their operations and mentoring in the field through OMLTs and POMLTs, which are operational mentoring liaison teams and a similar type of training with police.

As I draw my comments to a close, I note that over the past two years I have had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan a number of times, most recently at Christmas with my colleague, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence, the member from Edmonton. While I was there, one of my most memorable experiences occurred, a very personal experience that I want to share with this House.

As we visited the provincial reconstruction team outside Kandahar, we met with some students to bring them school supplies that had been donated by a local Ottawa school board to the children. Some were as young as seven or eight years old. I remember how proud and overjoyed those kids were to receive these simple items: pencils, books, scribblers, pens, a special toy or two, and candy, all enclosed in colourful backpacks and prepared with love here in Canada.

One little girl I noticed was hugging her backpack so tightly and so closely that it was as if she thought it would somehow disappear if she let it out of her presence. I will not forget the look on her face and her stunning green eyes. In that face and those eyes, I could see hope for a better future for Afghan children. I could see in convincing personal terms that the work we were doing was having an impact and that our continued presence was necessary. We are having a profound effect on the lives of the children in Afghanistan.

I relate that experience to a similar one that I had just a month before on Remembrance Day, similarly at a school, in my own riding in Central Nova, and it reinforced my belief. A child almost the same age as those children, a young girl, asked me what would happen to the children of Afghanistan if the Canadian soldiers left and came home. In a moment of clarity, that little girl's question tying those two events together made perfect sense.

I have already touched upon the numerous statistics demonstrating the progress that is occurring in Afghanistan. A comprehensive and coordinated approach is undoubtedly needed, but we should never overlook or forget the human impact that we are having on the lives of children, of family members, of men and women who want nothing more than a better future.

For me, however, nothing bears more powerful testimony to the value of our efforts, above and beyond the statistics, the NATO discussions, the reports and the commentary, than the hope and caring reflected in the eyes and faces of those two little girls. It speaks to the depth of caring of children anywhere in the world. I challenge anyone to look in the faces of these children and not say that we have more to do or to say that we would walk away.

Yes, the road ahead may be difficult, but stability in Afghanistan is achievable. We must persevere, for the consequences of abandoning Afghanistan are grave.

As members consider the future of the Afghan mission, they should bear in mind that the world is watching, friends and allies alike, and that the decision of this House will reverberate around the globe and will be far reaching in Canadian history. This debate will be recorded in the annals of this place and perhaps reviewed in other conflicts in times hence.

I hope that this debate and its final vote will be positive and instructive. The consequences of pulling Canada's military out of Afghanistan could have a far-reaching effect or a domino effect on others. Simply put, our friends would be weaker and our enemies stronger.

I would like to quote Nelofer Pazira, the author of the book A Bed of Red Flowers, who reflects upon some of her personal experiences in Afghanistan:

...Imagine one morning you wake up and get ready to go to work. But when you open the door, a group of young men, dressed in dusty and filthy clothes, push you inside the house with their rifles and say you're not allowed to leave. Imagine your younger sister wants to go to school and your mother has to go grocery shopping. Your sister is told she doesn't need any education, and your mother, though fully covered, is beaten or sent back home if she's not accompanied by a man. Imagine that your income is essential for the survival of your family, but you're told with indifference that you are not allowed to go to work. Imagine all of this happens to you only because you're a woman. What would you do if all you could do was stare at the walls inside your house as a substitute for living a normal life?

Those reflections and all that we know of Afghanistan demonstrate again that the stakes are simply too high for us to abandon Afghanistan and desert our allies at this critical juncture.

The UN Secretary-General recently said that withdrawing international forces would be “a mistake of historic proportions”. The Secretary General of NATO has warned that failure in Afghanistan would increase the security threat facing the alliance.

The independent panel, from which I am sure much of this debate will be drawn, has advised that events in Afghanistan “will directly affect Canada's security, our reputation in the world, and our future ability to engage the international community in achieving objectives of peace, security and shared prosperity”.

I ask all members of the House to carefully consider the consequences of rejecting the motion before us, which could lead to an abandonment of not only the Afghans and our allies but also our principles.

We do not want the Afghan campaign and the allied efforts to unravel. Other nations followed us into southern Afghanistan, and soon more will arrive, we hope, to fortify our efforts there.

What would stop them from withdrawing if we do?

Canada is respected for having pioneered the concept of the responsibility to protect. We do not want to become known for bowing out when we are most needed.

Do we want the Afghan people to take a step backward, to return to anarchy, to a time when public executions were common and human rights ignored, when it was not uncommon for women and children to be hung from posts on soccer fields? Today, children play on those very fields, some with soccer balls donated by generous Canadians like Joshua Zuidema from South Mountain, Ontario.

Do we want this fragile region to deteriorate further?

Do we want to tarnish Canada's reputation?

Could we ever regain the confidence of allies after deserting them at a critical moment? This is not the history of Canadian commitment to noble causes. How would history judge us if Canada walked away from Afghanistan?

In Canada today, we are a country that pays tribute to those who embarked on unbelievable acts of heroism and courage, who seized the heights of Vimy Ridge, who waded ashore at Juno Beach, and who gave their lives in the service of peace around the world in places such as Korea, Bosnia and Africa.

We honour the generations that looked tyranny in the face, did not blink and did not retreat. But what of us? I believe we are a generation that will not falter, nor we will abandon our nation's noblest traditions.

We have everyday heroes in Afghanistan today. They may not wear the uniform of an athlete, nor draw the salary of one or hear the applause, but they wear the proud clothing of a generation of Canadian soldiers just as proudly and with as much heart and guts as any who went before them.

If we do abandon these traditions, what kind of world are we leaving behind for our children?

There can be no graver decision of any government of any political stripe than sending into harm's way a generation of young men and women who so proudly wear the flag of their country on their shoulders, and the civilian members of our government committed to Canadian values and their promotion outside our borders.

As Minister of National Defence, nothing has touched me more deeply or more profoundly than the loss of Canadians in Afghanistan. Those 79 who gave their all shall be remembered, as will their families, for their enormous contributions and courage.

Some admire oratory and eloquence, others policy. I admire and prefer action, deeds not words, a motto which encapsulates our Canadian Forces. The members of the Canadian Forces enact policy and direction from Parliament. They are an instrument of our free and democratic institution and give purpose to policy.

They are delivering what we talk of and wish for others: freedom, security and a place to feel safe, to go to school, to eat well and to drink clean water. They are a credit to this nation. The uniform they wear is a source of pride for them and an inspiration to all for their selfless actions and efforts.

My colleagues and I are convinced, I believe, that Canada must continue this mission. As the independent panel led by the Hon. John Manley noted:

After 30 years of strife—in Soviet occupation, civil war and the coercive repression of Taliban rule—Afghan men and women are building a government committed to the democratic rule of law and the full exercise of human rights.

In conclusion, helping the Afghans at this critical time is consistent with Canadian values and interests. The mission is achievable. We must stay the course.

I urge all members to support the motion and in so doing commemorate those fallen and those who forged ahead. Supporting the motion before the House is the best memorial we can build for our country and that of the people of Afghanistan.

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12:50 p.m.

Liberal

Denis Coderre Liberal Bourassa, QC

Mr. Speaker, I share the concerns of the Minister of National Defence regarding the situation in Afghanistan. I too actually visited the area and we saw that we need to do things differently. We support the Afghanistan Compact. We must focus much more on development and reconstruction. The purpose of today's debate, however, is also to seek clarification. It is important for us to take the time to debate this, but it is also important to clearly understand the issue since all Canadians are now watching this debate.

The minister said earlier that it was not a Liberal mission or a Conservative mission, but rather a Canadian mission. In fact, it is a NATO mission, in which Canada is participating. It is crucial that the wording of the motion presented reflects very clearly the government's official position on certain concepts. The official opposition believes that the mission must change.

I would like the minister to explain to us, in his own words, what he means by the word “rotation”.

Does that mean to support or does it mean to replace? If we need to do that mission, we will need to ensure we are sharing the burden, which means that other countries will need to step up to the plate. Therefore, I would like a definition of “rotation” from the Minister of National Defence.

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12:55 p.m.

Conservative

Peter MacKay Conservative Central Nova, NS

Mr. Speaker, I thank my hon. colleague for his question. I appreciate the spirit in which he posed the question and offered his comments. I agree with many of the points he made. Clearly, it is time to try to adopt a united position in this House, a position that must be reflected in this motion, in the best interests of our country and our soldiers.

He asked me about the definition of “rotation”. I could perhaps ask him the same question, since the word appears in the Manley report, and in the Liberal Party motion.

This word “rotation” or “rotates”, in my view, speaks of reinforcement, of assignment, of duty.

Currently, American forces will be rotated into southern Afghanistan as part of our effort to push back a spring offensive. We hope, through our collective efforts, upon the passage of the motion, if I could presume such, to secure more troops from other countries, like the French for example, to rotate in, to reinforce, to add ability to our current effort there.

Therefore, rotate is something that Canada did itself in deploying into southern Afghanistan. I would hope that all members and the member for Bourassa would support the efforts to add to, reinforce or buttress the current battalion that we have in Afghanistan and in southern Afghanistan in particular.

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12:55 p.m.

Bloc

Claude Bachand Bloc Saint-Jean, QC

Mr. Speaker, the minister painted a very idyllic picture, especially when he spoke about the hope in the young girl's eyes and said that everything is so wonderful. I would like to remind the minister that the motion before us is supposed to speak frankly to Canadians, in a transparent manner, in order to give them straightforward information about the developments.

He may have seen hope in a young girl's eyes, but I would say to him that approximately 3,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan this year. I do not know if he saw the terror in the eyes of young girls whose villages were bombed. I do not know if he saw the terror in the eyes of the young boys and girls shot at by Canadian soldiers because they panicked when their vehicle was bombed and they shot at anything that moved. I do not know if he saw the desperation of the young children living in refugee camps.

The picture he has painted is far too idyllic. If he is promising to speak frankly and openly to Canadians from this point forward, he should change his approach and tell us what is really happening. What is happening there is not idyllic, quite the contrary.