House of Commons Hansard #180 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was firefighters.


The House resumed from October 4 consideration of Motion No. 388.

FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

11 a.m.


Sylvain Chicoine NDP Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am extremely pleased to rise in the House today to support Motion No. 388.

Our firefighters put their lives on the line every day, especially when they battle fires and go into burning buildings to save lives. We owe them a debt of gratitude for the risks they take in order to help people trapped in fires. Not only are they putting their lives at risk when they go into a building that could collapse on top of them, but they are also jeopardizing their health because of the toxic emissions given off by the building materials.

Every year, an average of 18 firefighters and seven police officers lose their lives in the line of duty. The 21 firefighters who died in 2011 all died of cancer. Furthermore, although this happens less commonly, some firefighters become disabled or even quadriplegic as a result of a work-related accident.

When something like that happens, the families are left to deal not only with the grief, but also with the lack of financial assistance that could help them get through those extremely difficult times. The families are left without any financial support.

The vast majority of fire departments unfortunately do not provide any compensation to the loved ones of firefighters who die in the line of duty. Considering the courage, dedication and determination of firefighters who regularly put their lives at risk for the benefit of the community, it is nothing short of shameful that this kind of benefit has not yet been created.

For seven years now, the NDP has been fighting for a national public safety officer compensation benefit to be paid to such officers if they are killed or become disabled.

In 2005, my hon. colleague from Burnaby—New Westminster moved a motion calling on the government to create such a compensation benefit. The Conservatives were in opposition at the time and supported the motion moved by my hon. colleague from Burnaby—New Westminster. The Liberals, however, with a minority government, unfortunately did not support this excellent initiative.

An election was held in 2006, and when the Conservatives came to power, this motion had already died on the order paper.

Once again, the Conservatives are not making the lives and health of our public safety officers who risk their lives every day a priority. They made that clear during presentations by our Conservative colleagues who are in favour of this motion. They hid behind some rather questionable arguments whereby public safety is a provincial jurisdiction, when they know full well that it is a shared jurisdiction and that no province would object to the creation of a compensation benefit.

However, the NDP has not forgotten the importance of doing this for the families of the firefighters. Since the beginning of the 41st Parliament, we have moved 11 motions on this issue. Despite our repeated efforts since Motion No. 153 was moved in the House in 2005, unfortunately, this benefit still has not been created. We think it is high time that the Prime Minister made good on the promise he made to firefighters.

We know that every firefighter and public safety organization supports this motion. What more does the government need to get things done and keep its promise?

The motion currently under review essentially asks for three things. First, it asks for the creation of a national public safety officer compensation benefit payable to the families of a firefighter, a police officer or any other public safety officer who is killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. It also asks that firefighters be entitled to priority access to vaccines and other antiviral drugs for the duration of a pandemic. Lastly, it calls for the establishment of minimum standards in the National Building Code of Canada in order to better ensure the safety of firefighters and first responders in general.

In their role as first responders in emergency situations, firefighters and police officers may come in contact with infected individuals during a pandemic. Under the Canadian Pandemic Influenza Plan for the health sector, firefighters and police officers provide “an essential service that, if not sustained at a minimal level, would threaten public health, safety or security”.

Regardless, the Public Health Agency of Canada did not include firefighters in the first group to be vaccinated during the pandemic. The H1N1 outbreak showed that levels of protection vary from province to province and city to city, and thus the Public Health Agency of Canada must adopt a national protection protocol. Even our American neighbours, the Prime Minister's friends, included firefighters in the first group of people to be vaccinated. If the Prime Minister really sees himself as the champion of public safety, why has he done nothing about it since 2006? Nothing has been done. The Prime Minister merely makes glowing speeches, but has not taken any real action.

The motion also proposes introducing minimum standards in the National Building Code of Canada to enhance the safety of firefighters during a fire. In 2005, the government reviewed the National Building Code, but did not include firefighter safety as one of the standards in the code. What this means is that contractors are not required to consider the safety of firefighters when making decisions about structures and construction materials.

Try to imagine being firefighters who, at great personal risk, enter a building on fire, where the materials used are highly flammable and put their lives in danger. Furthermore, with the growing number of seniors, it will be more difficult and take more time to intervene because of the reduced mobility of these people. Introducing this standard would reduce the likelihood of firefighters being injured or killed in burning buildings.

I am expecting the Conservatives to reject this motion because they reject the principle of compensation for public safety officers, claiming that they want to avoid interfering in areas under provincial and municipal jurisdictions. We have already heard a few speeches to that effect. When the U.S. government introduced the public safety officer compensation benefit in 1976, it did not hide behind alleged jurisdictional issues. It introduced a benefit that quickly rose to $250,000.

I remind the government that public safety is a federal responsibility and that Veterans Affairs Canada compensates federal police officers as well as soldiers who are wounded or disabled in the line of duty. Firefighters are the only public safety officers who are not compensated with this type of benefit. I also remind the government that very few municipalities have set up compensation plans for their firefighters. Too many families struggle with financial uncertainty during a time of loss. In rare cases where compensation was provided, it was too little and came too late to relieve the pain and secure the future of the family in mourning.

How can we ask them to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect us when their government is not prepared to compensate them in a worst-case scenario? How can we ask them to risk their lives, knowing that their families will not be taken care of? Obviously, firefighters do not think about this kind of thing before doing their job. We must be appreciative of this complete dedication.

Such a benefit would not represent an exorbitant public expense. The International Association of Fire Fighters estimates that it would cost $7.5 million a year to pay a benefit of about $300,000 to survivors or to a firefighter who becomes permanently disabled. In the current economic climate, that is not a lot of money for a family that is struggling with such a tragedy. Instead of compensation, we expect the Conservatives to offer private-sector solutions whereby benefits would be paid to the family through a private insurance plan. They want to make the families of firefighters take on the responsibility. Firefighters will have to pay for private insurance to protect their families when they are performing their duties. That is unacceptable.

The government is prepared to give federal funding to build a memorial dedicated to firefighters fallen in the line of duty, but does not want to pay for such a benefit. That is offensive.

FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

11:10 a.m.


Scott Brison Liberal Kings—Hants, NS

Mr. Speaker, it is with pleasure that I rise today to speak to and in support of Motion No. 388 from the hon. member for Wascana.

I want to preface my remarks by saying that all members of the House recognize the remarkable service to Canadians that our firefighters and emergency service workers provide on an ongoing basis. We recognize the sacrifice they make on our behalf and the risk they take on an ongoing basis, not only in terms of immediate risk but with respect to the long-term health risks and damage to their health as a result of their work in what is a very dangerous vocation and public service.

I want to also say that the Liberal Party views the support of our firefighters and emergency service workers as absolutely essential. In fact, on page 57 of our platform for the last election, we proposed a community heroes fund. Representatives of police and firefighters have long called for a national fund to recognize the service and sacrifice of officers killed in the line of duty. A Liberal government would establish a community heroes fund that would pay a benefit of $300,000 to the family of fallen officers, not only helping to secure their financial future but also demonstrating the respect and gratitude of their communities and their country.

Furthermore, we also proposed a volunteer firefighters tax credit in the platform, which was a refundable tax credit that is quite different from the non-refundable tax credit proposed subsequently by the Conservative government. From a fairness perspective, a refundable tax credit would benefit all volunteer firefighters, whereas a non-refundable would perversely not benefit the lowest income volunteer firefighters. Therefore, I wanted to lay out a couple of concrete examples of our historic support for both our professional and volunteer firefighters.

I will read the specific motion to set the context.

It states:

That the House hereby affirm its support for the following measures to support Canada's firefighters which, in the opinion of the House, the government should act upon promptly: (a) the creation of a national Public Safety Officer Compensation Benefit in the amount of $300,000, indexed annually, to help address the financial security of the families of firefighters and other public safety officers who are killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty; (b) the recognition of firefighters, in their vital role as “first responders”, as an integral part of Canada’s “critical infrastructure”, and as “health care workers” under the Canada Influenza Pandemic Plan, entitled to priority access to vaccines and other drugs in cases of pandemics and other public health emergencies; (c) the specification of firefighter safety as an objective of the National Building Code of Canada; and (d) a review of the National Building Code of Canada, in conjunction with the International Association of Firefighters, to identify the most urgent safety issues impacting firefighters and the best means to address them.

As well, the International Association of Fire Fighters does an exceptional job in representing these professionals and these great Canadians in their work with members of Parliament and their representations to members of Parliament. I am sure all members would agree that they play an important role in bringing to light some of these important issues and priorities.

To begin with, it is absolutely essential and completely reasonable that we establish this public safety officer compensation benefit in the amount of $300,000.

I referenced the last Liberal platform having called for a similar community heroes fund. I would hope that members of Parliament from all parties would support the establishment of this fund for firefighters either killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty or for the families of those firefighters. I find it hard to imagine how there could be any opposition to something as reasonable as this.

Second, in terms of the recognition of firefighters and their vital role as first responders, this is something that has evolved in recent years, in that we see firefighters becoming more highly trained as medical professionals as well as traditional firefighting. Firefighters are often the first responders in a medical emergency. This change would recognize firefighters as health care workers, which they are. It would be difficult to argue that firefighters trained to perform emergency medical procedures are not medical workers. This change would simply recognize a fact that is unarguable. As such, the material change would be that, under the Canada influenza pandemic plan, the recognition of firefighters as health care workers would entitle them to priority access to vaccines and other drugs in cases of pandemics and other public health emergencies.

This is a recognition of two things: first of all, as I said, the material change in the training and education of firefighters and their performance of emergency medical procedures on an ongoing basis; but also the increased risk we face in Canada of pandemics and other public health emergencies. I find it hard to believe that anyone would disagree with this simple recommendation that came forward from the International Association of Fire Fighters.

The specification of firefighter safety is an objective of the national building code. This is key, and it is one of those recommendations that make us wonder why it was not done previously. We do have, as part of our national building code, certain provisions on issues related to protecting families and that sort of thing, but the reality is that the design of buildings can have a significant effect on the risk posed to firefighters in the event of an emergency. We ought to be aware of what those risks are, take them into account and incorporate them into the national building code. I suspect we could make some changes that would be relatively inconsequential to the functionality of buildings on an ongoing basis or even the cost of construction, but the changes could contribute significantly to the protection of the lives and wellbeing and the minimization of the risks to firefighters. This makes a great deal of sense.

Those three broad areas are ones we support wholeheartedly. We commend the hon. member for Wascana for putting this forward.

I would add that, on the volunteer firefighter's issue, I represent rural and small town communities in Nova Scotia where the lion's share of our fire protection is from volunteers. We would also call on the government to make fully refundable the volunteer firefighter's tax credit such that it would benefit all firefighters, particularly those low-income firefighters who do not benefit from the current tax credit because it is non-refundable.

I want to again commend the hon. member for Wascana for his commitment to firefighters and for putting Motion No. 388 forward.

FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.


Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, I am proud to rise in support of Motion No. 388, tabled in October 2012 by the member for Wascana.

This three-pronged motion mirrors previous motions from New Democrats, a total of 11 over the last number of years, calling for pandemic protection for firefighters, for national building code amendments and the creation of a national public safety officer compensation benefit. These motions reflected repeated requests from our brave and dedicated Canadian firefighters, requests that are sound and reasonable, and deserve a long overdue response. The responses that have been offered in recent years are an appreciated first step.

In 2005, the NDP Motion No. 153 called for the creation of a monument to fallen firefighters. The new Canadian Firefighters Memorial is a fitting tribute to the courage and dedication of firefighters. This memorial is an important way to ensure that the names of the brave men and women who have lost their lives in the line of duty are forever remembered. Likewise, the yearly memorial ceremony is an opportunity for Canadians to pay respect to the fallen firefighters and to show our solidarity. In my riding of Edmonton—Strathcona, our local firefighters are remembered with honour at an annual ceremony held at a monument paid for and preserved by the Edmonton Firefighters Memorial Society.

Our solidarity and appreciation for Canadian firefighters must go beyond mere symbols and tributes. This important motion promotes action to reduce the loss of firefighters' lives and to ensure that when, regrettably, a loss of life does occur, the family members left behind are adequately taken care of. This is the very least that we owe these brave men and women who put their lives at risk daily in the service of Canadians.

The first priority measure, identified by our firefighters for action by the federal government, is the creation of the national public safety officer compensation benefit. This would provide adequate compensation for firefighters killed or disabled in the line of duty. The awarding of compensation to survivors often depends upon municipalities, resulting in significant disparities across provinces and territories, and even among municipalities. For example, when Kevin Olson tragically lost his life in the 2005 fire in Yellowknife, his spouse received a mere $22,000 benefit.

In the tragic event of the loss of a firefighter's life, we can only imagine the grief of family members left to cope with such a heartbreaking loss. It is precisely at this time, at a time of mourning, when the financial pressures of bills and mortgages arise. Proper compensation for loss of life given to ensure public safety would allow families of fallen firefighters to be protected from the double hit of financial insecurity following their loss.

I am certain that Canadians would be surprised to hear that when firefighters are killed in the line of duty, their survivors are not eligible to receive the compensation available to RCMP officers and Canadian armed forces personnel. Yet they are men and women in uniform who are dedicated to protecting our public safety and security.

I had the privilege of doing the one-day firefighter work, all in uniform, wearing the tank and the hat, and going into a burning building. I have an even greater appreciation now for those firefighters. I proudly display my own personal fire hat in my office. What possible rationale is there for excluding firefighters from receiving this compensation?

The government frequently talks of its efforts for regulatory harmonization with our southern neighbour, yet in the United States a similar benefit for the families of fallen firefighters has been in existence since 1976. It is high time that this long called for compensation benefit be established in Canada. As a firefighter with the Edmonton Fire Fighters Union, Local 209, in my riding, advised me, “It is about the federal government recognizing the contribution of our nation's public safety officers, whether police, border guards or firefighters”.

Surely this is what the federal power of peace, order and good government is all about. In the view of Local 209 and all Canadian firefighters, it is the right thing to do. New Democrats agree it is the right thing to do. I encourage the government to support the motion and the creation of a universal compensation benefit similar to what is available to other public safety officers.

Second, the motion calls on the government to extend recognition to firefighters under the category of first responders under the Canada influenza pandemic plan. I would concur with the hon. member that firefighters certainly fall within the plan's parameters, including under critical infrastructure and as health care workers.

If properly applied, this designation would entitle firefighters to priority access to vaccines and other drugs in the event of a pandemic or other public health emergency. Firefighters rush to the assistance of Canadians at great personal risk daily, and it is only right and proper that every possible measure be implemented to protect the well-being of firefighters. In turn, this will protect Canadians.

Third, reduction of firefighter injury and death must be made a priority. This motion calls for critical amendments to the national building code to specify firefighter safety as an objective. Upgrades to the national building code should be made in direct consultation with firefighters. This would ensure that safety issues impacting firefighters would be identified and addressed.

I fully support this call, but frankly, many of the critical amendments have been long identified and could be expedited. Changes to the national building code will pave the way for parallel changes to provincial and territorial codes. In Edmonton, we saw, in the MacEwan fire disaster, an example of the impact when fire prevention measures are ignored. Closely built homes of flammable, vinyl materials and absent fire barriers resulted in a massive number of residences being destroyed by fire. Recommendations by fire safety experts had been ignored. Firefighters were put at risk combatting this major fire.

The recommended reforms to the national building code related to improving fire prevention and the safety of firefighters could prevent death and injury, and I point out that we, on this side of the House, are speaking about preventing victims. The Edmonton Fire Fighters Union, Local 209, has also wisely recommended a national database to register and track types of fires and incidence of injuries. Such a resource, if made accessible to all firefighters, would provide highly valuable information to prevent fires, injuries and deaths.

In summary, the time is long overdue for acting on these motions that have been brought forward over the past decade. Our firefighters deserve our support.

FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

11:30 a.m.


Wayne Easter Liberal Malpeque, PE

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Motion No. 388, put forward by my colleague, the member for Wascana. The motion would direct the House to take four measures in support of Canada's firefighters, increasingly known as first responders.

Normally, we as individuals never expect to require emergency service, be it as a result of a car accident, a farm accident, an accident on the waters with either a recreational or fishing boat, or a fire. However, if such an accident were to happen, a quick response can mean the difference between life and death. It can also mean preventing a relatively small amount of fire damage or other damage from becoming a real catastrophe to the community as a whole.

I had first-hand experience with the actions of firefighters, quite a considerable time ago, when I had a major fire on my farm operation. It involved a 14,000 square foot barn and a dairy operation, and four fire departments responded to the call. We saw how those firefighters worked on site and coordinated their activities to prevent further damage from occurring. We saw how they showed up to where the fire was happening with about three seconds of notice when their pagers went off. They were mainly voluntary firefighters in that case. With about three seconds' notice on a day in May when they were doing their own work in their own fields or businesses, at the drop of a hat, they headed to the emergency. Some of them were on the site for as long as 24 hours. That is dedication and that is service to the community. They can make a huge difference between life and death or in preventing a further catastrophe from happening. Therefore, we have to recognize them on a number of fronts.

I will deal specifically with each issue in the motion. The first requests that the House affirm its support for:

(a) the creation of a national Public Safety Officer Compensation Benefit in the amount of $300,000, indexed annually, to help address the financial security of the families of firefighters and other public safety officers who are killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty....

This kind of measure is in place in the United States and we have it in place for military personnel. It could be seen as a cushion for those families who allow their husbands, wives, brothers or sisters to operate as first responders in a fire department. It gives those families some security in knowing that should something happen there would be at least some financial compensation that would protect them into the future. It would do two things. It would give the families assurance that, should something happen, there would be some security there for them, and it would also give firefighters or first responders some assurance that their families would have some measure of protection should an event happen that causes them to lose their lives.

This one-time payment of $300,000, paid by the Government of Canada to the family of a firefighter who lost his or her life in the line of duty, would therefore go a long way to help families deal with a tragic situation, free from the concern of individual bargaining agreements or subject to their province.

At an estimated annual cost of only $10 million to $12 million, can members really argue that this is too high a price to pay to recognize the service of someone who has laid down his or her life in saving others? I think not. We should be able to do this. There is no reason the House cannot approve this measure and give such assurance to first responders and their families.

The second point is the recognition of firefighters' vital role as first responders and their integral role as part of Canada's critical infrastructure, as well as health care workers under the Canadian influenza pandemic plan. In other words, they should be entitled to priority access to vaccines and other drugs in cases of pandemics or other public health emergencies. That is an extremely important point. I am almost shocked this is in fact not the case yet. As first responders to medical emergencies, including people who are in respiratory distress, firefighters are likely to come into contact with infected people in the course of their duties. As a result, they are at an increased risk of exposure to infection during an influenza pandemic.

Recall the H1N1 and SARS outbreaks. These things do happen. We never know when the next occurrence might be. I think we would all want to feel that firefighters have access to the vaccines necessary because they will be assisting people in places where they will be at greater risk. It only makes sense for them to be included in that plan so they can receive the vaccines necessary to protect their health.

The Canadian pandemic influenza plan notes that firefighters and other first responders provide “an essential service that, if not sustained at a minimal level, would threaten public health, safety or security”. A study concluded that without any precautions, 25% to 30% of firefighters could be unavailable at the height of a moderate pandemic, leaving fire departments unable to provide adequate services, including fire suppression, search and rescue, protection of our national infrastructure, and in most communities, first response to medical emergencies.

Other countries, like the United States and Germany, include firefighters and their first responders for vaccinations. Therefore, it only makes sense that we should as well.

The third thing the motion does is to specify that firefighter safety should be an objective of the National Building Code of Canada. It is a very important point and relates to the fourth point as well. I will read it and speak to both at the same time. The fourth point calls for “a review of the National Building Code of Canada, in conjunction with the International Association of Firefighters, to identify the most urgent safety issues impacting firefighters and the best means to address them”.

Perhaps many people in the House do not even know that when one walks onto the floor of a new house, the joists holding up that floor are not nailed together as they used to be. Only glue is being used. Therefore, if there is a fire in the basement and a firefighter walks onto that top floor, the glue has melted by then and the first thing that happens is the whole house collapses.

Those are some of the things that we have to look at and Motion No. 388 will assist us in doing that. I urge people to strongly support this measure.

FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

11:40 a.m.


Mylène Freeman NDP Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, QC

Mr. Speaker, this motion is really important to me because it affects people in my riding to whom I am truly grateful for the work they do to keep our community safe.

The purpose of Motion M-388 is to help Canada's firefighters. These heroes demonstrate exceptional courage in fighting fires. It is high time that the government followed through on its promises. It must immediately do what is necessary to compensate the families of firefighters who are killed in the line of duty.

The Académie des pompiers, an institution of excellence in my riding of Argenteuil—Papineau—Mirabel, trains firefighting recruits. I would very much like to be able to assure those who are being trained in this field that their member of Parliament is proud of them and supports them, and that their government cares about their safety and recognizes their work.

I would also like to take a moment to talk about firefighters who, unfortunately, are often overlooked. I am talking about our volunteer firefighters—people for whom fighting fires is not a full-time job, but is nevertheless a calling. I know many people like this in my riding. They are outstanding members of the community. We must thank them because they do not do this work to make a living. They do it because they like doing it and they want to help the community.

As a little side note, I want to thank a man named George, who was very influential in my life. He was my bus driver when I was in high school. Unfortunately, he passed away. He was a volunteer fire chief. He was a wonderful man who always managed to get us to school on time, even if he had to go to put out a fire early in the morning. He was really an incredible man and had a huge influence on my life because he had such a big heart.

The motion before us is a step in the right direction. It sets out three measures being called for by the International Association of Fire Fighters, which the NDP has been actively supporting for a number of years now. These measures are: a public safety officer compensation fund, priority access to vaccines and antivirals for firefighters in the case of a pandemic, and the creation of minimum standards in the National Building Code of Canada to enhance the safety of firefighters. The people of my riding are calling for these measures.

One of the letters I received in response to this motion was from André Genest, the mayor of Wentworth—Nord, a small township in my riding. He got me the support of Jason Neil, the chief of Wentworth—Nord's fire department and first responders unit.

In an email, Mr. Neil accurately described the measures called for in this motion. He said:

These are modest, reasonable and well-thought-out requests. The motion will be debated and voted on in Parliament this fall. This will be an important opportunity for members of Parliament to show that they support the courageous individuals who risk their lives every day to keep Canadians safe.

It is an honour to rise here to speak in favour of this important motion on behalf of my constituents, for the safety of the men and women who protect them and me. I would like to do more than simply support this motion; I would like to underscore all of the work done by the NDP, by many of my colleagues in this House, for firefighters in particular.

We do not have to go back very far to see how important measures like the ones in this motion are to the NDP. There is no doubt that the NDP is the party that stands up for firefighters and their families. The NDP has moved 11 out of the 12 motions, including this one, that have been moved in the House of Commons on the subject of firefighters, their safety and recognizing their work.

I wish to congratulate and thank my colleagues from London—Fanshawe, Vancouver East and Newton—North Delta, to name just a few.

They have introduced bills on the following subjects: a national office for fire statistics; a death benefit for public safety officers; independent investigations when a firefighter dies in the line of duty; changes to the National Building Code; a public safety officer compensation fund; protection for firefighters in the event of pandemics; and tightened regulations on fire services at airports.

Of course I cannot forget my hon. colleague from Burnaby—New Westminster, a pioneer in this struggle on behalf of firefighters. The NDP has been actively working on this issue for 10 years now, and it won adoption of Motion No. 153 in the House of Commons in October 2005. One of the key components of the motion moved by my colleague from Burnaby—New Westminster is reiterated in the motion currently before us: the creation of a public safety officer compensation benefit.

The other part of Motion No. 153 was the creation of a national memorial to commemorate firefighters who have died in the line of duty. The government achieved this on September 14, 2009. This is an effective symbol to ensure that we properly recognize the sacrifices made by Canadian firefighters who have given their lives or have been injured in the line of duty. However, it is more than just a symbol.

A public safety officer compensation benefit still has not been created in Canada because the government feels that this is the responsibility of the municipalities and the provinces. The Conservatives have to understand that the provincial jurisdictions are to be used as guidelines for respecting the other levels of government and not as excuses for inaction. Contrary to what the Conservatives' short-sightedness suggests, it is possible to work with the municipalities and the provincial governments to improve things. The mayor of Wentworth-Nord said in a press release that it was very important. The municipalities are calling for this.

Firefighters, public safety officers and their families deserve better. We must combine our efforts to ensure that the value of their exceptional contribution is recognized.

It is clear that the NDP has been the most active party in matters affecting the health and safety of firefighters.

This support is seen not just in the motions moved in the House. The NDP has officially expressed its support for the demands of the International Association of Fire Fighters in a number of speeches by our leaders during the association's annual conventions.

In closing, I want to thank the hon. Liberal member for Wascana. I want to thank him first for moving this motion, and also for acknowledging, in his August 27 letter calling for support for his motion, the NDP's efforts in all this. The NDP is proud to see that, in this motion, the Liberals are supporting something for which the NDP has been fighting for over a decade.

I want to thank all hon. members who are supporting this motion and these common sense measures for our firefighters and their families. I want to thank them for joining the NDP in its fight for greater justice in this matter.

FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

11:45 a.m.


Ralph Goodale Liberal Wascana, SK

Mr. Speaker, I thank everyone who has participated in this debate on Motion No. 388. I am grateful for the support that has been offered from all three parties in the House and the independents. I am grateful for that and hope that will be reflected in the vote on Wednesday.

I regret that the government's official position with respect to Motion No. 388 seems to be to oppose the motion. I will address the two key arguments that some of the government members have used in expressing their opposition. One of them has to do with jurisdiction and the feeling that somehow Motion No. 388 encroaches upon provincial or municipal jurisdiction. In fact, there is no such encroachment.

I will discuss the three elements that are involved in the motion. The first of them deals with the National Building Code of Canada. By definition, the National Building Code is under the jurisdiction of the Parliament of Canada. Therefore, there is no encroachment on anybody else's jurisdiction there.

The second element is the issue of vaccines. The guidance that is being talked about in my motion is federal guidance on vaccine priorities as developed and published by the Public Health Agency of Canada. Again, there is no infringement on provincial or municipal jurisdictions. The provinces and local authorities would retain their full local flexibility. That remains fully intact. It is simply at the federal level that the advice would be offered about the priority to be given to firefighters and first responders.

The third element is the issue of the public safety officer compensation benefit. I am happy to note that in virtually every civilized country in the western world, including the United States, it has been recognized that this is an appropriate national obligation for governments to acknowledge. Why is that so? Apart from paying tribute to the important work that firefighters, first responders and public safety officers do in our society, there are some other very tangible benefits to providing this benefit at the national level. First, consistency is gained in the treatment of all public safety officers regardless of what level they happen to be employed at. Second, some of the pressure, cost pressure in particular, is taken off of the local municipalities. Third, the collective bargaining process will probably be improved by bringing in this provision at the national level and removing what could be an irritant at the local level. Fourth, a compensation plan for all public safety officers across all jurisdictions can be designed that will roughly match what is available today for members of the Canadian Armed Forces and the RCMP. All of that can be accomplished at the federal level through the adoption of this measure without, in any way, encroaching upon local or provincial jurisdiction.

The second argument is one of cost. I want to point out that the cost of this measure, particularly the compensation benefit, is very modest, entirely scalable and within the control of the government because it is the government that will ultimately define who falls within the definition of a public safety officer. Surely, firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians would fall within that definition. Beyond that, it is the government's call to draft the definition in the legislation. However we cut it, annually the cost will be a modest one, less than the cost of government advertising, a security detail for the Prime Minister, a three-day meeting of the G8 or G20 or a rounding error in the government's fiscal framework. Therefore, it is affordable.

Finally, on the issue about how current MPs have previously voted in the House on similar proposals, I am pleased to report that some who previously voted no will be voting yes this time, which improves the chances that this measure will pass. Let me observe that there are 48 Conservative members in the House today who were also in the House the last time a similar measure to this one was voted upon and every one of those 48 Conservative MPs voted yes. I would certainly invite them to do it again. We need to get this job done and we need to do it together in the interest of what is right for Canadian firefighters.

FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

The question is on the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?

FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Some hon. members



FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

All those in favour of the motion will please say yea.

FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Some hon. members


FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

All those opposed will please say nay.

FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Some hon. members


FirefightersPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

In my opinion the yeas have it.

And five or members having risen:

Pursuant to Standing Order 93 the division stands deferred until Wednesday, November 21, immediately before the time provided for private members' business.

Suspension of SittingFirefightersPrivate Members' Business

11:55 a.m.


The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

The House will stand suspended until 12 o'clock.

(The sitting of the House was suspended at 11:56 a.m.)

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

The House resumed from November 8 consideration of the motion that Bill C-44, An Act to amend the Canada Labour Code and the Employment Insurance Act and to make consequential amendments to the Income Tax Act and the Income Tax Regulations, be read the third time and passed.

Helping Families in Need ActGovernment Orders



Rodger Cuzner Liberal Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, I thought for sure the NDP members would finish their debate first, but you are the person in charge so I will go on your advice.

It is a great pleasure to join the debate on Bill C-44. It is important and worthwhile legislation. The committee has been somewhat seized by it the last number of meetings and by very compelling testimony, which I will refer to as I make my remarks.

At the outset, the Liberal Party believes in the spirit and intent of the legislation. Since the bill was brought forward by the government, It has supported the legislation throughout the process.

The essence of bill is to amend the Canada Labour Code and the Employment Insurance Act, to make consequential amendments to the Income Tax Act and the income tax regulations that will offer support to families facing unthinkable and traumatic sad events.

Over the past month, the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities has heard from medical experts, social service experts, charities, not-for-profit groups and others that are doing good work to help families through incredibly difficult times, trying to care for a critically ill, missing or murdered child.

Most important, we heard from the families. I want to thank them first and foremost for the strength and courage they brought to these meetings and for their ability to advocate for the types of support that would have helped them through times of unfathomable grief.

As I look around at the members in the House today, I think we can all agree that regardless of what the legislation might be, when the bill goes to committee, we have access to people, experts in the field. Many times we are inundated with numbers in the millions and billions. The testimony through these hearings and through the review of the bill was not about millions or billions; it was about the one child who had gone missing or the one child who was lost because of a critical illness. The testimony was about knowing that this was more important than anything else in the lives of people.

It was a very emotional time for those witnesses who came to our committee and shared their stories. I know they hold the appreciation, the thanks and the respect of our entire committee.

Some who gave testimony said that this was a first good step, but there was more that could be done. I will speak about that a little later on when I talk about some of the amendments put forward.

Bill C-44 could have been improved. Many of the witnesses made some very concrete and positive recommendations to strengthen the bill. I had hoped that those recommendations would not have fallen on deaf ears, but unfortunately the government did not feel changes had to be made. The way that the bill was presented certainly took a couple of those amendments off the table. In fact, none of the amendments offered either by the NDP or by the Liberal Party made it through.

We based our amendments around the testimony we heard. We went through the process of gathering that information, and we made the amendments according to the facts that were established during the course of the hearings. We certainly put our amendments forward in the spirit of making the bill better for Canadians.

A number of amendments were declared out of order on the grounds they were beyond the scope of Bill C-44. It was disappointing they were not implemented and the opportunity to strengthen the bill was overruled by the government.

I would like to talk about a couple of the amendments. On behalf of our party, I raised two categories of amendments to Bill C-44. These would have made changes to the Employment Insurance Act and the Canada Labour Code.

The first one was to extend the leave of absence for a parent of a critically ill child from 37 weeks to 52 weeks. We heard from parents and other stakeholders that 52 weeks would be an absolutely reasonable period of time. Critically ill children are often struggling for their lives well beyond 37 weeks and it seemed unfair and unreasonable to restrict the period to 36 weeks, especially when the legislation would provide for 52 weeks for parents of a missing or murdered children.

As a person, not even a member of Parliament, how do we quantify the amount of pain and grief that one experiences when one has a missing and/or murdered child? What that would take from a person, mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually, would be enormous. However, if parents have to watch their sons or daughters battle with a critical illness, are we in a position to judge which is more distressing or more hurtful? We thought we could apply the same grace to parents of critically ill children by increasing the employment insurance benefit to 52 weeks from 37.

The other amendment was to extend the unpaid leave in EI benefits to 14 days after the day on which a recipient's child died, instead of the last day of the week, to provide parents with additional support during a period of grief.

Both of these amendments asked that the parents of children who died from a critical illness be afforded two additional weeks to grieve. As it stands in Bill C-44, special benefits for parents of a critical ill child would expire on the last day of the week in which the child died. This means that if a child passes away on a Thursday, the child's mother or father would be required to return to work that following Monday. Therefore, the parent loses a child on Thursday and has to return to work on Monday.

If bereaved parents returned to a workplace that required a degree of concentration, maybe it would impact on the safety of others working around them. We would expect people in a position of trust or responsibility to be sound of mind and mentally prepared to perform the duties that are asked of them on a daily basis. I would think if parents are dealing with the death of a child, they would want some time to come to terms with that, to work with their families, their spouses and their other children. We thought it would have been in order to extend that benefit for an additional two weeks. That was ruled out of order as well.

Our amendments would have increased the supports for the parents to receive the same types of benefits through this incredibly dark time.

The other amendment was to eliminate the unequal and unfairness of the labour force attachment by reducing the number of labour force attachment hours required of employment insurance claimants from 600 to 420 that would have to be worked over the six-month period. Reducing the number of hours required would have the effect of extending benefits to part-time workers. We know the number of part-time workers has grown in the country.

In 2004, one in eight jobs were of a part-time nature. Now, one in seven jobs are of a part-time nature. That is fairly significant. It is a big change in the fundamentals of the workforce structure in our country. The amendment we put forward would have addressed the number, especially if a primary caregiver were the mother. The number of women in the workforce who work part-time far exceeds the number of men who work part-time.

We asked the government how it arrived at this number and it could not really provide a legitimate rationale for the 600 hour requirement. We quizzed officials on this and they said that they chose this number because that was what was required to receive special benefits. It was synchronized up like that. There was no other rationale for it. If they had looked at the changing nature of the workforce and the fact that the part-time worker segment had grown so much over the last eight years, they may have been able to alter their perception to improve the legislation.

In analyzing how many parents could potentially qualify, we found a significant percentage would not meet the minimum hourly requirement. In 2011, 25% of parents of children under age 18 worked part-time, a very substantive number, part-time being fewer than 30 hours a week. These parents worked an average of 16.5 hours a week. Had they worked continuously for six months, they would have only worked 430 hours, not enough to qualify for the EI benefit. In fact, 80% of fathers and 75% of mothers who worked part-time, worked fewer than what would be required to reach the 600 hours over the course of 26 weeks. That means 275,000 fathers and 680,000 mothers would not qualify for this new special benefit. It is just wrong to take that number of Canadians and tell them they will be unable to receive the same support as another group of Canadians. It is truly unfortunate and is a missed opportunity.

Had the bill not been introduced so quickly, the opposition may have had time to make improvements at second reading. We heard time after time, almost to a witness, that the age requirement of 18 should be increased. Certainly both opposition parties made a point of this knowing that parents did not stop caring for or trying to support their children just because they turned the magic age of 19. Parents are in it for the long haul. The witnesses believed that the age requirement should be increased.

The bill was brought forward and rushed through second reading. The minister announced the legislation on September 20. The next week, on September 26, the debate at second reading of Bill C-44 began.

However, the technical briefing on the bill, which would amend three pieces of legislation, did not occur until after second reading debate had already begun. We were in the midst of that when the technical briefing took place.

That is the devil in the detail aspect of the way the government has decided it is going to put forward its legislation. We have seen that in the omnibus bill and in a number of other pieces of legislation. Probably the most egregious example would be the budget bill. If they can jam as much as they can in there and run it through as quickly as they can, it would serve some type of purpose. However, if had been given a real opportunity to refine that piece of legislation, we could have put forward the amendments to increase the age and changed the allowable number of hours for part-time workers from 600 down to 420. These changes would have included a greater number of the Canadians who really live on the edges.

However, that is not the way the Conservatives decided to go about it. Indeed, considering the expertise within the public service in the Department of Human Resources, it would have been very useful to have the briefing well before the debate at second reading to provide adequate time to prepare amendments to strengthen this legislation.

I bring members' attention to the fact that in 2002 the Liberal government of the day passed Bill C-49, and I was fortunate to be part of that government. That bill amended the Employment Insurance Act to make the stacking provisions more lenient. The intention of the bill at that time was to ensure that a person who fell ill during a parental leave could also collect EI sickness benefits. What unfortunately happened was that the bureaucracy did not follow the intent of Parliament's legislation and refused perhaps thousands of parents who fell ill during their parental leave.

It was only after one lady appealed the denial of her benefits that the real issue came to light. In 2010, Natalya Rougas, a Toronto mother, was diagnosed with breast cancer while on maternity leave. However, after applying for EI sick benefits her claim was rejected on the grounds that she was on maternity leave and therefore not available for work. She appealed the decision and won her case last year, entitling her to a maximum of 15 weeks of sick benefits in addition to the 50 weeks of maternity and parental benefits that she took after her son was born in January 2009. In his ruling, released in 2011, Justice R.J. Marin said that the legislative changes in 2002 in Bill C-49 were intended to make sick benefits available to women who became ill immediately before, during or after receiving maternity benefits.

Justice Marin later explained that “If the (Employment Insurance) Commission were to give a more liberal interpretation to the provisions of the Act in relation to women who are able to establish a serious illness at the end of their maternal/parental leave, its approach would be consistent with the will of elected officials”. That is a key point, which has been reinforced by a further ruling. Marin also stated that the law was not being interpreted “in the way in which Parliament had intended”.

The lawyer for Ms. Rougas, Mr. Stephen Moreau, expects there are 3,000 or 4,000 such people out there to which this applies. It was funny too that when Bill C-49 was being put forward to make people eligible for those stacking provisions, the Conservatives voted against it. One of their favourite lines is: “These guys voted against it”. Well, they voted against this stacking provision. I do not know where this stands right now and whether these people are being allowed to receive the benefits. However, Judge Marin certainly believes these have always been in order.

I look forward to answering some questions.

Helping Families in Need ActGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.


Harold Albrecht Conservative Kitchener—Conestoga, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his speech, in particular for indicating that he would be supporting the bill. I am grateful for that.

I had the privilege of working on a cross-party group that studied the issue of palliative care. The Parliamentary Committee on Palliative and Compassionate Care heard from hundreds of Canadians on this issue. I would like to read into the record one the comments we heard. This lady said:

Governments must support and invest in families during these tragically difficult times. The long term socio-economic benefits and returns of supporting families are far greater than the supposed cost savings that result from a politics of inertia. Doing nothing simply raises the toll of broken individuals and families. Colleen [her daughter] is living proof that there are gaps in our social and support systems that need to be updated. I am asking you [the committee] to extend compassionate leave benefits to at least 26 weeks in a 52 week period. I am also asking that you change the qualifying criteria to “gravely ill” as opposed to “significant risk of death”.

Both of these requests were granted. In fact, we went further than that by granting 35 weeks of benefits. Does my colleague not agree that this is a great step forward on something that has not been addressed by many governments for so long?

Helping Families in Need ActGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.


Rodger Cuzner Liberal Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, if we are going to quantify the word “great”, I would say it would mean a very good step forward. I will give the member a “very good” on that.

The member for Kitchener—Conestoga made reference to the palliative care committee and its strong collaborative work. However, I know it could have been better. If the legislation had been brought forward during second reading, I know that we could have made some changes to it to increase the age. We would have been able to deal with the required number of hours to accommodate part-time workers. I know that this could have been better. Therefore, “good” is pretty good, but I think there is the opportunity to be better.

When we talked about the other witnesses, I wanted to recognize as well our colleague from Brant who spoke in the House about his own personal ordeal. It was probably one of the most powerful speeches I have heard from a member in the House. I want to recognize him in my comments.

Helping Families in Need ActGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.


Chris Charlton NDP Hamilton Mountain, ON

Mr. Speaker, I had the privilege of working with the member on the committee and on the bill. Like him, we too will be supporting the legislation. Like him, we too believe that it is an important first step; but it is just that, a first step in doing right, in particular for parents of murdered and missing children.

I brought up at committee the fact that the government is asking parents to have earned at least $6,500 before they can qualify for a grant supporting them in their time of bereavement. I do not really understand why it should be $6,500, when clearly, if someone is making $10 an hour, they have to work 650 hours to qualify. If the person is making $100 an hour, he or she only has to work 65 hours. Why should that matter if their child is missing or murdered? Surely any parent who is going through that ordeal deserves the government's support without being means tested in such a bizarre way.

My colleague and I from the Liberal Party explored that issue at committee. I think we both agree, but I wonder whether he heard from the minister any explanation at all during the course of this debate about why this kind of means testing is essential in the bill?

Helping Families in Need ActGovernment Orders

12:25 p.m.


Rodger Cuzner Liberal Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, what it comes down to is that the bill is going to help, I think the anticipated number is, about 6,000 to 7,000 Canadians a year. None of us as parents would ever want to go through an ordeal like that, so for the federal government to stand by them in their time of need is very important.

Again, the means test is an issue for those who are the most vulnerable. If someone is working a part-time job and only making minimum wage, or working for 450 hours a year in a seasonal industry in a remote community, the person is so exposed when something like this happens. They cannot plan for this. They do not say they are looking forward to the day his or her child gets a terminal illness, that they have money tucked away for that. That is not how people live their lives. These families are just rocked to the core and decimated emotionally and, for many of them, financially as well.

Yes, Bill C-44 will help a number of people, but I know that we could have done more. Had we brought it forward during second reading, I know we could have made it better for many more Canadians.

Helping Families in Need ActGovernment Orders

12:25 p.m.


John McKay Liberal Scarborough—Guildwood, ON

Mr. Speaker, I think the most disturbing part of my colleague's speech had to do with the child who dies on a Thursday night and the parents are required to be back at work on Monday morning. However, when he presented an amendment to that effect, it was ruled out of order.

I am curious about the government's rationale in those circumstances. Why would the Conservatives not present their own amendment to such an obvious uncaring and unfeeling response to what is arguably the most significant tragedy in any family, the loss of a child?

Helping Families in Need ActGovernment Orders

12:25 p.m.


Rodger Cuzner Liberal Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, dealing with the death of a child is something we hope not to have to go through. However, of all the shortcomings in the bill, one of the most obvious is not to have addressed the requirement that someone be back to work on Monday after burying their child over the weekend.

Why was that not addressed? This goes back to the genesis of the bill, the way it was presented and rushed through at second reading. The Conservatives are not saying no to this, but because of the procedural approach they took in presenting the bill, if an amendment of ours alters the bill's scope, then they do not have to say no because the amendment would be out of order. They can limit the scope of amendments by altering the process to have second reading before the technical briefing. Then the Conservatives do not have to be the big bad wolf and say they would not support these people. It is truly unfortunate.

This is one provision that I know both opposition parties would have supported. However, it was not forthcoming. Again, it is an opportunity missed.

Helping Families in Need ActGovernment Orders

12:30 p.m.

Simcoe—Grey Ontario


Kellie Leitch ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development and to the Minister of Labour

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the opposition parties for their support of this bill. It is greatly appreciated. However, I want to correct the record so that we are all clear.

The reason we are expediting this bill is so that Canadian families can benefit, full stop. We want them to have access to these opportunities as soon as possible, and I think the opposition completely agrees with that.

Second, with regard to the age of 18, this is a very set criterion in the institutions that I have worked in and, actually, currently work in. Pediatric physicians do not actually take good care of adults.

My question for the member is very open-ended. Could he please tell me the things he liked about the bill and why he thinks it is important for Canadian families?

Helping Families in Need ActGovernment Orders

12:30 p.m.


Rodger Cuzner Liberal Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, I'm just going to dig out my PMO talking points for an infomercial.

I thought I said fairly eloquently during my remarks in the House that there are good components of the bill, which we have supported from day one at first reading. However, it would have been better to have had the opportunity to make reasoned amendments to improve the legislation and access for a greater number of Canadians in need.

We know the bill is a positive step for a group of people, but we thought it could have helped even more Canadians who find themselves in pain and turmoil and thrust into a situation the bill addresses.