Madam Speaker, today I am speaking to Bill C-224, sponsored by the member for Longueuil—Charles-LeMoyne. This bill provides for the development of a national framework designed to raise awareness of cancers linked to firefighting and to support improved access for firefighters to cancer prevention and treatment, while also designating the month of January as firefighter cancer awareness month.
This bill has some very good points that we fully agree with, as well as some that are not so good, even though they come from a good place. Since we are at the stage of passing the bill in principle, I would like to say from the outset that we will be voting in favour of the principle of Bill C‑224, so that it can be sent to committee to be studied and improved.
We fully support the idea of officially designating January as firefighter cancer awareness month. Firefighting is considered to be one of the most demanding professions, both physically and psychologically. It is important to recognize that and focus on it.
Ever since childhood, it has been ingrained in our collective imagination that firefighters are real-life superheroes, and for good reason. Firefighters endure extremely difficult working conditions. They are constantly surrounded by hazards such as fire, electricity, chemicals, and toxic fumes. There is the ever-present risk of injury and burns. They often have brushes with death, and some of them even die. They push their bodies to their physical limits. In everything that they do and every move that they make, they are in a race against time, and each passing second wreaks havoc and ratchets up the danger level.
To further complicate matters, a number of recent studies show that firefighters also face invisible threats in the form of toxic chemicals that can cause long-term occupational illnesses, including heart disease, lung damage and cancer, and it is easy to understand why. When firefighters battle a blaze inside and outside a building, they are exposed to dangerous toxic gases. Wearing a respirator helps protect them by minimizing exposure to inhaled chemicals, but particles can stick to and contaminate their protective clothing, mask, boots and gloves, meaning that by touching them, firefighters can become contaminated through their skin. This is a real problem that cannot be ignored and must be addressed quickly. That is why we will vote to accept this bill in principle.
We want firefighters to know that this issue matters to us, that we recognize the amazing work they do and that we are deeply grateful to them. The federal government can play a huge role in many aspects of firefighters' health, and this bill puts forward some very interesting ones, such as the following points that would be in the national framework:
(a) explain the link between firefighting and certain types of cancer;
(d) promote research and improve data collection on the prevention and treatment of cancers linked to firefighting;
(e) promote information and knowledge sharing in relation to the prevention and treatment of cancers linked to firefighting;
It is very important that the federal government fund research on these cancers and their treatments and make that information widely available. That really is an essential part of the equation that goes hand in hand with collecting data on prevention to increase our knowledge about illnesses related to this profession. What did we know 30 years ago about toxic residues being absorbed through the skin and how serious that could be? Very little.
The federal government also contributes through the memorial grant program for first responders, the heavy urban search and rescue program, and the plan to protect firefighters, which is based on managing and authorizing chemicals.
The problem with Bill C‑224 is that the strategy it proposes is flawed. The work of firefighters generally does not fall under federal jurisdiction, yet two of the bill's suggestions are outlined as though the government did have jurisdiction in these matters.
First, paragraph 3(3)(c) requires the strategic framework proposed by the member for Longueuil—Charles-LeMoyne to include measures to “provide for firefighters across Canada to be regularly screened for cancers linked to firefighting”. The idea that professionals exposed to a cancer risk should have access to periodic cancer screening obviously makes sense. That is clear to us. That should happen. The problem is that the federal government has no jurisdiction here, and so it is difficult to imagine that this aspect of the bill would be of any use in advancing our firefighters' worthy cause.
If the federal government wants to ensure that firefighters' cancers are detected in time, it should give the Quebec and provincial health care systems the means to make that happen by increasing health transfers to 35%, with a 6% escalator. This would get the health care systems in Quebec and the provinces back on track and help them detect cancer in firefighters and other patients in time to treat them effectively. That is the federal government's responsibility.
Furthermore, paragraph 3(3)(f) requires the national framework to include measures to “establish national standards to recognize cancers linked to firefighting as occupational diseases”. Unfortunately, while the federal government does have free rein to set national standards for the firefighters under its jurisdiction, such as firefighters working in the armed forces, it cannot under any circumstances set federal standards that would infringe on the jurisdictions of the Quebec and provincial labour boards.
Under the Constitution Act, 1867, workplace safety is a provincial jurisdiction, excluding federally regulated businesses. In Quebec, the Commission des normes, de l'équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail, or CNESST, has the authority to compensate workers who contract work-related illnesses. In Quebec, nine cancers are currently recognized as being linked to firefighting. That said, the Bloc Québécois agrees that this is far from perfect and that more needs to be done. Let us be clear: Nine is not enough.
We support these demands from firefighters and believe that what is recognized in other provinces for the same work should logically also be recognized in Quebec. However, that is not for Bill C‑224 to determine. These are recommendations and submissions that will have to be made to the proper authorities. The federal government has no role to play here. If Bill C‑224 were adopted as is, it could wind up causing a jurisdictional battle at the expense of firefighters. The last thing we want to do is exploit them.
According to the Constitution Act, 1867, municipal institutions fall under the jurisdiction of Quebec and the provinces. In Quebec, for instance, the responsibilities associated with fire prevention, fire preparedness and firefighting are clearly set out in the Fire Safety Act, which divides the responsibilities among citizens, municipalities, the provincial government and the various fire departments.
We recognize that progress has been made and must continue to be made to ensure that firefighters have better protections, but ultimately, we need to remember that the federal government has no jurisdiction over workplace health and safety or over occupational diseases among firefighters. Interference in jurisdictions is never an effective solution, in the short or long term.
Let us work together to advance this cause and reach out to the authorities who actually have the power to change things. We will vote in favour of the principle of the bill. We want to improve it in committee to ensure that the bill can meet its objectives and protect our firefighters.