Madam Speaker, I thank the previous speaker for her very heartfelt interest in this bill.
I am honoured to rise in the House to speak about such an important bill. I would like to thank the member for Longueuil—Charles-LeMoyne for the work she has done to create this bill and educate members and the public about how vital this legislation is, and for advocating for the protection of firefighters all across our country. I would also like to thank the International Association of Fire Fighters, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, the Kitchener Professional Firefighters Association and the Cambridge Professional Fire Fighters' Association for the work they have done lobbying for support for this bill and for the work they do every day to keep us safe.
The importance of Bill C-224, an act to establish a national framework for the prevention and treatment of cancers linked to firefighting, cannot be overstated. All across the country, from coast to coast to coast, firefighters put themselves in harm’s way for the safety of others. They regularly enter unknown and unfamiliar situations that pose an immediate danger to the public. However, long after the situation has passed, the long-term and lasting effects of their service are largely unknown.
As members of Parliament, we have a moral obligation to do everything in our power to protect those who so selflessly protect us and those we represent in the House. This bill would ensure that no matter where a firefighter is serving, at least some of the long-term threats posed to them will be recognized equally. Whether they are responding to a car accident in British Columbia, a structural fire in the Yukon or a hazardous materials incident in Newfoundland, the risk of cancers posed to them because of their service will be recognized.
It is heart-wrenching to consider how many mothers have lost sons and daughters, how many spouses have lost partners and how many children have lost parents because of occupational cancer. More than 85% of all duty-related deaths among firefighters are caused by occupational cancers, a prevalence of roughly three times more than the average Canadian.
Although progress has been made by the government to limit the chance of exposure to harmful chemicals that are known to be carcinogenic, a national framework is necessary, as it would help address, all across the country, the threats faced by substances when we do not know what exposure could lead to. For firefighters, exposure to a harmful substance can occur at any time of day, but a physical reaction to a substance can occur at any point in their lives. The recognition of occupational cancers for firefighters has been a struggle for far too long.
In the city of Kitchener, in March 1987, Kitchener firefighters were called to a structural fire. It was a large fire that occurred at a local manufacturing company. Multiple alarms were called, and there were only two units in the entire city that were not at the fire at one point or another. Some of the witnesses at the scene described “smoke and flame that was every colour of the rainbow”. The blaze continued through the night and into the following morning until it was finally extinguished. In total, 69 firefighters took part in fighting this fire.
At the time, the fire marshal reported that there were no significant injuries from the incident. The only exception to this was Captain Ed Stahley, who went to the hospital, as he had a green appearance. It turned out to be nothing more than green dye used in the manufacturing of Oasis floral foam. However, what no one knew at the time was that while it just seemed like a busy night for a mid-size fire department, the exposure to the chemicals used in the manufacturing of this foam would have tragic consequences for years to come.
It only took two years for firefighters to begin dying of cancer caused by their participation in this fire, with several fathering children with birth defects. Dave Ferrede was the first to pass, and tragically not the last, dying only six weeks after being diagnosed with primary liver cancer. He was 32 years old. Those who attended the fire experienced a wide array of physical ailments, with 23 of the 69 firefighters getting either cancer or Parkinson’s disease.
For decades, Kitchener firefighters fought to have their voices heard about the effect this fire had on their lives and the lives of loved ones. While many studies have now shown the correlation between cancers and firefighting, this has not always been the case and even now the recognition of cancers is clearly not equal.
This is a tragic story that happened in my community, but there are stories just like this in communities all across this country.
Recently, I met with two local firefighter unions, the Kitchener Professional Firefighters Association and the Cambridge Professional Fire Fighters' Association, to discuss this bill. The president of the Cambridge union, Steve McArthur, captured the sentiment of this bill perfectly, stating that every firefighter knows someone affected by occupational cancers. That is every firefighter, not just firefighters in Kitchener or Cambridge, not just firefighters in Ontario, but every single firefighter across Canada. In fact, mere weeks after saying this, Cambridge firefighters lost one of their brothers to cancer.
Many provinces, such as Manitoba and Yukon territory, have almost 20 cancers recognized as being linked to firefighting. Others are very behind, with some recognizing as few as six.
A national framework would also promote research and information sharing, so that the lessons learned from one tragic experience may result in it never occurring again in Canada.
We must ensure that those cancers affecting female firefighters are also acknowledged and recognized. This is particularly important as more and more females are joining this band of heroes. This means ensuring that cancers unique to women, such as breast, ovarian and cervical cancer, must be recognized everywhere in Canada and that all measures possible must be taken to protect them, such as having proper-fitting equipment.
While we debate many subjects in the House, I hope the need for occupational cancers to be recognized equally no matter where firefighters serve is not debatable.
This bill is not some abstract policy proposal. This is a bill that has many faces and many names of those who have served, those who continue to serve and those we have tragically lost. From 2012 to 2021, 400 Canadian IAFF members got cancer as a direct result of their duties. This is by far the number one cause of line-of-duty deaths in Canada. We must do more to prevent firefighters from getting cancer and to treat those who do get cancer.
People often think that the greatest threat facing firefighters is something they can see, such as a burning building, fallen debris, raging water, but it is more often the things they cannot see. That is why the other part of this bill is so important, designating the month of January as firefighter cancer awareness month.
This would help increase awareness and educate people about this most serious threat that firefighters face. The ability to identify symptoms early and provide knowledge about the occupational hazards present when performing duties is necessary for reducing the number of firefighters affected by occupational cancer.
By dedicating an entire month toward firefighter cancer awareness, we can help ensure there is a meaningful dialogue about this terrible reality and make sure the public prioritizes protecting firefighters everywhere from occupational cancers.
Firefighters are heroes. They run into danger while the rest of us run away. They put their lives on the line at great personal risk. Unfortunately, all the risks they are exposing themselves to are not known at the time and often the damage from unknown toxins, etc., only manifests itself years later.
Firefighters have our backs. I urge all members of this House to support Bill C-224 to ensure that firefighters know that Canadians have their backs.