October 4, 2000

?

The Speaker

Pursuant to order made earlier today, the House will now proceed to the taking of the deferred recorded division on Motion No. 259 under private members' business.

(The House divided on the motion, which was negatived on the following division:)

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Cultural Industry
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?

The Speaker

I declare the motion lost.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Division No. 1425
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PC

Joe Clark

Progressive Conservative

Right Hon. Joe Clark (Kings—Hants, PC)

moved:

That, in the opinion of this House, the Income Tax Act should be amended to provide a tax credit of $500 to all emergency service volunteers.

Madam Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to take this opportunity to introduce the motion on emergency service volunteers. I thank my colleague for Pictou—Antigonish—Guysborough for seconding my motion. I look forward to an active debate and interest in this matter in the House of Commons.

This motion would lead the House of Commons to replace the tax deduction, for which only a few community volunteers in Canada are eligible, with a tax credit that would help all emergency service volunteers in communities across the country.

As the House knows, emergency service volunteers, including volunteer firefighters, currently receive a $1,000 tax deduction if they receive an honorarium from their municipality. It is conditional. Most rural volunteer fire departments do not pay an honorarium to their volunteers. The motion would provide a $500 tax credit to all emergency service volunteers, including volunteer firefighters. This credit would end up being worth more than the $1,000 deduction.

As background, in 1997 the member for Dufferin—Peel—Wellington—Grey tabled a bill then known as Bill C-249, which provided for an increase from $500 to $1,000 in the tax deduction for volunteer firefighters.

However, as I mentioned a moment ago, that only applied to firefighters who received honorariums from their fire departments. Most rural volunteer fire departments simply cannot afford to pay that kind of honorarium.

The 1998 budget adopted the recommendations of Bill C-249. Indeed it extends the provisions of that bill to volunteer ambulance technicians and other emergency service volunteers. My predecessor in this place from Kings—Hants, Mr. Scott Brison, originally introduced this motion as a result of representations made to him in his constituency and in conversations he had with people involved in emergency and volunteer services across the country. He appeared before the subcommittee on private members' business in June 2000 and was successful in persuading the committee to deem this motion a votable motion.

In Quebec as in the rest of Canada, most municipalities have to rely on civic minded men and women to act as volunteer firefighters and protect the public in case of disaster.

Unfortunately, their work is not fully appreciated, so the purpose of my motion is to recognize at least in some little way their contribution to their municipalities.

They carry out their duties and protect their fellow citizens, at the peril of their own lives sometimes, as was the case in Warwick, in the riding of Richmond—Arthabaska, where four volunteer firefighters were killed a few years ago.

After years of government cutbacks and reductions, communities both large and small rely increasingly on the help and the dedication of volunteers who have had to step in and fill the void created when governments cut back. That is evident today across Canada, from Hantsport to downtown Calgary, with non-profit organizations struggling to make ends meet.

The Government of Canada greatly underestimates the role and importance that organizations such as food banks, support groups and volunteer fire departments play in our communities. They are an essential part of Canada's social fabric. When the Minister of Finance announced the tax credit for emergency service volunteers in 1998, he said:

As witnessed over the past year in floods and the ice storm, it is important to recognize the extraordinary service provided by the thousands of Canadians who register as volunteers in our communities, mostly rural, and who provide essential emergency services like firefighting and first aid.

My party and I are glad that the minister recognized something needed to be done and that he followed up on a private member's initiative from the House. However, it is time now to take the next step, to expand this to a tax credit that will be available to all emergency service volunteers in the country. Small communities across Canada that rely on their volunteer firefighters in times of emergency are being unfairly left out in the cold by the current government. The Income Tax Act should be amended to provide a tax credit to all emergency service volunteers, regardless of whether the municipality can provide them with an honorarium.

The current policy discriminates against rural firefighters, for example, who rarely receive any compensation from their municipality. I should say, and members with any association with rural communities would know this to be the case, that in many cases and to an increasing degree, volunteer fire departments in rural areas are now carrying out functions that go well beyond dealing with fires. The heavy burden of cutbacks in medical services and other emergency services means that more and more of these people are spending more and more of their time dealing with issues other than fires.

In cases in my constituency I have spoken to people who spend 24 25, or 26 hours a week as volunteers. This is in addition to their regular jobs. Yet they have no incentive, no compensation under our tax system, because they reside in municipalities that are too small to be able to pay them an honorarium.

When they are fighting fires, volunteer firefighters risk their lives to help their fellow citizens and protect their communities. It is not fair when some are rewarded for this while others are not. Volunteer firefighters are essential to rural communities. They risk their lives day in, day out.

Let me quote an advertisement from the Thornhill Volunteer Fire Department in British Columbia. It is a help wanted advertisement and says:

Help wanted! Volunteers over 18 for year round outdoor work. Job training required at no pay. Must be in good condition. Must be able to withstand wide range of temperature extremes, and work under any weather conditions. Must be able to lift their own weight, and move at the speed of life. And do it all over again, perhaps the same day. Must provide own transportation. Uniforms and basic equipment will be supplied. Remuneration includes respect, smiles and “thank yous” (Occasionally).

This advertisement sums up exactly what is expected of volunteer firefighters. Clearly it indicates how rural communities rely on them.

I do not think any member of the House or anyone in the government would want to deny this reality. They would want to be of help to the firefighters who are now excluded, unintentionally, I think, but nonetheless very dramatically in terms of their own well-being.

In Nova Scotia there are currently over 9,000 firefighters, most of whom did not receive a tax credit for their service. In my riding of Kings—Hants reaction to this motion has been excellent. For example, Matt Dunfield, a volunteer firefighter from the Windsor Volunteer Fire Department said in a letter,

—what has been proposed is a great idea as it covers all volunteer emergency service providers, regardless of how much they receive as compensation from the municipality they serve. With this proposal maybe more community members will step forward and offer their services to their communities well being.

Graham Murphy, who has been a volunteer firefighter in Windsor, Nova Scotia, for over 25 years and whose father and grandfather were both fire chiefs in Wolfville also said in a letter:

This bill if passed will be of great benefit to volunteer firefighters serving our smaller communities as they often receive no compensation for the sacrifices they make. The current law does little for those truly unrewarded volunteers. This bill is a small price to pay for a priceless service.

In closing, volunteer firefighters from coast to coast risk their lives to help their fellow citizens and protect their communities. All of them should be recognized for their dedication by being provided with a $500 tax credit. I hope and urge the government and members of all parties in the House to support this motion.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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LIB

Roy Cullen

Liberal

Mr. Roy Cullen (Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Finance, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, the motion before us today proposes that the Income Tax Act be amended to provide all emergency service volunteers with a tax credit in the amount of $500 per year.

I thank the member for Kings—Hants for highlighting the very valuable role played by emergency services volunteers in Canadian communities. As I am certain we are all aware, many Canadians provide emergency services such as firefighting and first aid on a volunteer basis, especially in small and rural communities. These volunteers give freely of their time and expertise to their communities, often at considerable risk to themselves. They are to be commended for their dedication and effort.

The government has long recognized that small communities are often unable to maintain full-time emergency personnel, and depend on the essential services provided by these devoted volunteers.

In order to encourage the commitment of these individuals, the Income Tax Act has, for many years, allowed an exemption on the nominal amounts received from a municipality or another public authority by volunteer firefighters in the course of their duties.

This provision recognizes these volunteers often receive small amounts to help defray the expenses they incur in carrying out their duties and that taxing these amounts would be inappropriate. To offer additional support the 1998 budget increased this annual exemption from $500 to $1,000 and extended it to other emergency service volunteers, including volunteer ambulance technicians, search and rescue volunteers and others who in their capacity as volunteers are called upon to assist in emergencies or disasters.

The motion we are discussing today proposes to go beyond this existing provision. I would note that historically tax assistance for volunteers has been restricted to amounts received by eligible volunteers from public authorities. This motion in contrast would extend a tax credit to all emergency service volunteers whether or not they received any amount in the course of their volunteer duties. The intent behind this proposal is admirable in that it seeks to provide tax recognition to those emergency service volunteers who do not receive any allowance or honorarium.

But I think that passing such a tax credit would raise important questions in the context of tax policy and administration. I will, if I may, develop these points.

At the outset I would note that by implementing this proposal we would in effect be providing emergency volunteers with a fixed tax credit without regard to expenses incurred or time spent. Under such a system the dedicated year round volunteer would be receiving the same tax assistance as an individual who is called upon only once or twice during the course of the year. This would be difficult to justify especially as a dedicated volunteer is likely to incur much larger expenses than a one time volunteer.

Moreover it would be very difficult to explain why such a generous provision was limited to emergency service volunteers only. Other volunteers such as hospital workers and coaches for sports teams who contribute to their communities in different ways would be very likely to ask why this credit was not extended to them given that it appears to reward volunteer activity in itself and is unrelated either to effort or expense. I am not sure that I would able to offer a convincing answer to this question.

While extending the credit to all volunteers would resolve this issue, it would also be extremely costly for the government. It would be important to keep in mind that volunteer service is performed at an individual's discretion and without expectation of personal financial benefit. To provide a general tax credit for volunteers would be to ignore this very crucial point.

Furthermore, even if this tax credit were limited strictly to emergency service volunteers, it would be very difficult to ensure that it was claimed only by actual volunteers. This is because tax assistance would no longer be limited to the amounts paid by the municipality for which the taxpayer does the volunteer work.

As a result, there would be fewer incentives for public authorities to ensure that the credit was being claimed only by actual volunteers. To prevent abuse a compliance mechanism would have to be developed possibly involving a separate form or annual certification. This would place a significant administrative burden on municipalities, volunteers and the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency, especially considering the large volume of claims that would likely be made.

The current treatment avoids this problem to a large extent because tax assistance is restricted to amounts actually paid up to $1,000. Clearly, municipalities have much better control over these amounts and who receives them.

In this context, the present $1,000 exemption for emergency service volunteers is the most balanced solution, because it provides tax assistance to these important volunteers in a straightforward and transparent manner.

In closing, I would like to thank again the member for Kings—Hants for bringing this issue to our attention. However I feel that the motion as it stands before us today would reduce equity in the tax system rather than enhance it and would be very complex for volunteers and municipalities to comply with. For these reasons I feel that the motion should not be supported by the House.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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NDP

Peter Stoffer

New Democratic Party

Mr. Peter Stoffer (Sackville—Musquodoboit Valley—Eastern Shore, NDP)

Well, Mr. Speaker, there we go. A member of the government is telling volunteer firefighters throughout the country from coast to coast to coast to go away and not bother the government with their very minor concern. For him to compare soccer and gymnastics volunteers to volunteer firefighters and first aid volunteers is the typical Liberal approach to government, to divide and conquer. We cannot pass this very worthwhile motion brought forward by the hon. member for Kings—Hants because the Liberals do not want to. They do not want to even seriously debate the issue.

What the member from the Liberal Party just mentioned is absolute nonsense. If the Liberals had any political will or political backbone left they would look at this issue very seriously. Next time there is a fire in a rural area, they should go out with the volunteer firefighters at two o'clock in the morning and see if the hon. member is there to help volunteers save lives and risking his life in order to protect property and people.

There are 28 volunteer fire departments in the beautiful riding of Sackville—Musquodoboit Valley—Eastern Shore. They wholeheartedly support this motion. The only change they would add is that instead of $500 they would like to see it increased to $1,000. I firmly believe that every first aid volunteer and volunteer firefighter in the country should receive an automatic $1,000 tax deduction.

There is a very fine gentleman, a great constituent in my riding, Mr. Peter Sheen, who has volunteered for a long time with the Beaverbank, Kinsac volunteer fire department. He brought to my attention that he has to pay unemployment insurance and CPP premiums on his honorarium. This is a person who at any moment, in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn, will get up to go fight a fire.

Picture the life of volunteer firefighters in rural Nova Scotia, although the situation can be painted right across the country, in Inuvik, Victoria or St. John's, Newfoundland. They work all day, go home and look after their kids, go to sleep and at 1 a.m. the phone rings. They go fight a very dangerous fire somewhere. They never know if it could be a neighbour, a personal friend or a relative. They fight that fire until eight o'clock the next morning.

All this time the volunteers are thinking about how they have to get to their regular day job. The people risked their lives, not only for their community but for their country, because that is really what volunteer firefighters and first aiders do. They not only represent their constituency, they represent their country. Those people also have a full time obligation in their other jobs. If they cannot meet that obligation, chances are they may be dismissed by their employer. This is a risk that volunteer firefighters have every single time.

It is not an easy job being a volunteer firefighter. They get training when it is available. In rural areas where there is not much access to funds it is difficult to get the proper training. In some areas volunteer firefighters drive great distances to the fire hall on Tuesday nights which is when most of the training and meetings are.

All that gas and everything else which volunteer firefighters pay for out of their pockets costs money. All they are asking for is a slight little recognition in the Income Tax Act that would give them a $500 tax deduction. I personally would like to see it at $1,000.

There is no question that big businesses can deduct the costs for their boxes at the Skydome and their car expenses. They can deduct everything but a volunteer cannot deduct anything. That is sad and absolutely scandalous. It is typical of the Liberals who govern from the centre of the country and ignore its extremities. It is okay to live in a big urban area where there are paid firefighters but the Liberals have to get their heads out of the city and back into the rural country where I live, and where a lot of Canadians live from coast to coast to coast. The government should understand that what the hon. member for Kings—Hants is doing is an honourable gesture to these brave men and women throughout our country.

I am not going to take up too much time but I find it absolutely irresponsible of the government, or anyone else for that matter, to turn this motion away. As the hon. member for Kings—Hants has said, he is hoping for support from all people.

The government must remember, if it was not for volunteer firefighters, who would protect homes in a rural riding at two or three o'clock in the morning? Who is going to protect the children? Who is going to protect the property? The government should think about that the next time.

Who was first on the scene of the Swissair disaster in Nova Scotia? Volunteers, fishermen, search and rescue volunteers, volunteers who gave up a lot of time. Many of them went on vacation early in order to help out. It cost them a tremendous amount of money but they did not ask for restitution. They did not even ask for applause. All they asked was that the government recognize their efforts and at least thank them. That is all they asked for.

This small motion could be passed immediately by the government. The government could pick it up and run with it. It could put it in its election platform. It would go a long way in saying thank you to the brave men and women of Canada.

I have appreciated the opportunity to speak on behalf of the over 8,000 volunteers in Nova Scotia alone. My party and I support the motion of the hon. member for Kings—Hants. I can only hope that the members in the Liberal government over there have been listening to every word I said, which of course they have not, and that they understand what we are trying to do.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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PC

John Herron

Progressive Conservative

Mr. John Herron (Fundy—Royal, PC)

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to participate in the debate on this simple but very important private member's motion. It will have an enormous impact on recognizing the contributions that take place on a pan-Canadian basis, from coast to coast to coast in every rural community.

I would like to preface my comments with the remarks of the finance minister who stated in 1998:

As witnessed over the past year in floods and the ice storm, it is important to recognize the extraordinary service provided by the thousands of Canadians who register as volunteers in our communities, mostly rural, and who provide essential emergency services like firefighting and first aid.

To be clear, the Progressive Conservative Party applauds the initiative taken by the finance minister at that time. But the current situation is that emergency service volunteers, including volunteer firefighters and emergency volunteer ambulance drivers as well, receive a $1,000 tax deduction if they receive an honorarium from the municipality. This is punitive to those smaller municipalities that do not have the financial capacity to provide an honorarium in the first place. That is the issue at hand.

The approach taken by the Liberal government during the debate this evening has been nothing less than shameful. It is shameful in the regard that it equates different volunteers, as opposed to emergency volunteers and volunteer firefighters.

The comment was made that we would not want to give a credit to someone who responds only once or twice a year. The volunteer firefighters in my riding of Fundy—Royal, whether they be those in the community of Upham, the volunteer firefighters who participate with the professional firefighters in Rothesay, the volunteers in Hampton, New Brunswick, the volunteers in Cambridge Narrows, all of them volunteer time and time again. They put themselves at risk. They are skilled professionals as well.

This is the minimum that the House should be doing. I applaud the member from the New Democratic Party who spoke from his heart saying that this was the right thing to do. Quite often when it comes to financial initiatives the NDP does not quite get it right. He wanted to actually raise it to a $1,000 tax deduction for everyone. The Progressive Conservative Party is advocating is a $500 tax credit for all emergency service volunteers, including volunteer firefighters. This credit is worth more than the $1,000 deduction.

I am advocating that we recognize the immense contribution made by volunteer firefighters and ambulance drivers throughout the country. It is the minimum we owe the brave foot soldiers in our communities.

I also want to mention that volunteer firefighters go beyond just responding to fires. They volunteer for activities that fire departments get involved in, such as fundraising initiatives and being on hand for large public events, parades and community affairs. Having first aid training is also immensely important.

I applaud the previous efforts of Scott Brison, the former member for Kings—Hants, who will also be the future member for Kings—Hants. I also applaud the current right hon. member for Kings—Hants for bringing this forth on behalf of his constituents. It has been a pleasure to participate in today's debate.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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LIB

Joe Comuzzi

Liberal

Mr. Joe Comuzzi (Thunder Bay—Superior North, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, I want to give a very warm welcome back to my colleague, the right hon. member for Kings—Hants. We have had different debates in the House over the years and although we sit at different sides of the table at this particular time, as he well knows in politics things change rather rapidly. I was pleased to hear his remarks. I see that during his hiatus from the House he did not lose his sound logic and great eloquence in addressing important issues, not only to the House but to the country.

The issue before us is one that is very dear to my heart, which is why I felt compelled to get up and speak about it inasmuch as volunteer firefighters, men and women right across the country, especially those from a remote or rural community, are the lifeblood of the community.

I represent an area in Thunder Bay that is looked upon as the second or third largest riding in Ontario. Some of the places in my riding are Hurkett, Dorion, Pass Lake, McKenzie, Nipigon, Red Rock, Marathon, Terrace Bay, Schreiber, Nakina, Geraldton, Beardmore and Jellicoe. The one common denominator in all those places is that they all have a volunteer fire department. These volunteers put in untold hours for the safety and protection of their fellow citizens. I say, without fear of contradiction, that whenever I am asked to do anything on their behalf or attend any function, I do everything I can because those members are so valuable to each and every community in the country.

I also heard the Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister of Finance respond to my friend's question about allowing a tax deduction for these workers. I hope the member understands that the only thing I can express to the Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister of Finance is the very important job that volunteer firefighters perform. I will also try to stress the amount of time given on a voluntary basis, the amount of training they go through and the amount of personal sacrifice that every volunteer firefighter gives to his community.

Hopefully we will be able to reconcile some of the little differences that we have in order to come to some arrangement so that these very important people will be honoured perhaps a little more than they are today.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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PC

Jim Jones

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Jim Jones (Markham, Canadian Alliance)

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to speak to the motion presented by the right hon. member for Kings—Hants. The motion reads:

That, in the opinion of this House, the Income Tax Act should be amended to provide a tax credit of $500 to all emergency service volunteers.

It was not too long ago, in my riding of Markham, that we had volunteer firefighters, and I appreciated the services they provided for Markham. If we had to at that point in time bring them on, even as part time workers, it would have created considerable hardship on the municipality and would have driven taxes up. Like myself, the hon. parliamentary secretary who spoke and other members who live in urban ridings, we recognize that this is not a problem for most ridings because they have full time firefighters and it is incorporated into their tax base. However, in small and more rural type ridings if they had to pay for this type of service they could not afford it.

What we are talking about here is a $500 tax credit. If a small urban riding had to pay for a full time firefighter we would be talking about 60 to 100 times more in cost to the municipality. These people give of their service willingly and do a tremendous job. They volunteer not only as firefighters but in many other ways for their municipalities. When they are putting their lives at risk right beside full time firefighters, then it is important that we honour their services.

From that standpoint, I will recommend to my party that we support the motion put forward by the hon. member for Kings—Hants. I think it is a great motion.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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LIB

Paul Szabo

Liberal

Mr. Paul Szabo (Mississauga South, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, today we are discussing a motion that proposes to provide all emergency service volunteers with a new tax credit in the amount of $500 a year.

I want to preface my comments by saying that when it comes to public safety officers, I myself have had a number of initiatives with regard to police officers, firefighters and other public service safety officers whom I believe serve Canada very well.

The Income Tax Act already provides an exemption for emergency service volunteers in respect of honorariums or other amounts they may receive from a municipality or other public authority in the course of their volunteer duty. Prior to 1998 this exemption was restricted to volunteer firefighters and could not exceed $500 per year.

However, to help recognize the invaluable contributions of the brave men and women who give so freely of their time and expertise in their communities, often at significant personal risk, the government doubled the maximum exemption to $1,000 in the 1998 budget. At the same time, the exemption was extended to other emergency service volunteers such as ambulance technicians who also provide invaluable services to their communities.

The right hon. member for Kings—Hants, in bringing this motion before us, has rightly pointed out that the benefits of the $1,000 tax free amount are currently limited to those volunteers who receive an honorarium or other nominal amounts. There is currently no tax relief for those volunteers who do not receive any compensation. We acknowledge that point.

However, the motion before us seeks to address this perceived inequity by extending a tax credit to all emergency service volunteers. I am not sure exactly how that is defined but I believe that since this is a motion it is for consideration.

At first blush there is merit in the idea that all emergency service volunteers should be treated the same. I appreciate the position expressed in the motion that those volunteers who do not receive any compensation for their time and expenses should also receive some tax recognition.

However, it is important to keep in mind that the tax assistance for volunteers has in the past been restricted to amounts actually received by eligible volunteers from public authorities. This has been a longstanding policy extending back nearly 40 years and I believe there are strong arguments for maintaining that.

To begin with, the current policy recognizes that emergency service volunteers often receive small amounts to help defray the expenses that they incur in carrying out their duties. Clearly, where a public authority chooses to offer this nominal compensation to its dedicated volunteers, it would be very difficult to justify taxing these amounts as income. The $1,000 maximum helps to ensure that only reasonable amounts can be paid out on a tax free basis.

However, it is a very different matter when it comes to a general credit or deduction for individuals engaged in a particular volunteer activity. This principle applies to any tax exemption or deduction where it is an across-the-board item. It is a very expensive proposition. Such a provision would have the effect of favouring a particular group of volunteers or others whether or not they actually incur any extraordinary expenses or even participate in any emergency situations. That kind of thing would have to be resolved to keep within the spirit of the motion.

From that policy standpoint, I am not sure whether this situation would be appropriate. I think everyone here today will agree that all volunteers are to be commended and that their various contributions are equally important. In this context, it would be very difficult to justify providing a general fixed tax credit to one group of volunteers and not to others. We could expect there would be many volunteer groups who would ask why their contributions were not similarly recognized and they would be justified in doing so, I believe.

One solution to this quandary that some have suggested would be to extend the proposed tax credit to all volunteers. Of course all volunteers would then be treated equally, and I think the member is trying to establish a measure of equity. However, I strongly suspect that such a provision would be impossible to sustain. Not only would it be very expensive for the government in terms of forgone revenues, it would also be subject to considerable abuse because it would be impossible to ensure that only bona fide volunteers claim the credit. This would be because tax assistance would no longer be restricted to amounts paid by the municipality for which the taxpayer is doing volunteer work, and would leave it up to each individual to determine whether they qualify. That is problematic.

Of course individuals could be required to prove in some fashion that they were in fact volunteers. However, I suspect that such an approach would place a significant compliance burden on non-profit organizations and volunteers alike and would be very costly for the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency to enforce. This would especially be true considering the large volumes of claims that likely would be made.

I would note that the current treatment largely avoids this problem because tax assistance is restricted to amounts actually paid by the municipalities. I think the member would concede that the enforcement is better in terms of the current mechanism than what is being proposed by the motion.

Even if these problems could be overcome, I am concerned about the message that we as a government would be sending by implementing such a provision. We should remember that a volunteer is an individual who performs a particular service without expectation of personal financial gain. In contrast, introducing a tax credit for volunteer activities would need to provide a monetary benefit to individuals for becoming volunteers. This would be an odd result indeed and one that we would find very difficult to accept.

We should remember that we are talking about a principle, and the motion before this place is to consider the advisability. This is not a bill. It is to put ideas on the floor to identify areas which have to be explored further. I think the reason all hon. members come to this place during private members' business is to certainly express their views and to raise points for consideration, which is all I am attempting to do. I am sorry I have upset the member but I want to put my position on the floor.

I feel that the motion before us would do little to improve equity within the income tax system while significantly increasing the complexity and cost of compliance in administration. If implemented, the tax provision advocated by the motion proposed by the right hon. member would also put governments in an untenable position of compensating taxpayers for their personal choice to become volunteers. This, in my view, would steer us away from the notion of what volunteer activities are all about and it would not be appropriate.

For those reasons, I do not believe that the motion as it stands should be supported. I urge colleagues to rise in this place in the time remaining and put forward their points of view. That is exactly what private members' hour is all about.

I thank the right hon. member for raising the motion. When it comes to our public service safety officers, dealing with them and others who provide same or similar services should always have the attention of members of parliament.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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PC

Loyola Hearn

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Loyola Hearn (St. John's West, PC)

Mr. Speaker, we just heard not what were the comments of a private member but perhaps the official government position on the motion. If there was ever a bureaucratic analysis of a motion we just heard it with every typical government response and every reason in the world why something cannot be done. Instead of finding a way to make sure it can be done, let us find every angle there is to keep a benefit away from people who serve us all and get absolutely nothing.

I would be remiss if I did not speak on this motion because I come from a district that covers large rural sections. Each rural area has a fire brigade. Years ago they had many more fire brigades. When I served in the local fire brigade in my home town each community had a fire brigade. Each community managed to come up with a small fire truck. Each community had a fire pump and enough hose to get to most houses around. Living near the ocean, we always had a supply of water.

However over the last few years, mainly because of government cutbacks in funding to municipalities, federal government cutbacks in infrastructure funding to provinces and provincial cutbacks in funding to municipalities, local fire brigades have found themselves trying to survive on their own merits.

They have done that in two ways. One way is to amalgamate. What that means is the people who volunteer now have to serve areas much larger than their own home region. They cover areas many miles from the base of their current fire station or the fire truck which they might have. These people are on call all hours of the day or night. Many of us are looking at our watches and saying “It has been a long day”. Many of those people are also going home after long day not knowing what hour tonight or tomorrow morning they will be called to go fight a fire.

What do they get paid? The right hon. member who introduced the motion quoted an excerpt from an advertisement in a British Columbia paper which said they get smiles and occasional thanks. That is about what the volunteer firefighter gets.

In the area that I mentioned, the summer is not so bad. In winter, when we have to plough through snowbanks and shovel lanes to get to fires, these people do double duty. Nobody recognizes the amount of effort volunteer firefighters make except the firefighters themselves, their families and the people who they assist.

In many rural areas we hear stories of lives saved, premises saved and losses diminished simply because of the quick and efficient work of fire brigades. These people ask for nothing. They volunteer their time, efforts and energy for for all of us so that we can go to bed knowing that if anything happens somebody will come to our rescue. What do we say to them? We smile and say thanks.

As members of this honourable House can do a little more. We can approve the motion. We can pass the motion introduced in the House to at least show them that we recognize the work they do. The $500 tax credit that we are suggesting is very little. In relation to their time and effort it means absolutely nothing in the monetary sense. However, there is a sense of principle, a sense of recognition and is of some assistance to these people. Many of these people who live in rural areas, and that is where we have our volunteer fire brigades, live in areas where there is very little employment which means that their incomes are exceptionally small. As small as this little gesture might seem, to them it is beneficial.

To hear people talk about how we can connive to prevent the passage of a motion that would deliver this small token of appreciation to people who give their time and effort for our safety and the safety of our families is an insult to the House. Hopefully by the time we vote on the motion the hon. members opposite will see the light. They can listen to one of their colleagues who stood up and volunteered to educate the financiers in the government and to explain to them the reality between dealing with numbers and dealing with people.

We are not talking about saving a few dollars. We are talking about people who save lives. There is quite a difference. In the larger areas of the country we have our fire departments staffed by great firefighters but for them it is a job. It is a trying job, it is a job that not many people would want to have but at least they get paid for it.

The volunteer firefighter in reality does the very same work under adverse and trying circumstances. What does he get? He or she might get our thanks or a smile and sometimes perhaps not even that. We have a chance to do something for them. We have a chance to at least acknowledge the work that they do.

I feel proud to stand as a former volunteer firefighter who has many friends who are volunteer firefighters. I saw their work when they saved the house of a family member of mine. I saw lives saved because of their efforts. I saw volunteer firefighters push their way through snowstorms, through hailstorms and through all kinds of adverse situations in order to be where they were needed. Perhaps now it is time for us to stand up when we are needed and be there for them.

With that, I congratulate the right hon. member for introducing the motion on behalf of one of our colleagues who previously proposed the motion and who will be here again to do a repeat after the next election. I ask hon. members on the other side of the House to reconsider their stance, to listen to their colleagues who have agreed to educate them, to listen to the members of the NDP who have supported this motion and to vote accordingly when the time comes.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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LIB

Bill Graham

Liberal

Mr. Bill Graham (Toronto Centre—Rosedale, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak on the motion brought forward by the right hon. member for Kings—Hants which proposes to introduce a tax credit for individuals engaged as emergency service volunteers in the amount of $500 a year.

I have attentively listened to the debate. I listened particularly to what the right hon. member for Kings—Hants, the hon. member for Sackville—Musquodoboit Valley—Eastern Shore and the member from Thunder Bay had to say about the value of the contribution made by firefighters in our communities.

As one of the members pointed out, those of us who live in urban communities do not have the same problems as those who live in rural communities. Speaking as someone from an urban community, the House might forgive me however if I speak to this issue as a taxpayer and as someone who has to look at the fairness and equity of the system of taxes which govern all of us. Taxes are not designed to apply to individual specific cases as much as they are designed, as the hon. member knows perhaps better than most, to the country as a whole. We must make sure that the system is equitable for all if it is going to be respected and accepted by all.

The idea that the tax system should in some way promote volunteer activities or other activities of a selfless nature is hardly a new one in our tax system. In fact the government understands the importance of supporting individuals who have contributed to their communities and has taken steps to help through the tax system.

As we know, the Income Tax Act, as the parliamentary secretary pointed out, already provides for volunteer firefighters to earn an annual amount tax free. That provision was substantially strenghtened in the 1998 budget, when the amount was increased from $500 to $1,000 a year, and the provision was extended to other emergency service volunteers, whose contributions are no less important.

The government has also improved other tax provisions, such as tax credits for charitable donations, in order to facilitate things for individual taxpayers who want to make donations to their communities. For example, charitable donations of up to 75% of a taxpayer's annual net income now qualify for a credit for charitable donations, compared with 20% in 1995. The ceiling does not apply to certain donations or certain cultural property, or to donations of ecologically sensitive lands made after 1994. Our government has already seen how important the issue was and has improved the tax system to deal with it accordingly.

In addition, the government's 1997 budget moved to ensure that individuals who donate certain marketable securities need only include one-half of the usual proportion of the resulting capital gains in their income. Following the reduction in the general capital gains inclusion rate from three-quarters to two-thirds in the 2000 budget, this inclusion rate now stands at only one-third.

Why do I refer to these? These are important initiatives which relate to this debate. They demonstrate the government's commitment to supporting volunteers, generous givers and non-profit organizations.

The motion before us proposes to go beyond these existing measures by extending a tax credit to all emergency service volunteers. This would presume to include those volunteers benefiting from the existing tax-free amount, as well as those emergency service volunteers who currently receive no amounts whatsoever.

While the proposal I described would certainly provide greater assistance to emergency service volunteers than is currently the case, it raises a very thorny issue, not the least of which is the cost to the public accounts referred to by the parliamentary secretary and by my colleague who spoke before me in the House.

Therefore it falls upon us as responsible members of the House, as has been pointed out, to consider that dimension. We cannot just rush in and say, as one of the members reasonably said, “Yes, we must find a solution to this issue”. Yes, we must find a solution but we must find a solution that is balanced within the tax framework that applies to all citizens and all members of the country. That is what we are called upon to do in the House, not adopt ad hoc solutions to questions which are going to bring inequity and problems to the tax administration and the way it is going to apply that.

That is why I would contrast the proposition with the other charitable donation situation because this proposal goes significantly beyond the scope of the current tax proposition. It contemplates providing a tax credit to all individuals engaged in a particular volunteer activity without regard to time spent or expenses actually incurred.

The charitable donations credit, which provides tax assistance in proportion to the amount donated by taxpayers, is a totally different matter. Similarly the tax-free amount for emergency service volunteers is restricted to these amounts received by eligible volunteers from a public authority, typically to compensate them for the expenses they incur in fulfilling their duties.

It is also interesting to note that the proposed tax credit would apply in equal measure to an individual who volunteered all year round and an individual who volunteered perhaps just once or twice during the year.

While this would be difficult to justify, it would be even more difficult to explain why the tax system should provide assistance to an individual who provided volunteer emergency services on a single occasion and not to a dedicated year round volunteer who performed other services.

I would go back to my urban roots, if I may say, for the example of reading to sick children in hospital, helping the blind, or providing other services which many people in other communities do on a regular basis without a necessity to be compensated but with a sense of the community devotion which we heard properly extolling the firefighters who are the subject matter of this motion. The unfortunate distinction that I referred to could well result if the motion were carried by the House.

I know the parliamentary secretary is extremely sensitive to matters of achieving balance in the tax act. I am sure he is as concerned as I am about favouring a particular group of volunteers over another, whether or not they incur actual expenses, extraordinary expenses, or even participate in specific emergency situations. Surely it would be difficult to justify providing a tax credit to one group of volunteers, while denying tax assistance to all other volunteers.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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PC

Joe Clark

Progressive Conservative

Right Hon. Joe Clark

This is a shameful ignorance of rural Canada.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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LIB

Bill Graham

Liberal

Mr. Bill Graham

I do not know why the right hon. member says this is shameful. It is perhaps shameful to the right hon. member that we would want equity between all volunteers, but I do not find it shameful. I find it to be just common logic.

We can certainly expect that many volunteer groups would reasonably ask why their contributions were not equally worthy of recognition. No doubt the right hon. member would rush into the House with a motion for them as well. Eventually we would add one system on top of another system instead of having what I think the parliamentary secretary was addressing in his remarks, integrity in the tax system.

I cannot believe that I am accused of being shameful when I speak to members of the House about having a tax system which is equitable, which avoids complexity, and which enables us all to have an application that would fairly apply to all volunteers across the country. What is shameful about that?

What is shameful, I would suggest, is proposing a motion that plays to a certain audience for a certain electoral advantage at a certain moment in time without looking at the integrity of the tax system as a whole.

The government has demonstrated it is willing, able and actively pursues the need for all volunteers to be recognized. It has not ignored rural Canada. It has done its best for firefighters as has already been pointed out by many speakers in the House.

I end my remarks by echoing the words of the parliamentary secretary to which I subscribe entirely. Let us have a tax system that is fair, equitable and as least complex as possible. This would aid not only all volunteers. It would aid the volunteers which the right hon. member is seeking to help and we could all work on having such a tax system.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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?

The Deputy Speaker

The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired and the item is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

A motion to adjourn the House under Standing Order 38 deemed to have been moved.

Topic:   Private Members' Business
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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PC

Jean Dubé

Progressive Conservative

Mr. Jean Dubé (Madawaska—Restigouche, PC)

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to address a very important issue I raised last week.

My question dealt with the infrastructure of our colleges and universities, and providing our students with the necessary infrastructure to allow them to receive the best education possible in this great country of ours.

I was disappointed by the minister's answer to my question. Canadians across the country believe post-secondary education must be a priority. It is certainly a priority for the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

I am disappointed when I read the minister's answer; I am disappointed not only as a Canadian, but also on behalf of those who go to university every year. I am disappointed for professors in colleges and universities, and also for all those who try to give our young people the best education possible.

The minister said:

This is where most citizens' priorities lie—

This government's priorities are roads and sewers. Honestly, should our young people not have precedence over that? Students are the backbone of a strong society. An educated society is a healthy society. When I heard the minister's comments last week, I could not believe my ears.

I asked the minister about it and we heard about infrastructure programs for municipalities for roads and water. I wholeheartedly agree but I think our education system, our universities and colleges throughout Canada are also in need of infrastructure money. I was very disappointed to see that the minister and the government did not have the same priorities as many Canadians and families.

Does the House know how much money the U.S. government invests per student for post-secondary education? It is more than $500 per student, and here in Canada it is $144. I call on the government to review this policy and take a look at infrastructure for post-secondary education.

Topic:   Adjournment Proceedings
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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LIB

Brent St. Denis

Liberal

Mr. Brent St. Denis (Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Transport, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to explain the government's initiatives in the area of post-secondary education.

As far as academic research is concerned, we have increased the university research councils' budgets to the highest levels ever.

Also we have created the Canada Foundation for Innovation by investing $1.9 billion to help meet the demand for research infrastructure. We have created the Canadian Institutes for Health Research with an annual budget this year totalling $402 million. We have made the networks of centres of excellence a permanent program, and the Canada research chairs program will establish and maintain 2,000 chairs with investment of $900 million.

When it concerns students individually and their education, as a government we have invested $2.5 billion in the Canadian millennium scholarships program, which the Prime Minister was proud to announce on our behalf. We have invested a further $2.5 billion in the Canada health and social transfer, direct payments made to provincial governments for them to reinvest in the areas of post-secondary education and health. Further, we have provided new Canada study grants of up to $3,000 for over 25,000 students and that is over and above the present $45 million in grants that are available.

On the tax side, we have lessened the tax burden on students through a number of measures including a federal tax credit of 17% on payments of the interest portion of federal and provincial student loans. We have increased the amount of scholarship and fellowship income that is exempt from $500 to $3,000. For the first time, part time students with dependents can now deduct child care expenses from their income tax.

The government is acting. I appreciate the opportunity—

Topic:   Adjournment Proceedings
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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?

The Deputy Speaker

The hon. member for Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques.

Topic:   Adjournment Proceedings
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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BQ

Paul Crête

Bloc Québécois

Mr. Paul Crête (Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques, BQ)

Mr. Speaker, on September 25, I asked the Minister of Human Resources Development to take concrete measures to ensure decent conditions for seasonal workers as far as employment insurance benefits are concerned. The minister answered:

—we believe that the best employment insurance program is a job.

It is obvious that having a job is the best way to earn an income, but it is not an employment insurance program. Employment insurance should provide an income to people who are not working, who are between jobs. Since that time, the minister's position has evolved a little. The intensity rule has disappeared, but the seasonal workers' situation is far from being permanently settled.

Should people, wherever they live in Canada, not have the same status when they are seasonal workers, that is, having to work 420 hours to qualify for employment insurance and receiving 35 weeks of benefits, to ensure they will not be affected by the changes in unemployment rates in the areas where they live? Would this not be a way to recognize the work of these people and to get rid, once and for all, of the bad principle that led to the reform, which is that seasonal workers were not working because they were lazy or did not want to work?

This is somewhat what the Prime Minister stated last week. The government had a big deficit of $42 billion and had to find a way to cover it. The way it found was to attack the poorest, the most disadvantaged. It will attack students, it will ensure that people cannot qualify and pay premiums, or if they qualify, it will greatly reduce their benefits.

Today, we saw during the debate that the minister herself was unable to defend her bill. Could the government not take advantage of the fact that we are in the middle of debate on Bill C-44 to propose a series of amendments that would allow for a real reform of the employment insurance system, and not a few measures that will cost no more than $500 million in total, while there will be a surplus of $32 billion in the employment insurance fund as of December 31, 2000? This represents one sixty-fourth of the surplus.

I think the Liberal government has to make an extra effort if it is talking about compassion and if it wants to call an election soon. I challenge the government to go to the people and to say that they did all they could to reinvigorate the EI system.

Moreover, last week at the press conference, three times the minister refused to answer this question: “Will your proposed changes solve all problems?” She was unable to answer the question because these are changes that have been requested for a long time but are far from sufficient.

Can we expect the government to act so as to resolve this matter before the next election? Otherwise, the government will find us on the fora, showing once again to the people that we were right about the measures which have been corrected by the government as well as about those which have not yet been corrected.

Can the government give us a dynamic answer that will restore its true role to the EI system, which is to ensure a decent living to the unemployed who meet acceptable conditions in the economic situation we live in?

Topic:   Adjournment Proceedings
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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LIB

Raymonde Folco

Liberal

Ms. Raymonde Folco (Parliamentary Secretary to Minister of Human Resources Development, Lib.)

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member for Kamouraska—Rivière-du-Loup—Témiscouata—Les Basques is very astute. However, I want to challenge some of the negative comments he made about the bill.

Our government cares about our seasonal workers and has taken specific measures to help them. For instance, on September 13, we announced measures to gradually phase in changes to the boundaries in the Lower St. Lawrence region of Quebec and in northwestern New Brunswick.

We just introduced Bill C-44, which includes many measures designed to benefit seasonal workers.

But I want to point out that long term solutions to the problems of seasonal workers call for improved work opportunities. I think the member opposite would agree with us on that. This in turn requires better co-operation between governments, businesses, community leaders and individuals.

That is why we are working at the local level and with the provincial and territorial governments to develop long term solutions that would improve access to training for seasonal workers, promote greater economic diversity in regions relying on seasonal work—and that is very important for these areas—and develop the capacity of our communities, so that they can decide on their own what changes are best for them. There is nothing like helping communities to help themselves.

Those are real solutions to help seasonal workers. Employment insurance is just one of them.

Topic:   Adjournment Proceedings
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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NDP

Judy Wasylycia-Leis

New Democratic Party

Ms. Judy Wasylycia-Leis (Winnipeg North Centre, NDP)

Mr. Speaker, let me just begin by saying something that may seem self-evident but needs to be reiterated in these times of political turbulence and countervailing forces.

The truth is that Canadians believe in medicare. They want deeply to maintain a universal public health care system in Canada today. They know there are difficulties. They experience on an all too frequent basis in very real ways the lineups, the waiting lists and the uncertainties, but they also know that the system itself, the model of medicare, is fundamentally sound. This is something government needs to know.

The government needs to realize that Canadians fought very hard to get medicare and they will fight to keep it. They just want the government to fix it before it is too late, before the champions of privatization and deregulation, who really see health care as an $82 billion golden egg, get any more hold over health care delivery than they already have now.

Let me also say that Canadians are fully aware the inaction and passivity of the government in the face of these formidable forces are as dangerous to the future of medicare as the outright support by Alliance members in the House for private, for profit care.

Canadians are rightfully asking what is the real difference between what Liberals are doing and what Alliance members are saying. Is there really a difference when it comes to such things as national standards ensuring that the Canada Health Act is enforced and is moving forward with a vision?

Canadians want a vision, a plan and leadership. On September 11 the government had an opportunity to demonstrate a vision and to present a plan that would take medicare into the future. In this context, given the enormity of the task at hand and the high stakes involved, I have to say, and I am sure history will acknowledge it, that the Liberal government blew it. It missed a golden opportunity to put back the money it had taken out of health care, even though it does not come into effect for another whole year and even though we will still only be at 1994 levels. They did make a start and that has to be acknowledged, but what they did not do was give Canadians a vision, a plan for the future.

There is no home care. There is no pharmacare. Contrary to everything the Prime Minister said in the House today, this was not an historic deal in terms of where we go in the future and how we ensure that medicare takes us into the millennium. The government has let Canadians down and owes it to the people to present a plan that will ensure we go forward absolutely confident that medicare will be there in the future and that quality health care will be accessible wherever Canadians live, no matter how much money they make and no matter what circumstances they find themselves in.

Topic:   Adjournment Proceedings
Subtopic:   Emergency Service Volunteers
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October 4, 2000