Would bigger volunteer firefighter tax credit boost recruits? ‘We can’t wait’

Click to play video: 'Canada wildfires: Does the country have enough volunteer firefighters?'
Canada wildfires: Does the country have enough volunteer firefighters?
WATCH ABOVE: Does Canada have enough volunteer firefighters? – Jun 11, 2023

Calls are growing for an increase to the volunteer firefighter tax credit to try to bump up recruitment amid what one longtime firefighter calls a “crisis” in their ranks.

NDP MP Gord Johns has put forward a private member’s bill (C-310) to boost the tax credit, saying in a press conference Wednesday that it is “critical” the federal government doesn’t wait until the end of the fire season to “show respect” for volunteers.

Johns was joined at Parliament Hill by representatives from the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC), the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association and the Volunteer Firefighters of Canada.

Former CAFC president Paul Boissonneault expressed his support for the motion, saying there are at least 15,000 vacancies for firefighters in the country. The number is even higher when including search and rescue personnel.

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“I dare say we are in a crisis,” Boissonneault said.

“The impacts, financial challenges, are drastically changing the landscape of our firefighters and the amount of staffing and resources we have.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta wildfires: Province to provide financial compensation for volunteer firefighters'
Alberta wildfires: Province to provide financial compensation for volunteer firefighters

The CAFC represents 126,000 firefighters. According to Boissonneault, that number was up by 30,000 just seven years ago.

Municipal fire departments are running into recruitment challenges because more than 40 per cent have had to defer training and new equipment amid financial constraints, according to a CAFC survey that was released in December 2022.

“Trying to maintain well-trained, well-prepared and ready-to-respond firefighters and search and rescue personnel is probably… our biggest challenge right now,” Boissonneault said.

Volunteer firefighters currently receive $3,000 annually in tax credits — a number that hasn’t changed since it was established in 2013. Johns is proposing an increase to $10,000 which he predicts would cost the government a total of $30 million a year.

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Boissonneault said he recognizes “these are tough economic times,” but replacing even a quarter of volunteer firefighters with full-time workers would cost “exponentially more,” making the idea of a tax benefit potentially more feasible.

Boissonneault also emphasized the need for increased support as the country deals with a ferocious wildfire season, impacting volunteer firefighters’ families, communities and businesses.

“This is why we are asking, whether through Mr. Johns’ private member’s bill or if there are other means that can be more expeditious, for an increase in the firefighter tax credit,” Boissonneault said.

In response to a reporter’s question about the likelihood of the government passing the bill, Johns said the House of Commons has acknowledged the proposal and commended volunteer firefighters for their hard work, but more still needs to be done.

“(Minister of Public Safety of Canada) Bill Blair sites that he thinks this is a great idea, but that’s not good enough. He even alludes to maybe this is something they can look at in the future. We can’t wait,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Volunteer firefighter in coma after wildfire injury in northern Alberta'
Volunteer firefighter in coma after wildfire injury in northern Alberta

Months before the wildfire season started, the CAFC warned of diminishing numbers of both career and volunteer firefighters across the country.

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As of June 21, 417 active wildfires were burning in Canada with 198 out of control, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

“We’re starting to see that lack of sustainability in these long, drawn-out events similar to what we’re seeing right now,” said Ken McMullen, CAFC president in an interview with Global News.

“Unfortunately, the reality is we may see individuals walk away from their volunteer position after they’ve been on such a prolonged event similar to this one.”

Since it’s voluntary work, there is no pay but people may be entitled to stipends, reimbursements and a federal tax credit for their services.

“This is a really important ask and it’s timely,” Johns said Wednesday, referring to his proposed bill. “They need to get in front of this. They can’t wait until the end of the fire season to show respect to these volunteers.”

– with files from Global News’ Saba Aziz

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