By Laura King
March 24, 2011 - As the executive and board of directors of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs head home from Ottawa to their respective provinces today – or to Listowel, for the funeral of firefighters Kenneth Rae and Ray Walter – there’s lots of talk about what happens next.
With the government expected to fall, the long-awaited tax credit for volunteer firefighters who complete more than 200 hours of service a year will fall with it.
What, therefore, did the CAFC, and the Canadian Volunteer Fire Services Association – which hatched the tax-credit idea a decade ago – accomplish? The cynics among us (check out Tim Beebe’s blog at www.beebewitzblog.blogspot.com for his take!) wonder if the Harper Conservatives assumed the opposition would topple the budget and threw in the tax credit as a purely political measure to win fire-service support in the election.
Every budget measure is political but a more nuanced view is that the government did a lot of work preparing the budget and while it stands up as a political document around which all parties will fight an election, the Conservatives probably would prefer to avoid a campaign that will highlight opposition attacks on its policies or lack thereof.
Indeed, Michael Ignatieff promised months before this week’s budget that a Liberal government would introduce a $3,000 tax credit for volunteers. And the CAFC had secured NDP support for the tax credit – the measure was one of the carrots dangled in front of Jack Layton when he was summoned by the Conservatives on Tuesday’s to try to win his backing for the budget.
As one CAFC director said on Facebook this week, it looks like the next step for the CAFC is an election campaign. Firefighter associations have for years supported candidates in municipal and provincial elections. For the first time, the fire service is likely to be fully engaged in a federal election campaign – an exercise that can be more challenging to navigate than a smoke house full of obstacles.
Regardless, the CAFC has made its mark in Ottawa, and that’s what it has accomplished. All political parties will be looking for fire-service support in this election. The fire service needs to secure the tax credit in the next budget no matter which party is in power. The Canadian Governmental Committee is seeking federal funding for the fire service for apparatus and PPE. A recent NDP motion for federal funding for the volunteer fire service will need to be renewed after an election. Various groups are pushing for the creation of a national fire advisor.
Politicians are paying attention. As many Fire Fighting in Canada columnists have said over the last year, the fire service needs to approach Ottawa with one message and a united voice. The tricky part is figuring out how and where to focus fire-service efforts without alienating political parties or politicians who have supported the fire service.
As The Toronto Star says today, the election campaign will officially start Saturday after tomorrow’s non-confidence vote; unofficially, it started Wednesday.
Today, the fire service will honour its fallen in Listowel. Tomorrow, the work begins.
So far this week I’ve been contacted by a handful of reporters and lots of firefighters asking what the $3,000 tax credit really means. Good question, given the considerable confusion I’m seeing on Facebook about it.
The firefighter tax credit works like other tax credits; firefighters who perform 200 hours of service can claim a 15 per cent non-refundable tax credit on $3,000, which amounts to $450. You can read the budget documents here: http://www.budget.gc.ca/2011/plan/chap4b-eng.html
The 200 hours of service includes responses to calls, attendance at meetings and training, and prevention and suppression. Double hatters are not eligible for the tax credit.
While everyone likes extra cash, there have been questions in social media circles about whether the tax credit will make a difference, especially in small-town Canada where recruitment and retention is big problem.
The CAFC has said a survey of its members indicated that a tax incentive would help them find and keep volunteer firefighters but a Calgary Herald story today quotes Chad Sartison, a volunteer firefighter in Priddis, Alta., who says money is not the issue. Sartison is the president of The Fire Within, and was a member of an Alberta committee that crafted a recent report on recruitment and retention. He says the problems is simply finding eligible people in small communities to volunteer for the fire service.
"The compensation is purely token," Sartison said of paid-on call stipends that many volunteer firefighters receive. “We don't have the same sense of community that we had 50 or 75 years ago. We're distracted and we're busy."
You can read the full story here.