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Bid to boost tax break for volunteer firefighters as brigades struggle with retention

Alberta volunteer firefighter Alison Archambault calls it her “soul work.”

But that doesn’t mean some more help at tax time wouldn’t be welcome too.

A tax credit for volunteer firefighters currently stands at $3,000, but Archambault, a volunteer in Redwood Meadows outside Calgary, said “any increase is appreciated” to help with costs such as vehicle maintenance.

“Volunteer fire departments in general are having recruitment challenges and retention challenges and (an) increase in the tax writeoff is just another tool to make being a volunteer firefighter more attractive and staying a volunteer firefighter more attractive,” said Archambault, whose regular job is in public relations.

Others agree, and a push is underway to raise the tax credit after Canada’s worst wildfire season on record.

B.C. member of Parliament Gord Johns has been working with the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs to try to boost the credit for volunteer firefighters and search and rescue volunteers to $10,000. 

A petition to the House of Commons got more than 16,000 signatures in support of the increase, and Johns’ bill to make the change passed its first reading in the house this month.

Johns said emergency services volunteers deserve a break from inflation and rising living costs. 

“They’re taking on more paid work to keep up with rising costs and they just can’t keep volunteering at this scale,” he said. 

“We rely on them. They save taxpayers money. Retaining volunteer firefighters is a huge challenge with the increase in inflation and there’s been a huge decrease in the number of volunteer firefighters in the country.”

He said there are 20 volunteer fire departments and search and rescue teams in his own riding of Courtenay-Alberni on Vancouver Island, and raising the tax credit would be “low-hanging fruit” at little cost to public coffers. 

“It’s certainly going to let them know that Canadians actually care and value them and that they’re appreciated because they’re saving all local governments across the country money and provincial governments money,” he said.

 “Government needs to seize this moment. It’s actually a very inexpensive way to support recruitment and show value to those firefighters and search and rescue personnel, and they deserve it. They’re putting their lives on the line for us.” 

Ken McMullen, president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, said 2023 was a very “tough year” for volunteer firefighters, after “the most extreme wildfire activity ever.” 

“We expect another tough year in 2024,” he said. 

McMullen said there were 156,000 volunteer firefighters in Canada in 2016, but that was down to 126,000 in 2022. 

Increasing the tax credit would be a small step in countering the downward trend. “We believe that it’ll keep their morale up, which is needed now more than ever,” he said. 

McMullen said recruitment and retention could be facing pressure because of the range of risks faced by first responders, from injuries and increased cancer rates, to the mental health toll of facing emergency situations. 

There are also less dangerous options for would-be volunteers, he said, such as local sports teams or youth groups. 

“Whatever the case may be, we have seen a reduction of individuals choosing to do the at-risk volunteering,” he said. 

The proposed hike in the tax credit is just one way the government could improve things for volunteers, McMullen said. 

He said he also hopes the federal government will restore a program that ended in 2013 that allowed fire departments to apply for funding for specialized equipment and training. 

He said the country would also “greatly benefit” if there was a national fire adviser, giving firefighters a voice at the federal level like the U.S. Fire Administration. 

McMullen said he and dozens of other chiefs were in Ottawa this month to bring their message to policymakers. 

NDP MP Johns said there’s been a frustrating lack of acknowledgment on the issue.

“Everybody’s connected in a rural community to the volunteer fire department,” he said. “If (the government) wants to start showing Canadians that they’re serious about listening to rural Canadian needs, this is one thing that they need to do to actually demonstrate that they’re listening to rural Canada, and they’re not doing that.” 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 18, 2023.

Darryl Greer, The Canadian Press


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