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Spontaneous Combustion: April 2011

It’s time to say a prayer to St. Jude. You’ve heard of him, haven’t you? He’s the patron saint of lost causes.

April 4, 2011
By Tim Beebe

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It’s time to say a prayer to St. Jude. You’ve heard of him, haven’t you? He’s the patron saint of lost causes.

It might seem more fitting in a Spontaneous Combustion column to talk about St. Florian, the patron saint of firefighters, but consider this: as chief of a microscopic volunteer fire department in the middle of nowhere, I have experience with lost causes. You’ve read my stories about train wrecks, hazmats, fatal crashes, and buildings burned into the basement. Sure, there were lives and property saved in between, but many, many of those incidents were lost causes before the pagers went off.

Here’s the odd thing about firefighters though. We know we can’t raise the dead, or undo the destruction, or rebuild memories, or heal broken hearts, but we don’t say, “Nah, I’m not going to that call. It’s a lost cause.” We respond because we can take a shot at making a lost cause just a little better.

Last summer, I was paged to a political lost cause. It started with a plea from the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs to support the proposed volunteer firefighter tax credit. Having done my fair share of complaining about government apathy toward the fire service, I decided to try something positive for a change. I used the convenient letter supplied on the CAFC website, and wrote my honourable member of Parliament. I assumed the letter would vanish into the abyss of political indifference, so it surprised me when a few weeks later MP John Rafferty’s office called to ask if I would like a meeting. I didn’t have to be asked twice.

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With a population of 180, Upsala is hardly a bastion of constituency power, so prudence dictated that I enlist the support of our mutual-aid zone. It wasn’t difficult to find a few chiefs willing to give a captive MP audience an earful of stories about recruiting crises, funding shortfalls and decrepit apparatuses. In keeping with the theme of my letter, we also discussed the proposed $3,000 firefighter tax credit.

MP Rafferty listened patiently. When we were done, he offered to look into the status of the tax credit initiative and examine a few other sources of possible funding. Then he dropped a bombshell. Canada needed a national strategy to support volunteer fire departments. It was a “why didn’t I think of that” moment. With my background in lost causes, I knew immediately that this one was worth fighting for.

Fire chiefs are realists, and we knew that a request for funding in the current economic climate would be received as warmly as a cruise on Lake Superior in January. No one expected Ottawa to warm to this idea overnight, but even the proverbial journey of 1,000 miles has to start with one step. MP Rafferty suggested that the best first step would be a parliamentary motion.

There were a number of strikes against us from the start. First, it would have to be a private member’s motion, and the chances of it getting enough support to pass were slim. Second, MP Rafferty had already put forward his one allotted bill for the term. He could introduce the motion, but another MP would have to take up the cause or it would not advance to second reading. Last but not least, the motion would not be binding, even if it did pass. On the plus side, it would cast light on the plight of volunteer departments, whether it passed or not, and it would be less intimidating to support than a bill. And there was always the hope that it might begin the groundwork for future legislation.

Over the next month or so, Rafferty’s office kept us updated on his efforts. He found that while all parties supported the volunteer tax credit, it continued to be a work in progress. His search for other possible funding sources had met with dead ends on every front. He still recommended that we move forward with the motion. The first draft was ready by December and our mutual-aid zone was given an opportunity to comment on it. By the end of January, the motion was ready.

When M-635 – the motion calling for federal funding for volunteer fire departments – was tabled in the House of Commons on Feb. 8, I didn’t expect 308 MPs to smack their foreheads and say, “Why didn’t we think of that?” I had higher hopes for the media, but news about the motion fizzled like a spark between two damp fingers on the end of a candlewick. I appreciated that Fire Fighting in Canada gave it a boost with a story on its website. It also posted links on its blog and Facebook page. I took a cue from the CAFC and drew up a sample letter in support of the motion, which is still available on my blog. Constituent letters, whether by mail or e-mail, are still the best way to snag the attention of our MPs. Without a tangible show of popular support, M-635 will remain stalled in a traffic jam of unnoticed motions and bills waiting for someone to rescue it.

So here’s the deal. Unless St. Jude and St. Florian appear on Parliament Hill before the next election, M-635 is likely a lost cause. Perhaps that is why the idea appealed to me so much. I’m accustomed to un-winnable fights, and I’m not intimidated by the fact that help is far away.

Firefighters don’t call it quits just because we can’t raise the dead. Even political lost causes can make an impact if people support them, as seen recently in the Middle East. While I don’t expect even a fraction of that kind of support for volunteer firefighters, it’s still worth a shot. Whether M-635 sees the light of day or not, at least we’ve been heard. We cared enough to try, and that may save us in the end. You never know, St. Jude might just come through for us yet.


Tim Beebe is the fire chief in Upsala, Ont. Contact him at upsalafd@tbaytel.net and check out his blog at www.beebewitzblog.blogspot.com.


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