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Ontario Labour Minister Monte McNaughton speaks at Queen's Park in Toronto on June 16, 2020. McNaughton told The Globe and Mail that it was important that front-line workers get the care they need.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Firefighters across Ontario who have been affected by thyroid cancer and pancreatic cancer will soon be able to claim compensation for their illnesses as part of changes to Workplace Safety and Insurance Board coverage introduced by the province this week.

On Friday, Ontario’s labour department announced it would bring forward regulatory amendments to expand coverage to firefighters who have been affected by these two specific kinds of cancers. This means they will be able to claim monetary and other benefits from the WSIB to support recovery. The claims will be retroactive to Jan. 1, 1960, and apply to full-time, volunteer and part-time firefighters, as well as fire investigators.

British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Yukon already offer compensation to firefighters affected by thyroid and pancreatic cancer. The WSIB currently recognizes 17 types of cancer – including lung and brain cancer – as an occupational hazard for firefighters. The Ford government’s changes will expand that list.

“The recognition of these cancers is huge for us. It is unbelievable. Our firefighters will get recognition and appropriate financial compensation that they died in service to their communities,” said Greg Horton, president of the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA), a public-sector union. WSIB coverage also applies to surviving spouses and children when a family member dies from a work-related injury or disease.

In 2022, a World Health Organization panel reclassified firefighting as a carcinogenic profession and acknowledged that firefighters are exposed to a range of cancer-causing toxins on the job that increase their risk of developing various types of cancer. The panel’s report stated that recategorizing the profession as carcinogenic would hopefully lead governments to provide greater financial assistance to firefighters diagnosed with cancer.

Monte McNaughton, Ontario’s Minister of Labour, told The Globe and Mail that it was important that front-line workers get the care they need. “Our government is making it easier to get firefighters the support they deserve,” he said. The expanded coverage will effectively streamline the assessment of WSIB claims by presuming they are work-related.

Just months ago, the firefighters’ union and the government were at odds over Premier Doug Ford’s invoking of the notwithstanding clause to prevent education workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees from going on strike. At the time, Mr. Horton stood alongside dozens of other labour leaders in condemning the Ford government’s legislative interference in the collective bargaining process.

But the OPFFA has been campaigning for greater WSIB cancer coverage for its members for almost two years and Mr. Horton told The Globe that he received “tremendous support” from Premier Ford and Mr. McNaughton on this issue.

“Some people say we only see eye-to-eye with private-sector unions. That’s not true and this is an example of it,” said Mr. McNaughton.

There are many other issues affecting the health of workers that unions and labour advocates say have been ignored by the Ford government.

For years, the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Ontario NDP have been calling for the government to institute 10 mandated paid sick days to all workers in the province. Numerous legislative motions put forward by the NDP to expand the number of paid sick days have been repeatedly voted down by the government.

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