Alistair speaks out against genetic discrimination

Mr. Alistair MacGregor (Cowichan—Malahat—Langford, NDP):  

    Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to stand here and add my voice in strong support of Bill S-201, an act to prohibit and prevent genetic discrimination.

    I want to recognize the hard work of Senator James Cowan, recently retired, who has been shepherding this legislation in one form or another for several years now. In light of his retirement, it would be a tremendous gesture on the part of the House to honour his work on this legislation and pass the bill without amendments.

    I also want to acknowledge the hard work of the member for Don Valley West who has sponsored this bill in the House of Commons and has provided convincing and sustained arguments for its passage every step of the way.

    Finally, I want to thank my colleagues on the Standing Committee of Justice and Human Rights who I worked with on this bill through five meetings. I especially want to thank my Liberal colleagues on that committee for having the courage to stand up against the wishes of their government and help pass the bill through the committee without any significant changes.

    I support the need to protect Canadians from genetic discrimination through strong federal legislation. We believe all Canadians should be afforded the best health care possible, and genetic testing is increasingly part of health care prevention. Accordingly Canadians should have a right to know their genetic characteristics without fear of discrimination by employers or insurance companies.

    Indeed, with few exceptions, the vast majority of witnesses said that the passage of the bill with all of its main clauses intact was vital to protect against genetic discrimination. My Liberal colleagues on the committee did well to listen to the evidence during the clause-by-clause consideration of the bill to pass it in its present form.

    There are three main pillars to Bill S-201, which my colleague for Don Valley West refers to as the three legs of a stool, all are necessary to keep the stool from falling over.

    First, the bill would enact a new genetic non-discrimination act to prohibit any person from requiring an individual to undergo a genetic test or disclose the results of that test as a condition of the following: either providing goods or services to an individual, or entering into and continuing a contract or agreement with that individual. These changes are detailed through clauses 1 through 7 of the bill.

    Second, the bill would amend part III of the Canada Labour Code to protect employees from being required to undergo or disclose the results of a genetic test and would provide employees with other protections related to genetic testing and test results. These changes are detailed in clause 8 of the bill.

    Finally, the bill would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the grounds of genetic characteristics. That is part of clause 9.

    I want to make it very clear for all hon. members that the bill must pass with all of these provisions in place in order to make it effective.

    During the witness testimony, we heard from a variety of witnesses. We had the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the Canadian Coalition for Genetic Fairness, the Canadian Association of Genetic Counsellors, the Canadian Medical Association, and the Canadian College of Medical Geneticists. We had several constitutional experts, including Bruce Ryder, Peter Hogg, Hugo Cyr, and Pierre Thibault. We also heard from the Canadian Institute of Actuaries, and had moving testimony by Dr. Ronald Cohn, the pediatrician and chief at the Hospital for Sick Children.

    In particular, there are a few examples of the testimony that I want to include in my limited time.

    Representatives from the Canadian Human Rights Commission have testified that if this bill were amended to contain only the clause to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act, we could not responsibly tell Canadians that they could feel free to have genetic testing without the fear of genetic discrimination. In fact, Ms. Marie-Claude Landry, none other than the chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, underlined this when she stated, “While changing the Canadian Human Rights Act will be a positive step for human rights, it cannot address all the concerns surrounding genetic discrimination.”

    Dr. Ronald Cohn gave particularly moving testimony at the committee about young children whose conditions required genetic testing for diagnosis, but whose families felt they could not consent to the testing for fear of genetic discrimination. Without the testing, he could not properly treat these very sick children.

     Dr. Cohn and over 100 genetic scientists, medical doctors, genetic councillors from universities across Canada wrote to the Prime Minister in November of last year and urged him to retain all of the key provisions of the bill as it was passed by the Senate.

    The committee also heard captivating testimony from the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Association of Genetic Councillors, and the Canadian College of Medical Geneticists about the medical promise of genetic testing and the revolution in medicine it presented. However, the full potential of genetic testing will not be realized if people are legitimately worried about discrimination.

    I want to turn to the constitutional issues. I see that the member for Edmonton Centre, who has recently joined us on the justice committee, has moved several report stage amendments to Bill 5-201. His motions call for the deletion of clauses 1 through 8, which will effectively gut the bill and turn it into nothing less than a paper tiger when it comes to protecting Canadians against genetic discrimination.

    The deletion of these clauses will leave the bill with nothing more than an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act, which will give Canadians a false sense of security that they will not be discriminated against because of genetic testing. I pointed to this fact earlier in my speech from the testimony of the commissioner of that commission.

    I have respect for the member for Edmonton Centre, but this action on his part makes me more than a little angry. These amendments flagrantly ignore the recommendations of the committee and they are an insult to the witness testimony and the hard work of that committee.

    One of the main concerns of the legislation was the constitutionality of the proposed genetic non-discrimination act. In fact, the minister in a letter to the justice committee, dated November 17, 2016, outlined the government's concerns with the aforementioned clauses. She felt that it intruded into the provincial jurisdiction over the regulation of contracts and services.

    Our committee consulted with a variety of constitutional experts, one of whom was none other than the great Professor Peter Hogg. He is probably the most consulted constitutional scholar in Canada. These eminent scholars clearly held the view that the prohibitions listed in the first clauses of the bill were a clearly justified use of the federal criminal law power.

    In previous rulings, the Supreme Court of Canada has held that a valid criminal law power requires (1) a prohibition; (2) a penalty, and (3) a criminal law purpose such as peace, order, security, morality, and health. Federal criminal law power against a public health evil relies on the fact that it is directed against human conduct that has a injurious or undesirable effect on members of the public.

    The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has stated that “acts or conduct that have an injurious or undesirable effect on public health constitute public health evils that may properly be targeted by the criminal law”.

    Discrimination based on genetic testing does have an injurious and undesirable effect on public health. When people are too afraid to go for genetic testing because of the fears of discrimination, this does not allow physicians to do their job properly. Taking a test that could help someone's life should not be a calculated risk.

    I ask all hon. members in the House, especially my Liberal colleagues across the way, to please summon the courage to do what is right, support the bill without these amendments, listen to the hard work that the committee did, and let us do something right for Canada. Let us get rid of these amendments and pass the bill as it was passed by the Senate.