Human Pathogens and Toxins Act

An Act to promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins

This bill was last introduced in the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session, which ended in September 2008.

Sponsor

Tony Clement  Conservative

Status

Not active, as of April 29, 2008
(This bill did not become law.)

Summary

This is from the published bill. The Library of Parliament often publishes better independent summaries.

This enactment creates measures to promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins and all activities associated with them. It establishes a comprehensive legislative regime that extends beyond the present importation regime. It requires every person conducting activities involving human pathogens or toxins to take all reasonable measures to protect the health and safety of the public.

Elsewhere

All sorts of information on this bill is available at LEGISinfo, provided by the Library of Parliament. You can also read the full text of the bill.

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

April 30th, 2009 / 5:20 p.m.
See context

Bloc

Bernard Bigras Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Madam Speaker, it is important that we have this debate today on Bill C-11, An Act to—allegedly—promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins.

There is a paradox right in the title the government has given this bill. This government is talking about the safety of pathogens, and yet in a media release dated April 29, 2008, when Bill C-54, the predecessor of Bill C-11, was introduced, the Minister of Health at the time said: “The risk to Canadians posed by the presence of human pathogens and toxins in labs is low .”

In 2008 they were saying that the risk to the public was relatively low. And now the government is introducing a bill to promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins, as if there were numerous risks.

So what does the bill that is before us do? First, it makes the guidelines that have been presented by the Public Health Agency of Canada mandatory. Second, it makes it mandatory that licences be obtained for regulated activities, so that existing pathogens can be monitored, to determine where they are and to know who has them. Third, it institutes a scheme of offences and penalties.

We are not opposed to oversight of these pathogens. That is a basic principle: the risk has to be managed, we have to ensure that the precautionary principle can be applied, of course.

In reality, however, what impact would the implementation of this bill have? It would create operating methods in workplaces like universities, research centres, clinics and hospitals. It seems clear to me that these sites are under Quebec’s authority. And today we have a federal government that would use the Criminal Code to get directly involved in how our hospitals and clinics operate, in the name of criminal law.

As I said, the precautionary principle must be applied, of course, but at the same time, the federal government has to understand where its authority to act begins and where it has to end.

We on this side of the House are not the only ones who think the government is going too far. This is an excerpt from a letter written on April 6, 2009, which makes it very recent, barely three weeks ago, by the Minister of Health of Quebec, Yves Bolduc, to the federal Minister of Health, concerning Bill C-11:

Quebec notes that the measures proposed in the bill would have a significant impact on the organization of medical laboratory and diagnostic services, which are normal services within Quebec's health system. However, these services fall under the jurisdiction of the government of Quebec.

Health Minister Yves Bolduc wrote further:

Accordingly, the Government of Quebec is calling on the federal government to reconsider its approach to ensuring the biosafety and biosecurity of human pathogens and toxins, rather than pursuing the parliamentary work currently underway. It is important that that approach better reflect the respective roles of both levels of government in this matter.

This is a letter dated April 6, which the federal health minister has received. Unfortunately, our colleagues on the Standing Committee on Health, who merely tried to get the government side to approve an amendment to ensure that the provinces would be consulted during the development of the regulations, got a resounding no for an answer.

Not only did the minister not deign to withdraw her bill but the members of the government party and some opposition members refused, I firmly believe, to make sure that at least those concerned by the application of it, that is the Government of Quebec, the hospitals and research centres, were consulted. It was a categorical no. The federal government is trying to use the terrorist threat in order to meddle in areas of provincial jurisdiction. That is the reality.

The federal government has all the tools it needs to handle pathogens of this kind. It can do so under the Terrorism Act. At least three countries have done so. The United Kingdom decided to take action under its terrorism act to regulate pathogens of this kind. But the government refuses to use the legislative tools at its disposal. It decided to go further and meddle directly in areas of provincial jurisdiction.

There is clearly a constitutional problem with the bill. This is not the first time this has happened. The government already used its power to legislate in the area of criminal law to make some laboratory biosafety guidelines obligatory through the issuing of licences. However, the bill exceeds the federal jurisdiction, as happened as well in the case of the federal bill on assisted reproduction, among others.

On June 19, 2008, the Quebec Court of Appeal handed down a judgment in the reference from the Government of Quebec on the constitutionality of sections 8 to 19, 40 to 53, 60, 61 and 68 of the Assisted Reproduction Act. The Court of Appeal stated that the sections in question exceeded the authority of the Parliament of Canada under the Constitution Act, 1867. In short, the judges said that the basic, overriding purpose of the part of the act that was challenged was to protect health and not to right a wrong. The provisions that were challenged could therefore not qualify as pertaining to criminal law under the Constitution Act, 1867.

There are precedents, therefore, for the federal government trying to use its power to legislate in the area of criminal law to introduce bills concerning health that are obviously outside its jurisdiction. Workplaces, universities, clinics and hospitals are clearly provincial jurisdictions.

We would have hoped today that the government would listen to reason at the stage the bill is at and withdraw Bill C-11, as requested by the Quebec health minister.

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

April 30th, 2009 / 4:20 p.m.
See context

Bloc

Nicolas Dufour Repentigny, QC

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure for me today to rise and present my position and that of the Bloc on Bill C-11. As a member of the Standing Committee on Health and the Bloc’s youth critic, I can say that this bill is of great concern to me. I am concerned because it has to do not only with public health and safety but also with the research done in our universities.

The predecessor of this bill was Bill C-54, which died on the order paper when the election was called last October. The purpose of the bill is to create measures to promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins.

In case any of my colleagues do not know, pathogens are micro-organisms that can cause illness in human beings. Some toxins, produced by micro-organisms, can also cause illness. Pathogens are divided into five categories. The least dangerous are in risk group 1 and the most dangerous in risk group 5.

When I said that Bill C-11 concerned both public health and our scientific community, it was because these micro-organisms are used in both scientific research laboratories and in health care facilities in Quebec and Canada.

At the present time, the regulations on importing pathogens make it necessary to obtain a licence in order to bring them in from foreign countries. Only laboratories that import pathogens have to observe a set of guidelines on laboratory biosafety. Those that use pathogens already present in Canada do not.

The purpose of Bill C-11 is, in short, to make the laboratory biosafety guidelines obligatory for everyone and to require everyone to obtain a licence for controlled activities so that the existing pathogens can be followed. The purpose is to determine where these pathogens are and who is in possession of them and also to institute a system of offences and punishments for people who violate the guidelines.

Bill C-11 would therefore require everyone in the scientific community to obtain a licence in order to conduct research on pathogens and toxins. Whether in order to manipulate, possess, or import them, everyone would need a licence.

As I pointed out earlier, there are guidelines for the possession and handling of pathogens and toxins.

In short, Bill C-11 would require that low-risk laboratories, those using agents from groups 1 and 2, which entail, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, “moderate risk to the health of individuals and a low risk to public health” obtain a licence. That is interesting. According to the agency once again, “They are able to cause serious disease in a human but are unlikely to do so. Effective treatment and preventive measures are available and the risk of spread of disease caused by those pathogens is low.”

Naturally, we understand the government's concern with respect to groups 3 and 4 and the precautions proposed as they could affect the health and safety of the general population. However, there is a problem in that laboratories that handle agents in groups 3 and 4 already observe the provisions in the guidelines.

The guidelines were established more than 15 years ago and, since then, there has not been an incident in Canada in laboratories that use groups 3 and 4 or those that use groups 1 and 2. Mr. Marc Ouellette, a professor at Laval University, appeared before the committee twice and was very clear on that point.

Bill C-54 and then Bill C-11 sent shock waves through the research community. No one was prepared for them. When we examined the bill—and I even read the document explaining it—we thought it was ridiculous, because people had been following the guidelines for 15 years.

In fact, the only major incident involving improper use took place in the United States in the early 2000s and it was in a laboratory run by the American government. Scientists already comply with the framework put forward by the federal government for the use and importing of pathogens.

As I mentioned earlier, Bill C-11 would impose a new framework for university and hospital laboratories as well as private laboratories. At the Standing Committee on Health, we spoke to a number of scientists who work in these laboratories and who have serious doubts about the impact of Bill C-11, and I can understand them.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the new obligations on the circulation of pathogens within a facility such as a university, researchers wonder, not about the safety aspect of their research, but about the way the government is taking control over their everyday research activities.

Once again, the Conservative government is trying to use a variety of tactics to interfere in scientific research, exactly as it did by granting new funding to the Humanities Research Council, but limiting them to economic research. I will return to that point later. That decision, once again, was reached without consultation and without taking the opinion of those most concerned into consideration.

Did the government do any impact studies on the effects such legislation would have on university curricula, on the operation of our hospitals, on the research industry in Quebec and Canada?

Not in the least.

In addition to cutting $162 million in funding to granting agencies, the Conservative government is imposing a legislative framework on researchers, which will require major additional investments for the thousands of facilities wishing to use pathogens with a low level of risk to the public.

The Conservative government is again after carte blanche as far as the regulations are concerned; they will not be reviewed by Parliament. I have serious misgivings about the potential repercussions of this bill on the development of pathogen research in Quebec and on the positive contributions this would make to public health.

We need only think of the swine flu that is rampant at this time. Will scientists be able to work as effectively in future to find solutions to such a virus? I think this issue is worth examining.

Once again, it seems that the Conservative government is introducing a bill without evaluating its direct repercussions on the community. We are beginning to get used to it.

Did the government reflect on the impact that Bill C-11 will have on university teaching? Did it reflect on the investments required to set up a teaching laboratory using groups 1 and 2?

For example, E. coli is currently listed in schedule 2 of the bill. According to the academics, this pathogen is widely used by students in laboratory experiments. The fact that it is in schedule 2 would force universities to step up security in classrooms, although not all types of E. coli are potentially hazardous.

It is true that the government introduced some distinctions in Bill C-11 compared to former Bill C-54 and it could change the classification of pathogens in the schedules. However, that example illustrates the general upgrading problem that will be necessary in some teaching laboratories.

Moreover, the bill restricts the access to licensed facilities. Clause 31 of Bill C-11 says that:

A licence holder shall establish and maintain a list of all persons authorized by the licence holder to access the facility to which the licence applies, including persons holding a security clearance for that facility and visitors. The licence holder shall provide the Minister with that list if requested to do so.

Where teaching is done in laboratories, will the university have to give the list of all students who can access the laboratories or of all students of the university? I do believe that there are still too many questions and not enough answers in that bill.

According to the academics we consulted, Bill C-11 would require major investments in universities where there are laboratories. These investments will not be used to make the necessary upgrades to allow the laboratories to work with groups 3 and 4 pathogens, but to make them conform to the new provisions concerning groups 1 and 2. They told us that universities in Quebec and Canada will have to spend billions of dollars—and I repeat, billions of dollars, in the middle of an economic crisis—to do the necessary upgrading.

Many witnesses also asked the government to eliminate schedule 2 from the bill to reduce the impact on everyday research work. According to scientists, that would considerably change the content of Bill C-11. Indeed, 90% of pathogens used in university laboratories are from group 2.

A scientist at McGill University's Department of Microbiology and Immunology even issued a serious warning about the direct impact of implementing the act if schedule 2 is not repealed:

Removing level 2 would not put Canadians at any greater risk than they face now. Canadians are well protected with what is already present. Keeping level 2 in this bill will certainly slow research in this country and slow our ability to compete internationally and our ability to attract biotechnology and major industries...

In a time of economic crisis, it seems that the worst thing we could do would be to put even more constraints on our universities, which are already faced with serious funding problems. Especially since, as I said, there have been no incidents since the guidelines were introduced 15 years ago. The government is once again trying to impose its right-wing ideology and to control research as much as it can without spending anything. That is completely unacceptable.

As I have mentioned, the handling of pathogens is carried out for diagnostic purposes and for research and development. The Bloc Québécois is concerned with the effects of this bill on the future of research and development in this country related to pathogens. At the risk of repeating myself, I want to say that the Conservative government, in addition to cutting research budgets, is trying to exert maximum control over the scientific community.

It is also important to be concerned about the effects of Bill C-11 on health institutions, such as hospitals, that use laboratories to carry out diagnostic tests. That could have a direct impact on the health services of Quebec and the provinces. The bill also seeks to impose penalties on anyone who contravenes the law. It is important to mention that laboratories, including universities, hospitals and other government establishments, could be forced to pay a fine. Does the government really want to inflict fines on universities and hospitals that already have a crying shortage of funds?

The bill also provides fines and penalties for anyone guilty of careless acts or lack of precaution in the handling of pathogens and toxins. Such action would be liable to a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000 for the first offence. A second offence would attract a maximum fine of $1 million or up to two years in prison, or both of those penalties. Are the measures in Bill C-11 to prohibit intentional misuse of pathogens not already contained within the Anti-terrorism Act?

While we had questioned officials about the possible repercussions, it is now clear that the government did not conduct any study of the impact of Bill C-11. The only response we received was that when it was drawing up the regulations the government would consider the concerns of experts and researchers, to reduce any possible negative impacts. Even though the government still has not conducted an impact study or else is refusing to make it public, the government appears so anxious to have Bill C-11 adopted that it is forgetting that enforcement of the law will not begin for another 4 or 5 years.

I sincerely believe that the government should have acted responsibly before blindly jumping into the implementation of Bill C-11. It should have conducted impact assessments and properly consulted the stakeholders, specifically, researchers, the provinces, medical laboratories and the entire scientific community. Of course the Bloc Québécois supports the notion that the government must consult the stakeholders affected by the bill before drafting any regulations. However, in the clause by clause study conducted by the health committee, of which I am a member, the Bloc proposed that the government consult the provinces before amending the schedules, which obviously was not done.

When asked about the consequences of this amendment, the officials said there would be no consultation with the provinces before the amendments were drafted, thereby forgoing the expertise of public servants from Quebec and the provinces. I would also remind the House that British Columbia has expressed serious reservations about the bill, and that it was these same officials who reassured them, promising that they would be consulted about the scope of the legislation.

This sentiment was echoed by the Government of Quebec. The Quebec health minister, Yves Bolduc, wrote a letter to the Canadian Minister of Health to express his concerns.

The Liberal members who were tearing their hair out in committee because of the failure to respect British Columbia's jurisdictions and the repercussions the bill would have on the people of that province decided to put their trust entirely in the regulations, thereby denying British Columbia the opportunity to give an opinion on the classification of pathogens. The Liberals have a habit of trampling on the provinces, and this is just one more example.

In her speech earlier, the hon. member for Winnipeg North seemed to be saying that the NDP were the only ones to try to change Bill C-11 in committee by proposing amendments.

Perhaps this amnesia is due to the energy she spent on justifying her position.

I would also like to remind the NDP members and all members of the House that the Bloc Québécois also proposed amendments at the report stage calling for the removal of level 2 pathogens and calling on the government to table the regulations before the House before they are adopted. We therefore supported the other parties' amendments that were along the same lines. However, that was not enough.

It would be interesting to know why the hon. member for Winnipeg North and the Liberal and Conservative members of the Standing Committee on Health did not support the amendment put forward by the Bloc Québécois calling for the activities carried out in any facility regulated, operated or funded by a province to be excluded, when Quebec's health minister as well as Ontario and BC officials expressed serious concerns about the impact of Bill C-11 on activities in Quebec and the provinces.

Given that the risk to Canadians posed by the presence of human pathogens and toxins in labs is low, according to the Conservative government; that the bill is designed to make the laboratory biosafety guidelines mandatory through licensing, without the government first consulting the primary stakeholders and assessing the impact on such things as university teaching and labs in health facilities; that the government's goal is to address a potential terrorist risk by regulating pathogens and toxins and that the Anti-terrorism Act and other acts can already cover some of the provisions of Bill C-11; and that this bill can potentially invade the jurisdictions of Quebec and the provinces, for all of these reasons, the Bloc Québécois is calling for an in-depth review of Bill C-11.

We will question experts to make sure that the details of Bill C-11 do not adversely affect Quebec's research community. We will ensure that the proposed provisions are respectful of Quebec's areas of jurisdiction in that they take into account potential implications with respect to university teaching and research as well as health services provided to the people of Quebec.

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

April 30th, 2009 / 3:55 p.m.
See context

Bloc

Robert Vincent Shefford, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to address Bill C-11, which seeks to promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins.

I want to begin by pointing out that there are four categories of risk, namely risk groups 1 to 4. Risk groups 3 and 4 are already covered by the legislation. I am going to provide some explanations on these groups.

Schedule 3 — Risk Group 3: human pathogens

means a category of human pathogens that pose a high risk to the health of individuals and a low risk to public health...

Schedule 4 — Risk Group 4:

means a category of human pathogens that pose a high risk to the health of individuals and a high risk to public health...

Only those major labs working with human pathogens must comply with the Laboratory Biosafety Guidelines. Labs dealing with risk groups 3 and 4, which pose a high risk to the health of individuals and either a low or a high risk to public health, are already covered by these guidelines.

What are these guidelines? They are a specialized document produced by the Office of Laboratory Security of the Public Health Agency of Canada. That document was written for those individuals who are responsible for designing or operating labs in which anthropopathogens are handled for diagnosis, research or development purposes. Labs or individuals who do not use these pathogens in Canada are not subjected to these guidelines.

We can understand the government's concerns regarding risk groups 3 and 4, and the precautions put forward. However, are labs 3 and 4 not already complying with the safety measures set in the guidelines and proposed in this legislation?

Bill C-11 would apply to risk groups 1 and 2, which pose a moderate risk to the health of individuals and a low risk to public health, and for which effective treatment is available. The idea behind this change is to better protect public health.

We can see where we are headed. The idea is to monitor risk groups 1 and 2. What do groups 1 and 2 include? Group 1 includes toxins, while group 2 deals with human pathogens. However, these groups only pose a moderate risk to the health of individuals. As I mentioned earlier, they pose a low risk to public health and they would rarely cause serious disease in a human being. Even if this were the case, such disease could easily be prevented or treated, and the risk of that disease spreading is low.

In addition, Bill C-11—and this is where the dynamic of this bill the other parties cannot understand lies—would impose the obligation to have a licence—meaning that all laboratories will have to have one—for the following “controlled activities” related to a human pathogen or toxin; possessing, handling, using, producing, storing, permitting any person access, transferring,importing or exporting, releasing or otherwise abandoning or disposing.

This bill requires any person carrying out activities involving a human pathogen or toxin to take all reasonable precautions to protect public health and safety.

The federal government justifies this bill by its jurisdiction over criminal law. Speaking of criminal law, we must understand that the Conservatives are champions as far as introducing such laws is concerned, and that from that point on there is no point in any other parties getting involved in a system which is, I will state it clearly, exaggerated. Here again we see the Conservative desire to control everything.

In short, the purpose of Bill C-11 is to make the Laboratory Biosafety Guidelines mandatory.

The second intention is to make it mandatory for licences to be obtained for the activities it covers in order to trace existing agents, determine where they are and with whom.

The third intention is to put in place a system of offences and fines. In the backgrounder to Bill C-54, introduced by the government during the last Parliament, and the ancestor of C-11, it was stated:

The risk to Canadians posed by the presence of human pathogens and toxins in labs is low.

Why was it low then, and different now? Why is the government trying to control everyone and everything everywhere in Canada? I do not get it. The text continues:

Safety guidelines exist and the laboratory community is committed to the safe handling and management of human pathogens and toxins as a part of their regular work. Nevertheless, we must be sure the appropriate legislation, protocols and practices are in place to protect Canadians from this risk.

Since the guidelines were introduced over 15 years ago, there have been no incidents in Canada, regardless of whether labs have been following those guidelines.

Nevertheless, the researchers have certain reservations, not about the safety of their research, but rather about government control over everyday research. Not only does the government want to control journalists and information, but it also wants to control laboratories and people. Has the government conducted studies to determine the impact this new legislation would have on university courses, on how our hospitals operate and on the research industry in Quebec and Canada? No.

The government is asking for carte blanche concerning regulations that will not be examined by Parliament. The bill establishes a legislative framework that imposes certain requirements on research done on pathogens and toxins, as well as criminal sanctions and fines for non-compliance.

We must ask ourselves certain questions about these regulations. How is it that a bill, now in third reading, has no regulations? No one knows what will happen with this bill. They are bringing something to a vote before the House, something that will happen at a later date, but we do not yet know what these regulations will be based on. It makes no sense.

According to the universities we consulted—unlike other parties in this House, we conducted a consultation—Bill C-11 will demand huge investments in universities that have laboratories.

These investments will not be used to update laboratories for group 3 and 4 pathogens; these will be new provisions concerning group 1 and 2. Those are the only categories that are not problematic. Also according to the universities, billions of dollars will have to be invested across the country, at the universities' expense. Did the government assess the kind of impact this will have on university teaching and research, on health care institutions and on private laboratories? Once again, the answer is no.

It is important to point out that all laboratories, including universities, hospitals and other government institutions, can be forced to pay fines. This government has a tendency to impose fines and prison sentences. It constantly focuses on those two points. Does the government really want to impose fines on universities and hospitals, when they are already desperately short of funding? It makes no sense.

The bill also establishes penalties and fines for anyone who shows wanton or reckless disregard concerning pathogens and toxins.

Clause 55 reads as follows:

Every person who contravenes section 6 and who shows wanton or reckless disregard for the health or safety of other persons and, as a result, creates a risk to the health or safety of the public is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term of not more than five years.

We are talking about students, not researchers who wear protective clothing. We are talking about people in a university or hospital. We are talking about viruses, which are not very big. This is the smallest category in existence that the government is going to try to control. It wants to control people, control information, control those who have these groups of pathogens. This is terrible. But there is more. And it is even worse.

Clause 56 reads as follows:

Every person who contravenes subsection 7(1) or 18(7) is guilty of an offence and liable

(a) on conviction on indictment, for a first offence, to a fine of not more than $500,000 or to imprisonment for a term of not more than six months, or to both, and, for a subsequent offence, to a fine of not more than $1,000,000 or to imprisonment for a term of not more than two years, or to both;

Think about the student who, as a joke, touches something and is fined half a million dollars. It makes no sense.

The Bloc Québécois wonders why it is necessary to introduce new measures and new penalties when they could be part of existing laws. These laws already exist, and the government is trying to add more. It is piling on more laws. Once again, it is hard to follow these parties here in the House. They pay no attention to the bills we discuss here, and they are ready to vote on anything. Are the measures in this bill on breach of duty, wanton or reckless breach of duty and intentional release not already included in the Criminal Code and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act? Yes, they are. Are the measures to prohibit intentional misuse of pathogens not already included in the Anti-Terrorism Act?

We already have plenty of laws. The government is trying to create more fines. It is talking about imprisoning these people. I cannot see how we can think about these things and decide what falls into groups 1 and 2. Everything the party in power is proposing is already covered by existing legislation. I cannot understand why we need to go any further than what we have now. Even worse, the government does not know where it wants to go with this bill because it has not consulted anyone.

When we asked departmental officials about the consequences, it was clear that the government had not studied the impact of Bill C-11. When we asked them about how it would affect universities and hospitals, they candidly told us that they did not know because there had been no impact study. They had no idea what might happen because there had been no study. However, it seemed that everyone was quite happy to have new laws, new fines and new prison sentences. That is the only thing we were able to find out. The only answer we got was that the government planned to take experts' and researchers' concerns into consideration while drafting regulations so as to minimize potential negative impacts. That is not saying much. They will consult experts, but will they take their comments into consideration? They might, or they might not. They might decide to accept the recommendations they like because the bill was passed anyway. We have no idea how the regulations will deal with risk groups 1 and 2. We still have no idea.

I do not understand why, in 2009, the government has introduced a bill without regulations in the House of Commons, where laws are made, nor why we should vote for a bill without knowing the regulations that are to be part of it. Moreover, the government says that even if it consults experts, it will make its own decisions about what to do anyway. Regulations will not be submitted to the House of Commons.

How can we vote on regulations if we never see them? How are we supposed to propose amendments if the regulations are not defined? It makes no sense.

I do not know where we are going with this. Nor do I know how this is in Quebeckers' and Canadians' best interest. We cannot protect them from risk group 1 and 2 pathogens because, in Bill C-54, this government said that these two categories were not a problem.

Why study risk groups 1 and 2 if they were not a problem? I still have not heard an answer to that question.

The Bloc Québécois would have preferred that the government had acted responsibly instead of blindly charging ahead with the implementation of Bill C-11. That would have meant conducting an impact study and consulting properly with stakeholders in each province, including researchers and private health laboratories. As far as the regulatory framework and cooperation with the provinces go, those are other matters.

Certainly, the Bloc Québécois endorses the idea that the government should consult with stakeholders affected by the bill before preparing regulations. We have no choice because the other political parties are in favour of adopting this bill without regulations.

However, we had proposed, during clause-by-clause study in committee, that the government consult the provinces before amending the schedules. When we questioned officials about the effects of this amendment, they indicated there would be no consultation with the provinces before preparing the amendments. Did anyone think of that? They do not even consult the provinces and they are going to make regulations without any consultation with people in each of the provinces.

Those officials also said that the experts and researchers were found in research laboratories and within the federal government, while ignoring the expertise within the public service of Quebec or the other provinces. We have expertise as well, but the Conservatives do not want to recognize it. They just want to listen to their own experts; and they will only take into account what they like.

They also pointed out that British Columbia had serious reservations about the bill, and these were the same officials who had reassured the province by promising to consult B.C. on the scope of the bill. They will do the consultation later.

The Bloc amendment called for consultation with Quebec and the provinces before any modification of the schedules; that is, before adding a pathogen or revising its classification. The purpose of this amendment was to ensure that the federal government properly evaluated the impact of any such changes.

It must be said that the Conservatives and the Liberals decided that amendment was not necessary, and in doing so dismissed the expertise of Quebec and other provinces on the subject.

The Liberals, who cried wolf in committee because of a failure to respect British Columbia’s jurisdiction and the repercussions of the bill on the people of British Columbia, put their trust entirely in the regulations under the Act, and make no provision for British Columbia to give its views on the classification of pathogens.

In a news release on April 29, 2008, announcing the introduction of Bill C-54, the minister insisted that there were no risks. Yet, today, suddenly, there are many risks.

The Bloc Québécois calls for in-depth study of Bill C-11. We want to put questions to experts to ensure that the details of Bill C-11 will not adversely affect the research community in Quebec.

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

April 30th, 2009 / 1:05 p.m.
See context

Bloc

Luc Malo Verchères—Les Patriotes, QC

Madam Speaker, I am rising to speak at third reading of Bill C-11, An Act to promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins.

At second reading, the Bloc Québécois voted in favour of the principle of this bill. It is obvious that public health and safety are everyone's concern. However, as was even admitted by the government, in announcing the introduction of Bill C-54, the ancestor of this Bill C-11, the Minister of Health 's press release explained that the risk to Canadians from human pathogens and toxins used in laboratories is low.

There are also other laws, an anti-terrorism law and others, which could house some of the provisions of Bill C-11. It is, for example, obvious that a malicious intent in releasing toxic and dangerous products into the environment would be covered already by a number of laws. Offenders would be prosecuted under the Criminal Code. There was therefore no reason to stir everyone up and trample over all those who wanted to see changes to the legislation in favour of greater mutual respect. The provinces were muzzled and not properly listened to. Neither were the researchers and scientists.

Yet those very researchers and scientists are the ones who will have to live with the consequences of Bill C-11. I will quote, if I may, from what Peter Singer, director and professor of medicine at the University Health Network and University of Toronto, told us in committee in connection with this bill:

It lowers the background noise of what's happening in laboratories so the signal of aberrant activity can stand out better. But we also need the help of the thousands of scientists in those laboratories, very few of whom, if any, intend to misuse human pathogens, to make sure that 99.99% constitute a network of vigilance to bring that signal to the attention of authorities. Because biosecurity is achieved by winning the scientists' hearts and minds, not through legislative compulsion but by fostering a scientific culture of awareness and responsibility, it's extremely important to have them on side.

That is what the government did not try to do before moving forward. It did not try to get laboratory researchers on board. It did not try to win them over and obtain their unconditional support. When the government raises the spectre of bioterrorist attacks and mentions laboratory workers in the bill, they just might think that they are being branded as potential terrorists. Calling people names and insulting them is not a good way to win them over.

The government did not conduct a proper impact study to understand the consequences of Bill C-11. We asked public officials whether proper impact studies had been conducted, and from the comments we heard in the committee, we discovered that the government did hold information sessions, but did not take a more thorough look at researchers' criticisms and concerns.

There would have been time to do it. We tend to forget that, according to the government's timeline, this bill will not be implemented for another four or five years. Instead of acting blindly, without a solid, credible foundation, the government should have acted responsibly by conducting an impact study and holding proper consultations with all stakeholders, including researchers, the provinces, and private health labs. That would have been the right thing to do.

Mr. Raymond Tellier appeared before the committee, and he raised a very important point. He said that, after a similar law was passed in the United States, there was a brain drain. Before going ahead with this bill, it would have been very useful to know how it might affect people working as researchers and teachers, those who pass on their knowledge to future researchers and Ph.D.s. On that basis alone, it would have been nice to have had more information.

Just before proceeding to a clause-by-clause study in committee, we heard from witnesses who told us that they were still not happy. For example, we heard from Professor Greg Matlashewski of McGill University's department of microbiology and immunology. He said:

The bill will mean very little without real regulations within it, as far as I'm concerned. I think there's a real danger in passing this bill without having the regulations, because I've seen some of the amendments, and these amendments have not changed the bill substantially.

He was not satisfied with the amendments because, in his opinion, they were still not specific enough about the consequences to carrying out his job, which is very important and useful in developing new procedures and new medications and for advancing science.

Mr. Albert Descoteaux, a professor at the Institut Armand-Frappier, Institut national de la recherche scientifique, voiced his concerns about HIV:

Bill C-11 would destroy all the financial commitments from government in the fight against AIDS. Paradoxically, that remains a federal government priority. I would really like that considered when you decide your position on Bill C-11.

Unfortunately, not enough consideration was given to that point by our NDP, Liberal and Conservative colleagues. In fact, they decided to move forward and adopt this bill even before knowing its impact, especially on AIDS research.

Mr. Descoteaux continued:

If the goal of lawmakers is to promote public health and safety in the area of micro-organisms and to protect Canadians from potential bioterrorist attacks, Bill C-11 is not the solution. I feel that the bill could well create havoc by establishing a repressive system that lumps all micro-organisms together, whereas the vast majority of them pose no problem at all for people's health and safety.

And what about his comments? They want to forget them, ignore them, and pretend that Dr. Descoteaux said nothing. It is deplorable that members of other political parties would act this way when, as I stated earlier, there was no reason to expedite this bill, as the government had said in a press release.

We also proposed an amendment, at report stage, asking that the provinces be consulted before the schedules were amended.

When they came to discuss the proposed amendments with us, public officials told us clearly that the provinces would not be consulted before the drafting of these amendments. The experts and researchers were from research labs and the federal government. This whole exercise completely ignored the skills that we have in the public service of Quebec and of the provinces.

The Bloc Québécois' amendment sought to consult Quebec and the provinces, before amending the schedules, that is before adding a pathogen or changing its classification. This was to ensure that the impact of any change would be known and adequately evaluated by the government.

The committee heard the concerns clearly expressed by members from all parties and from the various provinces. The Conservative member for Sarnia—Lambton told us about the fears of the Ontario legislature, while the member for Vancouver Quadra spoke eloquently and vigorously about the very legitimate concerns of the B.C. government, since she served as a minister in that provincial legislature.

However, we did not get any answer, despite the fact that Conservative and Liberal members raised the legitimate concerns of the Ontario and British Columbia legislatures, and despite the fact that the member for Vancouver Quadra spoke eloquently, asked many questions and demanded answers.

Indeed, despite all this, she and her Liberal Party colleagues decided to support the government in its will to rush Bill C-11 through. This is rather unusual. It is puzzling to see members from this House, who heard, understood and then conveyed the fears expressed by provincial legislatures, end up ignoring them and rejecting the legitimate expectations of the provinces.

We learned, in the presentations made to the committee by the members for Sarnia—Lambton and Vancouver Quadra, that they were already exercising—as regards safety, security and the monitoring of laboratories—a number of responsibilities related to constitutional requirements that come under Quebec and the provinces.

Talking about the constitutionality of the bill, the committee heard an expert who told us that, in her opinion, there was every reason to believe that some provisions in Bill C-11 were unconstitutional. It is a very serious matter when, after the committee heard an expert express concerns regarding this issue, the government decides to use its prerogative to legislate criminal law, ignores those recommendations and moves forward nevertheless.

I would now like to read a letter addressed to the Minister of Health, on April 6, 2009, by the Quebec health minister, Dr. Yves Bolduc.

Dear Mr. Minister,

I am writing to you today to express the Quebec government's serious concerns about Bill C-11, the Human Pathogens and Toxins Act, which is currently being examined by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health. The Quebec government notes that the measures proposed in the bill would have serious repercussions on the organization of medical laboratory services and medical diagnostic services, which are provided by Quebec’s health care system and which come under Quebec's jurisdiction.

Accordingly, the Government of Quebec is calling on the federal government to reconsider its approach to ensuring the biosafety and biosecurity of human pathogens and toxins, rather than pursuing the parliamentary work currently underway. It is important that that approach better reflect the respective roles of both levels of government in this matter.

Yours truly,

This letter went completely unheeded. The NDP, the Liberals and the Conservatives all ignored the remarks made by the Quebec Minister of Health, these very wise remarks calling for a review of all the provisions of the bill, rather than pursuing the committee's examination, in order to ensure that it respects the jurisdictions of both levels of government.

When the Standing Committee on Health was doing its clause-by-clause review of Bill C-11, I had proposed an amendment whereby the bill would not apply to any facility regulated, operated or funded by a province.

You can object, shout, ask questions and insist that your home province's fears be taken seriously, as the member for Vancouver Quadra did in committee, but you have to do more than just that.

I find it deplorable that this member did not do what should be done in such a situation and ask the government, as I am doing, to take a step back and consider all the facts when making a decision about a bill like Bill C-11.

Are we going to have to go through the same thing with Bill C-11 that we went through with the Assisted Human Reproduction Act? The Government of Quebec, with the support of other provincial legislatures, applied to the court to rule on the act's constitutionality.

The public should not have to pay for lawyers and judges to examine the constitutionality of legislation. I believe that, as parliamentarians, we have a duty to make sure, before we introduce or vote on a bill, that it complies fully with the Constitution.

The Quebec Court of Appeal ruled that the Assisted Human Reproduction Act is unconstitutional. Now, I am sad to see—

March 31st, 2009 / 4 p.m.
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Bloc

Luc Malo Verchères—Les Patriotes, QC

Thank you, Madam Chair.

I just want to come back to the comment made by certain members—including yourself, Madam Chair—to the effect that we could be responsible for some unfortunate incidents that might occur. It is clear to all of the witnesses and to colleagues seated at this table that the safety of the public is our main focus.

Draft legislation, Bill C-54, was tabled during the previous Parliament. Since then, there has been time to do some impact assessments. These would have helped us to determine either that the bill would be damaging to the research, university and scientific community or conversely, that there was no cause for concern, that everything would be fine and that there would be no brain drain as we saw happen in the United States because here, we were going to take a different approach.

However, it is clear that such studies would have proved invaluable to avoid our heading off in many different directions. The concerns that were expressed could have been addressed. When we had our first briefing with the Agency when Bill C-11 was tabled, we were told that consultations had taken place, that everyone was satisfied and that there was no cause for concern. However, as we started to hear from witnesses, concerns were voiced by many different parties.

Madam Chair, the crux of the problem is the fact the government has chosen to focus more on criminal provisions and on putting in place parameters and regulations, insisting that people will be reassured by this. However, the reality is that hundreds of research facilities, universities and hospitals that do research are today asking themselves what will happen to them once Bill C-11 is adopted.

As parliamentarians and as a responsible committee, we should have taken their concerns into account during our study of the bill. It is unfortunate that today, as we proceed with the clause-by-clause study, we are not in a position to reassure the vast majority of the witnesses who came here to testify. That is what saddens me the most today.

March 12th, 2009 / 5 p.m.
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Liberal

Joyce Murray Vancouver Quadra, BC

Well, I'll make sure you receive a copy of this.

I don't want to get into a “he said, she said”, but I can tell you that the chief medical officer's office was very clear that they were not consulted during the course of Bill C-54, and--

March 12th, 2009 / 4:25 p.m.
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Principal Research Officer, National Research Council, As an Individual

Dr. Wayne Conlan

I do, yes. This was for Bill C-54, not for Bill C-11, but I was certainly apprised very fully of its content and was given the opportunity to comment on it by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

March 12th, 2009 / 4:10 p.m.
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Principal Research Officer, National Research Council, As an Individual

Dr. Wayne Conlan

In Bill C-54 the intent was that people engaged in levels three and four work would require security clearance.

March 12th, 2009 / 4:10 p.m.
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Conservative

Colin Carrie Oshawa, ON

We keep hearing that it's the security issue, and you did mention that in Bill C-54 you don't remember that being--

March 12th, 2009 / 4:05 p.m.
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Principal Research Officer, National Research Council, As an Individual

Dr. Wayne Conlan

Bill C-54 didn't have that provision for level two pathogens in its original form. That security clearance was only for level three and four pathogens in Bill C-54. All Bill C-54 was asking for was a list of what pathogens an organization held and where they held them. It wasn't that onerous a thing to produce, I don't think. You know, there's a safety issue: if I'm a firefighter and I go into a burning lab, I think I'm entitled to know what I'm going into.

March 10th, 2009 / 3:55 p.m.
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Dr. Albert Descoteaux Professor, Institut Armand-Frappier, Institut national de la recherche scientifique

First, let me thank you for giving me the privilege of coming to share with you the concerns of a number of my colleagues and myself with regard to many aspects of Bill C-11.

I am a professor and researcher at the Institut Armand-Frappier. Most of the research and teaching activities at our institution are in virology and microbiology. I am also deputy director of the Centre de recherche sur les interactions hôte-parasite and I hold a Canada Research Chair in infection and immunity. I have more than 25 years' experience in microbiology research.

My interest in Bill C-11comes initially from the classification of micro-organisms in the previous version of this bill, Bill C-54. In it, the parasite that I work with, the Leishmania parasite, was classified in group 3, a glaring error. It mobilized the research community that works with the Leishmania parasite, because of the potentially disastrous consequences that this could have on our research work. Regrettably, there had been no consultation with the researchers involved on the reclassification of this micro-organism, and a number of others. It seems that it was done in quite an arbitrary way. Of course, I cannot make that assumption, but it seemed to be so.

A number of corrections were made to the classification of micro-organisms and toxins in Bill C-11. But problems remain, as Dr. Hynes has indicated. Let me give some examples. Viral strains, such as VSV, are classified at level 3, whereas several strains are modified for the laboratory and used with animal models to understand how they cause infection. Mycobacterium bovis, the BCG vaccine strain, is classified in level 3 in this bill, yet one third to one half of the world's population has received the BCG vaccine. This vaccine is currently used to treat certain cancers, such as bladder cancer. Imagine doctors having to go to a level 3 facility to treat their bladder cancer patients with BCG injections. It would be absolutely ridiculous. Escherichia coli was also mentioned.

I would also like to mention toxins briefly. People seem to be very afraid of toxins. But a toxin called botulinum is used to treat wrinkles and some spasms; the common name is Botox. In humans, it is not really very dangerous. Another interesting thing about bacterial toxins in research is that molecules of microbial origin target molecules in our cells in very specific ways. So these toxins become essential tools in studying how a cell works. In cancer, in neurology and in immunology, for example, toxins are frequently used to block cell functions. If toxins became impossible to obtain, or extremely difficult to keep, a good deal of research in those areas would have to be abandoned, or would become very difficult.

As for basic research, that is, the kind of research in microbiology and the fight against disease that a number of my colleagues do, and I include myself, we know that it is essential if knowledge is to move forward. It allows us to understand the interactions between microbes and their hosts, including humans, the pathogenic processes and the immune responses that humans generate against these micro-organisms. Knowledge like that is essential in order to develop vaccines, treatments, diagnostic tests, and so on.

The current version of this bill can potentially have negative consequences. What consequences can over-restrictive legislation have on microbiology research? It could mean reducing or abandoning research on some micro-organisms because of the administrative complexities and the lack of adequate infrastructure. For example, if a researcher in an institution is working with a level 1 organism that is now classed as level 2, he no longer has the required infrastructure, which is very expensive. Is he going to continue his research? Where is he going to get the money to upgrade his facility? The same happens with pathogens that move from level 2 to level 3.

Costs go up for the research institutions and for the researchers who are funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, for example.

Who is going to pay for the oversight mechanisms, the permit applications, the administration? It is all very well to impose constraints, though they seem excessive to me, but who is going to pay for them so that the research does not suffer? Let us not forget that most research in health and microbiology in Canada is funded by the federal government. If this bill is passed in its present form, there will be less return for each grant dollar.

It was said earlier that research requires the free exchange of information, knowledge and reagents. By “reagent“, I mean exchanging microbial strains, and I am not alone. if the rules are too strict, it can interfere with researchers' ability to exchange and obtain the reagents they need to pursue their research. How are we going to address those questions? The bill does not really make it clear. Ultimately, it is the fight against infectious diseases that may be affected by this bill because of the influence it has on the potential for research in Canada.

I would also like to talk about the negative impacts of overly restrictive legislation on the training of highly qualified people. By that, I mean the students in our universities and colleges. As director of the doctoral program in virology and immunology at my institution, and as a professor who teaches microbial pathogenesis, this concerns me greatly. It is crucial to ensure that the next generation of microbiologists in Canada is properly trained. That is done by having them work with micro-organisms.

These highly qualified people will be needed in order to staff our hospitals. These are the diagnosticians, the people who take samples, and so on. They are in research institutions, private or governmental. They are in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. In the food industry, they are in quality control departments; we have heard plenty about contamination problems in that industry. People have to be familiar with micro-organisms. So we have to train people so that, for example, they go into government laboratories or into teaching.

In Quebec, we train laboratory technicians at college level. They have to learn how to recognize and work with micro-organisms. A good microbiologist can tell the strain of a microbe by smelling it. He can see the shape of a colony in a Petri dish. If we do not give them the ability to do that, or if it is too difficult to have practical courses in schools, universities and colleges, it is going to be very difficult to train the next generation of microbiologists.

We must make sure that the legislation does not prevent students and trainees from getting into research laboratories, or prevent them from learning by working with micro-organisms. You do not become an auto mechanic without ever rooting around inside an engine or a transmission. It is the same in microbiology. You have to be able to play with these micro-organisms in order to really get to know them.

The greatest dangers from infectious disease that Canadians are exposed to are likely to be in contaminated water and food, which are, in fact, often used to justify this bill. Think of Walkerton, think of the listeria crisis, and so on. You can also go to a restaurant, eat something suspect and get food poisoning, but a bill like this is not going to prevent that. The problems there are negligence, inadequate maintenance, poor practices in hygiene or cooking. Nosocomial infections, the ones you get in hospital, are associated with hygiene problems, as are outbreaks of C. difficile. We tackle epidemics such as flu, SARS and legionellosis with appropriate public health measures that allow us to limit and isolate the outbreaks. Canadians will not become safer overnight, or be in less danger from infectious diseases, because of restrictive legislation.

In my opinion, this bill cannot be used to pretend that it is preventing this kind of everyday hazard. I will end by saying that the vast majority of microbiological research in Canada requires micro-organisms in containment levels 1 and 2.

Because they pose a very low risk and because it is unlikely that they would be used for bioterrorism, micro-organisms in schedule 2 must, in my opinion, be removed from Bill C-11.

Thank you for your attention.

March 3rd, 2009 / 4:35 p.m.
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Theresa Tam Director General, Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response, Infectious Disease and Emergency Preparedness Branch, Public Health Agency of Canada

Thank you.

Madam Chair and members of the committee, I am pleased to appear before the Standing Committee on Health today to discuss Bill C-11, An Act to promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins..

My colleagues have been introduced.

We have an opportunity at this committee today to discuss the key elements of this bill, which seeks to provide protections to safeguard Canadians against the health and safety risks posed by the most dangerous human pathogens and toxins. Let me first discuss the current system.

Currently, approximately 3,500 laboratories that import human pathogens or toxins are regulated under the human pathogens importation regulations. These laboratories must also comply with the laboratory biosafety guidelines, which are widely accepted as Canada's national biosafety standard.

Even though these guidelines are in place, additional legislation and regulations are required to reinforce safe laboratory practices and establish consistency. The bill seeks to do this by ensuring that all laboratories in Canada, whether federal, provincial, or private, whether or not they import pathogens, are adhering to the laboratory biosafety guidelines.

The need to enhance biosafety in Canada's labs by preventing an accidental release of these agents is one of the two primary focuses of Bill C-11. The other is the desire to safeguard Canadians from the risk of an intentional release of a dangerous agent, such as anthrax, by someone who is trying to harm Canadians.

Ensuring that persons who have access to the most dangerous human pathogens or toxins are properly security screened can ultimately reduce the risk of an intentional release of a pathogen and enhance the biosecurity standard in Canada.

The intention of the bill is to try to balance biosafety and biosecurity requirements with the need to advance science, innovation, and research. The intention of this bill is not to restrict research and development but rather to introduce a risk-based approach to the management of human pathogens so they are handled safely and accounted for across Canada.

In this vein, the program and regulatory framework around this legislation is intended to be less stringent for those individuals who are handling less dangerous pathogens and toxins and more stringent on those handling the more dangerous pathogens and toxins. For example, there is no intention of security-screening individuals working with risk group 2 human pathogens, such as salmonella, under this act.

Because of the risk posed by dangerous human pathogens and toxins, Bill C-11 relies primarily on the criminal law jurisdiction of Parliament. In this regard, Bill C-11 includes a range of prohibitions, inspection powers, and security-screening requirements designed to address the health and safety of Canadians.

The program and regulatory framework to be developed under Bill C-11 will include requirements for licensing, inventories, biological safety officers, information gathering, and the transferring of human pathogens and toxins. The legislation has been drafted with care to ensure the bill fully respects the rights and freedoms of Canadians entrenched in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has already conducted four rounds of information sessions with stakeholders.

In September 2007 a proposed legislative framework was discussed with the academic, research, and diagnostic communities as well as private industry across Canada. As well, discussions about the proposed legislation took place with the chief medical officers of health from the provinces and territories in October 2007.

Following the tabling last year of the previous version of this legislation, Bill C-54, the Public Health Agency held more information sessions with stakeholders, including the laboratory community across Canada, to gauge some reactions to the new legislation. Most sessions were open to all who wanted to attend and took place in Halifax, Quebec City, Montreal, Toronto, Saskatoon, Calgary, and Vancouver.

Stakeholders expressed agreement with the general need to enhance federal oversight of human pathogens and toxins, although they did raise some technical and operational issues regarding how the entire program would be implemented. Based on the feedback we have received from stakeholders, the Public Health Agency has developed an initial program and regulatory framework that outlines what the regulations under the bill could potentially look like.

With regards to the financial impacts of Bill C-11 on laboratories across Canada, although we cannot anticipate for certain what the costs will be until the full suite of regulations have been developed, we anticipate that there should be little impact on laboratories that are already in compliance with the laboratory biosafety guidelines.

In addition, avoiding unnecessary financial burdens on laboratories is a priority. For this reason, to help laboratories adjust to the new requirements, it's envisaged that the act will be implemented in three phases to allow time for stakeholders to adjust to new requirements without unduly interfering with research activities, with a view to minimizing any potential costs.

A concern was raised at second reading about potential privatization. The policy intent of this bill is not to privatize public laboratories. The Public Health Agency of Canada will conduct in-depth and meaningful consultations with stakeholders across the country to discuss the program and regulatory framework. These consultations will include the matters that stakeholders identified to us, such as inventories, licensing, and security screening. This will help balance the needs for biosafety and security on the one hand and the interests of ongoing and innovative science and research on the other.

Madam Chair, Bill C-11 is required to safeguard the health and well-being of Canadians. The bill will finally enable Canada to eliminate the biosafety and biosecurity gap that has been filled by most of its G8 partners. As we learned during consultations and information sessions, most stakeholders recognize the need to move ahead with expanded federal oversight of human pathogens and toxins. We look forward to the committee's inquiries regarding this important piece of legislation.

Thank you very much.

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

February 23rd, 2009 / 1:25 p.m.
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Liberal

Yasmin Ratansi Don Valley East, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleagues for giving me the opportunity to speak to Bill C-11, An Act to promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins. Although technical in nature, this bill is very necessary and important federal legislation. It is a public safety issue as much as it is a public health bill. Bill C-11 proposes a mandatory licensing system for the federal government to track the human pathogens that exist, such as anthrax, salmonella and influenza.

While many Canadians do not consider the flu to be a national threat, we need only remind ourselves of the 1918 flu pandemic, commonly referred to as the Spanish flu, that spread to nearly every part of the world, including the Arctic and remote Pacific islands. The Spanish flu did not claim simply those normally at risk, such as the elderly, infants and the infirm; in fact, it claimed the lives of normal, healthy adults, mostly because it tricked strong immune systems into a catastrophic overreaction. It is estimated that anywhere from 20 million to 100 million people were killed worldwide, roughly double the number of people killed during World War I. Indeed, many of those who survived the horror of trench warfare ironically succumbed to this deadly strain of influenza A, a form of bird flu.

Modern science has made it possible to recreate influenza A and other pathogens. That is why it is necessary to implement government controls to track who is in possession of them in Canada.

Many residents of Toronto remember the social and economic impact of the SARS outbreak in 2003. Severe acute respiratory syndrome is believed to have originated in China, but within weeks it had been reported in 37 countries around the world, including Canada. It resulted in 800 deaths, 44 of which were in Toronto. This virus tested international containment efforts and changed the way Canada deals with pandemic threats.

Many of the staff on Parliament Hill recall the extraordinary measures that were taken in 2001 following the anthrax attacks, when letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to several media outlets and the offices of two U.S. senators. This attack killed five people and infected 17 others. Anthrax is one of the oldest recorded diseases of grazing animals and is even believed to be the sixth plague mentioned in the book of Exodus. One can see I read religious books. It occurs in nature, but it also has been harnessed as a weapon of war. Sheep and cattle are especially vulnerable to anthrax spores because they are soil-borne and are inhaled or ingested while the animals graze. For the people who did not know about it, I am giving a lesson in agriculture.

Anthrax spores were harnessed as bioweapons in both world wars. Thousands died in Manchuria in the 1930s when anthrax was tested on prisoners of war. It was stored as a weapon of mass destruction in the arsenals of the former Soviet Union, Great Britain and the United States until 1971. However, the 2001 anthrax attacks were classified as weaponized or weapons-grade strains of the spores. While that should have made it easier to identify the attacker, it was not until August 2008, seven years later, that the FBI identified the culprit as a scientist who worked at a government biodefence lab.

That is why it is absolutely necessary that Canada and the federal government modernize the capability of tracking human pathogens and toxins. This legislation, Bill C-11, will give inspectors enhanced powers to ensure that the laboratory biosafety guidelines, called LBG, are followed properly. That is why the official opposition supports sending this bill to committee for an in-depth study.

Bill C-11 will require laboratories handling deadly toxins to register with the Public Health Agency of Canada's Office of Laboratory Security. Bill C-11 will require an import permit to bring a human pathogen or toxin into Canada. It will require a permit to transfer a pathogen or toxin between laboratories in Canada. Bill C-11 will require laboratories to notify the Public Health Agency when registered pathogens or toxins are disposed of. All in all, the bill will bring Canada in line with the more stringent regulations in the United States and the United Kingdom.

As has been eloquently stated by my colleague from Etobicoke North, it is in the best interest of all countries, including Canada, to support initiatives to control infectious diseases. The world is now an island. There is free flow of traffic, human beings, goods, services and food. As such, all countries should be alert and develop strategies to minimize the risks from infectious diseases. As I mentioned before, we have seen examples of the avian flu, SARS, et cetera.

Microbiological agents and toxins can and do impact global health. As I mentioned before, in 2003 SARS killed 800 people. Biosafety is essential if we are to mitigate the deadly effects of infectious diseases. The World Health Organization urges countries to: one, promote biosafety practices for the safe handling, containment and transport of microbiological agents and toxins; two, to review the safety of laboratories and their existing protocols; three, to develop programs that enhance compliance of laboratories; and four, to encourage the development of biological safety training.

Thousands of infectious samples are shipped daily around the world for clinical trials, disease investigations, surveillance, et cetera. Animal and human specimens need to be transported efficiently, legally, safely, and on a timely basis. Shippers must be aware of regulatory requirements, personnel must undertake appropriate training, and specimens must be packed to protect transporters from risk of infection.

Best practices regarding the transport of microbiological agents and toxins must be used to protect the environment and human health. Perhaps more support is needed to prevent the introduction and spread of communicable diseases from other countries and among other provinces.

It is therefore imperative that laboratories have strict facility safeguards, microbiological practices and safety equipment that protect laboratory workers, the environment and the public from exposure to infectious microorganisms and toxins that are stored in the laboratory.

Responsible laboratory practices will help prevent intentional release, loss, misuse, theft, or unauthorized access of biological material and will contribute to preserving important scientific work for future generations.

To conclude, this is not a partisan matter. This is about the health and safety of Canadians. That is why my Liberal colleagues and I are proud to support the bill. Bill C-11 is a great improvement over Bill C-54. Infectious diseases know no boundaries. Pathogens are not restricted to one's own airspace. As such, we should do everything to increase biosafety.

Since the bill requires licensing and the provinces and territories are responsible for licensing, it is important to have a further study and review of this legislation. As well, we must ensure that there is transparency, effectiveness and accountability at the ministerial level as well as at the level of inspectors. We need to build trust so that Canadians and the world can be assured that they will be safe and secure when it comes to activities involving pathogens and toxins.

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

February 23rd, 2009 / 11:35 a.m.
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Bloc

Luc Malo Verchères—Les Patriotes, QC

Mr. Speaker, this morning, my colleagues spoke to Bill C-11, an act to promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins. Now it is my turn. The summary of the bill reads as follows:

This enactment creates measures to promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins and all activities associated with them. It establishes a comprehensive legislative regime that extends beyond the present importation regime. It requires every person conducting activities involving human pathogens or toxins to take all reasonable measures to protect the health and safety of the public.

As my colleagues said, it is important to keep Canadians safe. It is every Parliament's duty to ensure the safety of Canadians within the scope of its constitutional powers. As we have seen, the proposed legislation would require all persons conducting these activities to comply with a number of guidelines. It would ensure consistency by obliging all labs to adhere to laboratory biosafety guidelines developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada. Licences must be obtained for controlled activities, such as possessing, handling, using, producing, storing, permitting authorized access to, transferring, importing, exporting, releasing or otherwise abandoning, or disposing of a human pathogen or toxin.

The federal government claims that it is entitled to introduce this bill because of its jurisdiction over criminal law. However, at this point, I have to wonder whether the government should really have made this bill a priority. As we know, since the guidelines were introduced over 15 years ago, there have been no incidents in Canada, regardless of whether labs have been following those guidelines.

Also on the order paper is a bill the government introduced in January, Bill C-6, formerly Bill C-52, on the safety of consumer products. The government has known at least since November 2006 that there are problems in this area. The Auditor General said so. Since the summer of 2007, there have been several major recalls, including a recall of toys containing lead. It would have been better if this bill were before the House now, seeing as how there have been no pathogen problems to date under the existing acts and regulations.

We know that the highest risk groups are groups 3 and 4. I would remind this House that the human pathogens in these groups pose a high risk to the health of individuals and a low or high risk to public health. Twenty-four labs in Quebec and 150 in Canada fully meet the guidelines for groups 3 and 4. In addition, the backgrounder on Bill C-54, which is the number this bill had in the last Parliament, states that “The risk to Canadians posed by the presence of human pathogens and toxins in labs is low.”

This is still a very important issue. However, this bill, in its current form, must not be allowed to stop or impede lab work, which is crucial to determining the causes of diseases and advancing science through research. In committee, it will be very important to look at this aspect of the bill in depth and to meet with a wide range of specialists working in this field to make sure that they will be able to do this work once this bill has been passed, especially with regard to risk group 2, which poses a lower risk to the health of individuals and public health. Of course, these labs include hospital and university labs where very important research is under way.

I would like to raise another point before I go on to the topic of university research. I am just wondering whether the Criminal Code already covers intentional threats to public safety, such as terrorist acts, and unintentional threats, such as criminal negligence. To my way of thinking, these threats to public health or public safety are already covered by legislation passed here.

I would like to start with the issue that, in the current version of the bill could, in our opinion, pose a number of problems. That issue is research conducted in our universities. The parliamentary secretary told us earlier that the government had held a number of consultations. And at a meeting with officials from the Public Health Agency of Canada, we were told that a number of consultations had been held. However, despite these consultations, researchers still have a number of important questions, especially regarding who will pay the costs of complying with the new requirements. This concern is mentioned in the Public Health Agency of Canada notes, but was not addressed by the parliamentary secretary in his earlier remarks.

We know that university research is already underfunded, yet today, as we prepare to refer this bill to committee, we do not know if assistance will be made available to institutions to help them comply with the new guidelines or if labs will be left to cover all the costs themselves.

Has the government actually conducted studies to determine the impact this new legislation would have on university courses, on how our hospitals operate and on the research industry in Quebec and Canada?

This question is extremely relevant because, as I said earlier, I have not yet received an answer. I understand the government's desire to impose a new guideline so that no products are released that could pose a risk to public health, but as for the operations of laboratories, I have yet to receive an answer.

I simply have one question. Does the government want us as parliamentarians to pass legislation that I think is incomplete, in the sense that it does not address all the concerns raised by the community? It is asking us for carte blanche, in a way, and asking us to trust it and wait until later. It seems to be saying that it will communicate with the various stakeholders and labs again, that it will ensure that the regulatory framework will meet their expectations and not pose a problem for their operations. If that is in fact what the government and the department intend to do, why then, from the first draft, from the time this bill was introduced for first reading, has this bill not included provisions to address the concerns justifiably raised by the community?

Once again, the government decided to introduce a bill in this House without assessing the direct impact it will have on the community. If it had done so in a responsible manner, this version of the bill would already include provisions to address the concerns raised by the academic community. We would have already heard the government's response regarding its assessment of the impact of Bill C-11 on university education.

The bill also proposes a number of fines. I understand that when a bill is introduced that will affect the Criminal Code, for example, fines must be imposed. However, what the government wants to do is impose fines on universities and hospitals, when everyone knows very well—and I said so a little earlier in my speech—that there is an abysmal lack of funding for those two kinds of institutions where research is done.

The bill also establishes penalties and fines for anyone who shows wanton or reckless disregard concerning pathogens and toxins. The bill also establishes financial penalties and imprisonment for anyone who intentionally releases pathogens.

I am wondering, as are my Bloc Québécois colleagues, about the need for these new prison sentences given that they are already contained in existing legislation. Are measures put in place by this bill with respect to breach of duty, wanton or reckless breach of duty and intentional release not already in the Criminal Code and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act? And are measures prohibiting intentional misuse of pathogens not included in the Anti-Terrorism Act? These are the questions to ask when the bill is before the Standing Committee on Health.

I am pleased that my colleagues from the Conservative and Liberal parties have agreed to hear important witnesses who, on a daily basis, will have to work under and adapt to this new legislation to establish new standards for storing and handling human pathogens and toxins.

Before concluding my remarks, I would like to go back to two or three other aspects that are more directly related to the bill. Clause 39, for example, states:

The Minister may, without the consent of the person to whom the information relates, disclose personal information and confidential business information obtained under this Act to a person from whom the Minister seeks advice, to a department or agency of the government of Canada or a province, to a foreign government or to an international organization—

For all intents and purposes, although those receiving this confidential information are required to maintain confidentiality—as stated later in the clause—I find it rather strange that consent is not required. It should be understood that the person may not be consulted or, at the very least, notified that information will be disclosed. This could be discussed with the minister and his officials in order to clarify this aspect of the bill, which could be problematic if, in fact, confidential information is disclosed without notifying the individuals or institutions concerned.

I would also like to talk about another issue that relates a bit more directly to the bill. Clause 67 states that the minister may make an interim order involving a product in the case of problems with enforcement of the legislation. The minister would then make an interim order effective immediately. The clause also states that the two houses of Parliament need not be informed for up to 15 days.

Should an emergency occur that requires immediate action on the part of the minister, this House should be informed much sooner than that. Perhaps the parliamentary secretary or even the minister would like to touch on that. When it comes to incidents involving public health and safety, all members of the public, as well as all parliamentarians, should be informed and given the opportunity to debate the issues without delay. To me, that means within hours or, at most, a few days. Fifteen days is far too long. Indeed, it would be odd for Parliament not to be informed of a situation endangering public health within 15 days.

In conclusion, I want to emphasize the importance of ensuring public safety. We must also ensure that our universities and hospitals can carry on doing their research, and that the government provides more support for research.

Canada Elections Act
Government Orders

June 12th, 2008 / 4:15 p.m.
See context

Bloc

Bernard Bigras Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Mr. Speaker, this government is characterized by its culture of secrecy and entitlement.

Just as with Bills C-2 and C-54, it is clear that the government hopes to be able to get around the established rules and give itself an out with Bill C-29. We have a legislative process in place, and we must study Bill C-29. It was a golden opportunity to make these amendments. However, it is clear from the government's stubbornness that there is a lack of transparency on the other side of the House, and we think that is too bad. These amendments and changes should have been made in Bills C-2 and C-54. Bill C-29 gives us that opportunity, but unfortunately this government has missed the boat.