House of Commons Hansard #49 of the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was regulations.

Topics

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

12:45 p.m.

Conservative

Colin Carrie Oshawa, ON

Madam Speaker, there are about 3,500 laboratories that import these agents into Canada and they are covered under the existing importation regulations. However, there are approximately 4,000 other laboratories in Canada that work with human pathogens and toxins, but they do not import them and they are not subject to the same federal regulation and oversight. These laboratories may be applying national laboratory safety guidelines on a voluntary basis, but the precise extent of this application is unknown.

That is why we have this legislation to ensure that Canada's reputation remains stellar worldwide.

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

12:45 p.m.

Liberal

Kirsty Duncan Etobicoke North, ON

Madam Speaker, today I rise to speak to Bill C-11, the human pathogens and toxins act, adopted by the Standing Committee on Health on March 31 and presented to the House on April 2, 2009. The bill is important and significant because infectious disease remains among the leading causes of death worldwide and the greatest killer of children and young adults.

Today, new infectious diseases such as HIV-AIDS, SARS and now swine influenza A(H1N1) are emerging. Old infectious diseases such as malaria, plague and tuberculosis are re-emerging, and intractable infectious diseases remain an ever-present threat. Research to combat infectious diseases has resulted in over 5,000 laboratory-associated infections and almost 200 deaths over the last 70 years. Most recently, in 2008, the Bush administration acknowledged that the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, the only U.S. facility allowed to research highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease, experienced several accidents with the virus.

Fortunately, Canada has not experienced a large intentional or unintentional release of a dangerous agent. However, we have had some close calls. In April 2005 a facility in Canada imported a live virus sample under a risk group 2 permit. However, laboratory analysis showed that the material was contaminated with a risk group 3 pathogen: namely, influenza A(H2N2). Once the contamination was confirmed, the Public Health Agency of Canada's importation office, in consultation with the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the provincial health ministers contacted the supplier of the material and all facilities in Canada that had been issued a permit for the same panel and advised them of corrective action.

It was only because the material was imported that the federal government was able to track who had the affected materials. Should this situation happen today in Canada, with a domestically produced product, there would be no authority or ability to track materials and advise affected parties of corrective action. This could result in a biosafety and biosecurity risk as Canadians would likely have no immunity to the influenza A(H2N2) virus, possibly creating the conditions for the next influenza pandemic. This is why the legislation is so important.

Currently, PHAC has knowledge of laboratory-acquired infections, but has no national reporting mechanism to capture them. Our laboratories must have strict facility safeguards, microbiological practices and safety equipment to protect laboratory workers, the environment and the public from exposure to infectious micro-organisms and toxins that are stored in the laboratories. We must ensure the safety of all Canadians.

Therefore, we must be diligent in creating a legislative base that balances biosafety without impeding scientific advancement. We must also provide assurances to the Canadian public and our international partners that Canada takes biosafety and biosecurity seriously.

Bill C-11 will only succeed in making Canadians more secure if the scientists it regulates are consulted thoroughly and if the bill is implemented in close partnership with them. Canadian economic and social prosperity depend on scientific study. We must be wary of a regulatory regime that would interrupt discovery, as happened in the United States following publication of similar legislation. Many laboratories simply stopped working with listed pathogens rather than face the costs and hassles of complying with the legislation.

I believe Bill C-11 strikes the necessary balance between mitigation of risk and scientific freedom, which must then be maintained in the regulations. This balance will require, in the words of one witness, “constant attention and rebalancing that can be done only through ongoing dialogue with the scientific community”.

Witnesses from PHAC assured the committee that consultations will help determine what the regulations regime will look like. Witnesses were optimistic that they could move forward together with partners and that they would continue to take action to address their concerns.

The committee recommended the creation of an external advisory group, perhaps consisting of representatives from private industry, provincial public health agencies, universities and others to ensure that the regulations and the subsequent implementation of the bill proceed with the input and the support of the scientists.

The proposed external advisory group could also be instrumental in categorizing pathogens, as there was discussion regarding, for example, whether or not certain risk group 2 pathogens should be removed from the schedule. Removing risk group 2 from the legislative framework would take away the ability to know who has those pathogens, which are the majority of pathogens in Canada, the ability to assess whether they are handled in an appropriate manner and the ability to measure laboratory-acquired infections and their impacts.

There was general agreement that risk group 2 should be handled in a safe manner, which is not necessarily happening now, but less stringently than risk group 3.

Witnesses from PHAC also addressed stakeholder concerns regarding financial expenditures. It was pointed out that these costs must be balanced against the cost of taking no action, mainly loss of credibility, dollars and human life, which are significant in this case.

Other stakeholder concerns included duplicate laboratory licensing regimes, security checks, licences and privacy issues. The potential for duplicate regulatory licensing and inspection regimes is significant, as is the possible impacts on workload and scheduling which could drastically affect the operation of clinical, public health and research laboratories.

Witnesses from PHAC agreed that opportunities for harmonizing licensing with existing regimes must be considered. Witnesses from PHAC also agreed to clarify the requirements for security clearances for different categories of workers.

Security checks were thought to be burdensome by stakeholders due to significant impacts on students and training, as well as the lab's ability to hire additional staff during an outbreak. Stakeholders would like PHAC to clarify who the inspectors will be, how they will be trained and how they will carry out their tasks.

Partners would also like PHAC to address the important issues regarding licensing. For example, to whom a licence should be awarded, the institution, the group or the individual? What conditions will be required for awarding licences? Will there be an appeals process? Will custodial staff have access to labs? Will they require security clearances?

The last concern I will address is that of privacy, as clause 38 of the bill identifies extremely broad powers for the minister to order an applicant to disclose personal information. It is the committee's understanding that conversations have taken place with the Privacy Commissioner to satisfy stakeholder unease.

I would like to draw attention to the fact that strengthening global surveillance is not enough to eliminate or eradicate infectious disease. We need close ties among public health, trade and transportation organizations. We also need better collaboration with those monitoring the biological weapons convention, because bioterrorism remains a very real threat.

In 2004, The National Academies committee issued a report entitled, “Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism”. The report identified experiments of concern, such as rendering vaccines ineffective or turning non-pathogens, which are not found anywhere in the bill's schedules, into pathogens.

We need to ensure that granting agencies and medical journals are sensitive to these matters and have processes for addressing them. The same National Academies committee recommended creating, through legislation, an independent science and technology advisory group to the intelligence community. Does such a group exist in Canada to monitor and study the next generation of threats in a comprehensive, systematic way, as is being undertaken in the United States?

Finally, the bill is only part of the web of protection needed to make Canada more secure and prepared for bioterrorism. What is being done to promote a common culture of awareness, a shared sense of responsibility to prevent misuse within the scientific community?

We need more than legislation. We need a code of ethics, role modelling and teaching with a particular focus on the biosecurity agenda in Canada.

We have had multiple wake-up calls. Complacency cannot be an option when it comes to biosafety and biosecurity, which is why this legislation is important. The committee did work hard together to make necessary modifications to the bill.

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Madam Speaker, when we dealt with the bill dealing with the overhaul of the Charities Act, we were told that while the bill had been through two or three parliaments, several iterations and people had made presentations, that there were thousands of charities in Canada that were probably still unaware that the bill even existed.

We are dealing with the fact that the lab facilities would need to be licensed. I am sure we are dealing with a much smaller group than we were in the case of the charities, but does the member know how many labs we are talking about, what the procedures would be for licensing them and what sort of fees they would be paying?

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

12:55 p.m.

Liberal

Kirsty Duncan Etobicoke North, ON

Madam Speaker, we learned through our committee work that probably several thousand labs need this legislation. We currently do not know which labs, for example, hold pathogens below level four. It is important that the government knows this information because if there is a problem it needs to respond.

The legislation is important because it will protect laboratory workers and the communities.

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

1 p.m.

Liberal

Bonnie Crombie Mississauga—Streetsville, ON

Madam Speaker, as I know the member is a renowned expert in the field of pandemics, could she outline for us the threat of an influenza pandemic in Canada and the evolution that we have witnessed so far.

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

1 p.m.

Liberal

Kirsty Duncan Etobicoke North, ON

Madam Speaker, we are currently facing a very serious threat in Canada with influenza A(H1N1) that started in Mexico. It is a new virus. It has segments from avian, swine and human flu. We started with clusters in Mexico which then spread to the United States and Canada.

The pandemic alert level has been raised from a phase 3 to a phase 4 and now phase 5. This means that in Canada we are looking at rolling out our pandemic plan. Organizations throughout Canada that have developed a plan over the last several years will also be working on rolling out their plan.

Pandemics can be very serious. In the last century, we had 1918, 1957 and 1968. The latter two pandemics killed three million people. In stark contrast, the pandemic in 1918 killed 50 million people worldwide.

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

1 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Mississauga South, ON

Madam Speaker, I thank the member for her input because she raised a very important point.

Under the bill there is a matter to do with releasing private information. I guess the issue arose in committee about violating the privacy rights of individuals. As the chair of the ethics committee that deals with the Privacy Act and the Access to Information Act, I have some concern about this from the standpoint that currently a person does not have access to the federal court to appeal a decision on a requirement to release personal information nor, if they have a complaint, can they have remedy to the courts at this time, and this is causing some concern.

I want to ask the member whether the Privacy Commissioner appeared before committee to provide some input as to the concerns she had in terms of potential violations under the Privacy Act and whether there should be an indication that the person would have the right to appeal to the federal court, which is not currently permitted under the Privacy Act.

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

1 p.m.

Liberal

Kirsty Duncan Etobicoke North, ON

Madam Speaker, these were certainly questions that were raised in committee. It is our understanding that we received a letter from the Privacy Commissioner and that conversations are ongoing with the government to address those concerns.

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

1 p.m.

Liberal

Bonnie Crombie Mississauga—Streetsville, ON

Madam Speaker, I have a question for the member for Etobicoke North on bioterrorism. She mentioned that bioterrorism was a real potential threat in Canada and I wonder if she could elaborate as to the extent of that threat.

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

1 p.m.

Liberal

Kirsty Duncan Etobicoke North, ON

Madam Speaker, bioterrorism is a real threat. I will give a recent example. In October 2001, letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to American news media offices and to senators. The letters killed five people and infected twenty others. Broad public health measures were implemented to treat thousands who were potentially exposed and the decontamination of buildings and post offices took years. The total cost to the United States was more than $1 billion.

We certainly need to be vigilant about bioterrorism. Diseases we would be concerned about, for example, are anthrax and plague, to name two.

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

1:05 p.m.

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—

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

1:25 p.m.

NDP

The Acting Speaker Denise Savoie

The time allotted to the hon. member has expired. We will now proceed to questions and comments.

The hon. member for Elmwood—Transcona.

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

1:25 p.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Madam Speaker, I will give the member an opportunity to finish his sentence when he comments of this.

I agree with him to the extent that too much discretion has been left to the government in the act's regulations. We see this with governments in general. However, an hour ago we were discussing Bill C-6, and that was a criticism of it as well. The government is getting too much leeway and putting too much into regulations. I would prefer as few regulations as possible to any bill. We should pin legislation down. Regulation should be incorporated into bills and there should be as little reliance on regulations as possible. To that extent, I agree with the member.

In terms of consultation issues, consultation is very important but it is impossible to consult with everybody. A decision has to be made at some point, although a bill should be done right. There is no harm in delaying a bill for a period of time to allow people have their say and to proceed after as much consultation as possible.

I want to give the member the opportunity to respond to that and finish his thoughts.

Human Pathogens and Toxins Act
Government Orders

1:25 p.m.

Bloc

Luc Malo Verchères—Les Patriotes, QC

Madam Speaker, I find it very regrettable that our colleagues from the New Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party would vote on legislation without first making sure that it is constitutionally sound.

The hon. member is right to say that there is too much reliance on regulations, but he also suggested that not everyone need be consulted. Without necessarily consulting with everybody, I would guess that those who will have to work with the legislation day in and day out should be consulted. Efforts must be made to ensure that they can do so properly as well as give courses in support of science. We in this place boast about Canada having the best researchers and promising students. It would be a shame to pull the rug out from under them, thus preventing them from doing their jobs. That is what the NDP is doing by refusing to hear these witnesses.

At the very end of the committee stage, there were still people telling us that it made no sense. Why was a decision not made to go through things thoroughly and check them over before putting them in the regulations? I have no idea when these regulations will appear, and the legislation will not be enforced for another four or five years. Why not make sure that these people have been heard and that they are satisfied? I think that this would show a minimum level of respect for these people who, day in and day out, work at ensuring that Quebec and Canada are at the leading edge of technology and that we benefit in our daily lives from the greatest advances in science and technology.

Veterans Affairs
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

April 30th, 2009 / 1:25 p.m.

Carleton—Mississippi Mills
Ontario

Conservative

Gordon O'Connor Minister of State and Chief Government Whip

Madam Speaker, I move:

That, in relation to its study of veterans services offered by the members of the Commonwealth and G8, 12 members of the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs be authorized to travel to Ottawa, Ontario, on May 4, 2009, and that the necessary staff do accompany the committee.