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.
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—