Thank you very much, Chair, and thank you, members of the committee, for allowing me to appear. I thank my friend, Rob, for most of what he said. The crack about being long in the tooth, I'd ask him to reconsider, but the rest of it, I appreciate.
I've circulated a statement that you can have a look at, at your leisure, so I won't cover all of it in the few minutes that are available today, but I would be happy to return to it in the question period. I want to get, really, to the essence of it. There are some concerns that have been expressed about the bill and I want to address those.
We know that this bill is strongly opposed by the insurance industry. They now have access to genetic test information and they, understandably, don't want to relinquish that access. They say terrible things will happen to the industry if this bill passes. I understand their concerns, but there are many countries around the world, as you know, which have prohibitions in place like those contained in Bill S-201, and the insurance industry in those countries continues and does just fine.
I hope you'll hear from the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. His office commissioned two studies, which concluded—and Rob alluded to this—“At the present time, and in the near future, the impact of a ban on the use of genetic information by the life and health insurance industry would not have a significant impact on insurers and the efficient operation of insurance markets.” Earlier this year, when the Privacy Commissioner appeared before the Senate in its study of this bill, he confirmed that his office stands by that conclusion.
While I understand the concerns of the insurance industry, I don't share them. When I balance the concerns of the insurance industry against the potential health benefits for Canadians of genetic testing without fear of discrimination, my choice is clear.
When Senator Ted Kennedy sponsored GINA, which is the American federal law against genetic discrimination, he hailed it as the first major new civil rights law of the new century. He said the bill recognizes that “discrimination based on a person's genetic identity is just as unacceptable as discrimination on the basis of race and religion.” I agree.
Bill S-201says that it's not acceptable to put someone in a position where they must hand over their most personal information, information about their DNA. We have criminal penalties if someone steals a car, a computer, or a piece of jewellery. Six years ago, Parliament passed an anti-spam law, which imposed penalties of up to $10 million for sending unwanted email. If we're prepared to legislate to prohibit sending unwanted emails, then I believe we should be prepared to prohibit unwanted access to one's genes.
I understand from the speeches at second reading and from my conversations with others that the government supports amendments to the Human Rights Act but opposes everything else in my bill; that, in fact, there is an intention to propose amendments to delete all of the provisions relating to the Canada Labour Code and to the genetic non-discrimination act.
I am told that the concern is constitutional, that some lawyers believe that the provisions in the genetic non-discrimination act would fall within provincial, not federal, legislative authority. This issue was explored in detail when the bill was before the Senate. I know that you are planning to hear from a number of distinguished scholars, including Peter Hogg and Professor Bruce Ryder, who are pre-eminent constitutional authorities—and I am not one of those. Just let me say that I take issues of constitutionality very seriously. I'm satisfied, based upon discussions I've had with eminent constitutional authorities in this country, as well as our own Senate Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel, that Bill S-201, including the proposed genetic non-discrimination act, is constitutional as a valid exercise of the federal criminal law power and it, therefore, falls well within the legislative authority of our Parliament.
There's been a suggestion, as well, that before we proceed, the provinces and territories need to be consulted. In fact, all the provinces and territories have been consulted about this bill, not once, but twice. Last December and January, I wrote to all the ministers of health in the provinces and territories and then, in February, the Senate Human Rights Committee, which was the committee studying this bill, wrote to all the provincial and territorial ministers of justice.
In total, we received replies from nine provinces and territories. Not one raised any objection or problem with the bill, either from a policy aspect or from a constitutional or jurisdictional point of view. Indeed, several provinces expressed strong support for the bill. I have now met or spoken with cabinet ministers in three provinces. Not one has raised any constitutional or jurisdictional concerns or any policy concerns. My strong impression is that this is an area where the provinces recognize the need for a uniform, national regime in the form of national legislation.
There was a meeting, just last month, of federal, provincial, and territorial justice ministers in my home province of Nova Scotia. I spoke with the justice minister from Nova Scotia, who happened to be the chair of that meeting. She said that no one raised this bill—not the federal Minister of Justice, nor any provincial or territorial minister of justice. We've seen other situations, where provinces have come forward to express constitutional and policy concerns about federal legislation, including private members' bills. We know about Bill C-377, which would be repealed by Bill C-4, which is now before the Senate. Seven provinces, in that case, sent submissions to the Senate saying that the bill was unconstitutional. Provincial governments, I suggest to you, are not shy about expressing themselves about these matters, but I've heard nothing from any province or territory opposing Bill S-201. As far as I know, no one else has either.
That's not surprising. Canadians need a national solution. They need to know that if they have a genetic test at one point in their lives, they need not worry that at some later time they might move to another part of the country where the rules could be different. They need to know that they will be protected from coast to coast to coast, no matter where they live.
I also want to address the proposal that the bill be amended to delete everything but the changes to the Canadian Human Rights Act. As Rob said, the Human Rights Act is important, but it is a law of limited application, applying only to certain sectors. For example, it has no application to the insurance industry, because the insurance industry is regulated at a provincial level. This came up, as you might expect, during the Senate hearings on Bill S-201. Let me read to you from the hearing, when the then-acting Canadian Human Rights commissioner testified in response to a question from my colleague Senator Eggleton.
Senator Eggleton said:
[W]hat would you do if somebody came to you with a complaint of discrimination on the basis of insurance that was denied them, under the current law?
The acting commissioner said:
Under the current law we do not have jurisdiction over the insurance industry. It's federally regulated private sector companies, so as I say transportation, telecommunications, banking industry, but not insurance companies.
In other words, you would be protected as long as you experienced genetic discrimination from your bank or your airline, but that's all. The bottom line is that, if the bill only amends the Canadian Human Rights Act, none of us could responsibly tell Canadians they can feel free to have genetic testing without fear of genetic discrimination, because that would not be the case. We would not have prohibited and prevented genetic discrimination, as the title of the bill says. We would have said, genetic discrimination is unacceptable in certain situations, but perfectly acceptable in others.
No one knows where the future lies, and again, Rob refers to this. No one knows what they will be doing in a few years or even months. This kind of limited protection would not be real protection. Indeed, I would argue, and this has been said to me by representatives of health organizations, that passing such a bill would be dangerous, in that Canadians would think they are protected—after all, Parliament has passed a law against genetic discrimination—but if they did go out and have a genetic test, they, in fact, could well encounter genetic discrimination, and there would be nothing anyone could do about it.
Mr. Oliphant has eloquently described this bill as a three-legged stool. I agree with that analogy. I have every confidence that all three legs of that stool will remain standing, that the whole bill will be found to be a valid exercise of the federal criminal law power. As I've said, all the provinces and territories have known about this bill for some time, and no one, not one person, has raised an objection of any kind.
Will there be a constitutional challenge? Perhaps. We all know that the insurance industry, as I said at the beginning, strongly opposes this bill, and they have deep pockets to launch such a challenge. However, as Professor Ryder told the Senate committee, and probably will tell you as well, “There will always be legal debate—we don't work in the realm of certainty—but I think you can work within the realm of confidence here.”
I'll conclude with a quote from Professor Ryder:
I am the sort of person who will say that it is one of your most important responsibilities to ensure that the legislation you vote in favour of is constitutional. I want to say, in this case, that I am very confident, and I believe it would be the consensus view of other constitutional experts, as well, that this bill is constitutional. ...I don't think you should be too concerned about the risk of unconstitutionality, because this seems to me to be very solidly within Parliament's jurisdiction.
I'll do my best to answer any questions in the course of the time that we have available.
Thank you very much for your attention.