Thank you, Chair, and honourable committee members. I appreciate the opportunity to speak here today in support of Bill S-201.
The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs is the advocacy agent of the Jewish Federations of Canada, a national, non-profit, non-partisan organization representing the perspectives of 150,000 Jewish Canadians affiliated through local federations from coast to coast. Our mission is to improve the quality of Jewish life in Canada by advancing public policy interests of our vital community.
Enacting Bill S-201 could have a tremendous impact on the health of many Jewish Canadians. Jews of European descent are 10 times more likely than the general population to carry the BRCA genetic markers indicating a significantly elevated risk of breast and ovarian cancers. For women with these markers, this means up to an 85% chance of developing breast cancer and up to a 65% chance of developing ovarian cancer, compared to 12% and 1.8% respectively for the general population. Once tested, a patient can ensure proper screening and take preventative steps to radically reduce, if not eliminate, their cancer risk.
Unfortunately, too many, too often, refuse genetic testing due to fear of genetic discrimination. Those who do get tested are at risk of being penalized for being responsible.
This is the justice committee, so let me give you an example from a legal context. A friend and colleague of mine, an Ashkenazi Jewish woman, was advised to forgo genetic testing when she was beginning her legal career at a major Toronto law firm. She was warned that a BRCA marker would likely inhibit progress in her career, precluding her from being able to make partner in that firm. Also, it could possibly limit access to the insurance she would need to establish her own independent practice, if she chose to do so.
No Canadian should be forced to choose between their life and their livelihood.
While this experience is particularly concerning for the Jewish community, we're by no means the only group impacted. Others are increasingly susceptible to genetic discrimination as research progresses, whether they are of Scandinavian, South Asian, African, French Canadian, or first nations descent. It's not just minority groups that face this challenge. Genetic testing can be a lifeline for all Canadians. From rare disorders to cancer, diagnostic and treatment options are developing at an exponential rate. We've reached a point where the major barriers to these advances are no longer just scientific, they're legislative. Parliament can harness the full potential of these breakthroughs by ensuring that those who are tested do not fear or suffer from genetic discrimination.
With taxpayer dollars being wisely allocated to cutting-edge genetic research, the protections provided by Bill S-201 are essential to ensure a meaningful return on investment and to maximize the potential health benefits for all Canadians. Moving forward, genetic screening and subsequent treatment and lifestyle changes could conceivably help to prevent a variety of illnesses from requiring costly treatment at an acute stage.
Fortunately, there's broad cross-party support for Senator Cowan's initiative. During the 2015 federal election, CIJA organized a debate in Toronto, in which candidates from all three major parties participated. All the candidates pledged to make it illegal to discriminate based on the results of genetic testing, if their party were to form the government. Bill Morneau, now the Minister of Finance, who represented the Liberal Party at this debate, stated that the Liberals would make sure they introduced into Parliament, which they thought they could do with all-party support, a bill that would prevent insurance companies from using genetic testing or pre-existing conditions either to preclude someone from getting access to insurance or to price insurance so high that it wasn't accessible to them.
Of course, we're all here today because the House of Commons unanimously supported this bill and bringing it to committee.
Fundamentally, preventing genetic discrimination can help save lives. We encourage the enactment of Bill S-201 without delay.