Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure for me to outline our position on Bill C-12, which sets out to prevent the introduction and spread of highly communicable diseases that can have a devastating effect on the people of Canada and Quebec, such as the Ebola virus, anthrax, and SARS.
The concern about the spread of communicable diseases is nothing new. The first Quarantine Act was enacted in 1377 by the Republic of Venice.
In 1832, the Parliament of Lower Canada passed legislation making Grosse Île, Quebec, a quarantine station in order to prevent the spread of cholera.
This station was under the jurisdiction of the Government of Lower Canada from 1832 to 1841, of the Province of Canada from 1841 to 1867 and of the Government of Canada from 1867 until it was closed in 1937.
Between 1867 and 1918, until this responsibility was turned over to the Department of Heath and Welfare, in 1919, the Department of Agriculture was in charge of the quarantining of immigrants. Given the casual attitude of the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food on the issue of mad cow disease, I am glad to know that this department is no longer in charge of quarantines.
While we agree that Bill C-12, which improves the 1970 act, should be sent to committee before second reading, we must keep in mind that health is the exclusive jurisdiction of Quebec and the provinces. However, we recognize that infectious diseases, such as SARS and the West Nile virus, do not stop at the borders. This is why we agree that Bill C-12 should be sent to committee, as long as the measures do not duplicate those that may have been taken previously by Quebec.
However, there are several of these clauses that concern us and for which we would like to suggest some changes or additions.
When the first International Sanitary Conference took place in Paris in 1851, the basic principle of protection against international propagation of infectious diseases was outlined: maximum protection with a minimum of restriction.
Here, the current Quarantine Act was designed when maritime transportation raised more concern than air transportation. However, in the last few decades, air transportation has increased much more than maritime transportation. As evidence of this, last year's events—SARS, the West Nile virus and the flu—showed that outbreaks of infectious diseases are increasing more rapidly than ever.
You will agree that to continue to abide by the principle stated at the 1851 Paris conference, we need to react more quickly, methodically and appropriately to the introduction and spread of communicable diseases. Such a reaction must be supported by fair and adequate legislation.
The existing Quarantine Act was promulgated in 1970. It was passed for the very first time, however, in 1872. It helps protect Canadians and Quebeckers from the introduction of dangerous, infectious and communicable diseases. It prevents those diseases from spreading beyond Canada.
While the existing act is somewhat flawed, we must first ensure that the new act will not ignore basic values such as human respect and dignity.
For instance, whereas under the 1970 act an officer had to have reasonable doubt regarding the health of a traveller before having the individual undergo medical screening, clause 14 of Bill C-12 provides for a completely different mechanism.
Any person authorized by the minister may, to determine whether a traveller has a communicable disease or symptoms of one, use any screening technology that does not involve the entry into the traveller's body of any instrument of other foreign body.
This clause provides for efficient screening methods for all travellers, whereas under the existing act, screening can only take place if there are reasonable doubts.
This authority appears quite broad at first glance. It should be limited through the addition of something like “any medically appropriate technology”.
As far as data management at the first screening stage is concerned, the identity of travellers should be protected. If a traveller were found to have the symptoms of a communicable disease, he would be the only one to be advised. It would only be when such symptoms are detected that personal information could be obtained.
Also, with regard to the disclosure of personal information obtained, clause 56 should contain provision requiring the minister to seek assurances that such information would be held in confidence and that it will only be used for the purposes of the act.
We also have problems with certain clauses which are liable to lead to incursions into provincial areas of jurisdiction, in particular the one allowing the Minister of Health to enter into an agreementwith a public health authority, particularly if this refers to medical personnel.
Then we have clause 30, which states: “The Minister may, on the Minister’s ownmotion, review any decision of a quarantineofficer to detain a traveller and orderthe traveller’s release”.
It would be appropriate to delineate this power in such a case, for instance that the minister's decisions could be based on reports by a committee or group of experts.
Finally, we also have some misgivings about the concept of interim orders, just as we did before when the government wanted to make them part of the Public Safety Act in connection with the infamous military zones.
We need proof that this approach is necessary, particularly since the bill appears to already cover a broad range of possibilities and sets out the powers for those it designates as screening or environmental health officers.
As you can see, we are not spoilers, contrary to what many people might think. We have made a careful and comprehensive analysis of Bill C-12, and it is both our right and our duty as members of Parliament to make sure that decisions made here are an appropriate and respectful reflection of the needs of our fellow citizens in Quebec and Canada.
In conclusion, despite the concerns I voiced earlier, we should not forget that all of this must be put in context with the purpose and the schedule of the bill. The list of diseases it contains is impressive. They are extremely contagious and could have a devastating effect on the public in Canada and in Quebec.
To deal with this kind of disease, precautionary and public health measures should be upgraded from time to time. We must remain alert. Bill C-12, which will supersede the former Quarantine Act, promotes a good principle, even if parts of the bill should be examined in committee to make sure we do the utmost in the fairest and most efficient way.
Health is an exclusive jurisdiction of Quebec and the provinces. But the Bloc admits that communicable diseases such as SARS and the West Nile virus do not stop at our borders. That is why the Bloc will support the referral of Bill C-12 to committee, with the caveat that the measures taken must not duplicate those in Quebec.