Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise in the House today to begin debate on Bill C-5, an act respecting the establishment of the Public Health Agency of Canada. I thank the Minister of Health for providing me with this opportunity.
As we indicated in our Speech from the Throne, this government is committed to building a better federation in which governments come together to help Canadians realize their full potential.
By taking action on things that make us healthy or sick, through public health the Government of Canada can help Canadians make meaningful gains in their health, yielding benefits for our health system and across our economy and society. This piece of legislation represents a critical step in the government's effort to promote and protect the health of Canadians.
As members may know, in 2003 the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, launched an important discussion and debate about the state of public health in Canada. I am pleased to say that my minister was a leading voice in the protection of Canadians during that crisis. SARS provided a significant wake-up call to all governments on the need to renew and strengthen public health in Canada.
Two subsequent expert reports, one completed by Dr. David Naylor and the other by Senator Michael Kirby, pointed to the need to establish a federal focal point to address public health issues. Specific recommendations included the establishment of a Canadian public health agency and the appointment of a chief public health officer for Canada.
In response to the recommendations in the Dr. Naylor and Senator Kirby reports, the Public Health Agency of Canada was created through an order in council. However, the agency currently lacks parliamentary recognition in the form of its own enabling legislation. Unfortunately, the previous government did not have the legislation proceed advantageously through the House, but I am pleased that this government will ensure that the legislation is brought forward and passed.
These reports also emphasized that understanding, preventing and managing chronic and infectious diseases, as well as promoting good health, is the key to a healthier population and to reducing pressures on the acute health care system.
In terms of its links to health issues, promoting good health or preventing illness helps to contribute to the sustainability of health care. Most disability or death in Canada is caused by a few leading chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, respiratory illness and diabetes. International examples have shown that by placing a greater emphasis on disease prevention, Canada could help alleviate the pressures from these diseases on the health care system.
Providing a statutory foundation would give the agency and the chief public health officer parliamentary recognition and would allow the agency and its staff to assist the Minister of Health in the exercise of the minister's powers, duties and functions in relation to public health.
This legislation is but one example of this government's commitment to protecting and promoting the health of Canadians. The Public Health Agency of Canada spends over $500 million in programs and services that benefit the lives of Canadians each and every day. These appropriations reflect the government's recognition of the agency as a federal focal point for addressing public health issues, as recommended by the experts. It also reflects the important level of the federal government in the issues of public health.
With its roots in the federal constitutional authority for quarantine at our borders and in the 1918 influenza pandemic, there is a clear federal role in coordinating a response to infectious disease outbreaks. From the start, there has evolved a clear role in surveillance, research and knowledge sharing, which can be seen in our lab work at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, Canada's only level 4 lab. Naturally, as Manitoba MPs, we are very proud of the virology lab and look forward to its continued success.
Over the past century, Canadians have increasingly called upon the federal government to take action on health issues of national interest. Efforts have developed to address HIV and AIDS and chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes, as well as programs and activities that support early childhood development, active aging and community action on health.
This government recognizes that in order to have an efficient public health system and to protect public health in Canada, we need to continue to foster collaborative relationships with the federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments as well as international organizations and public health experts. This is an objective that is clearly set out in the preamble of Bill C-5.
It is also why Bill C-5 does not expand the existing federal activities relating to public health. Rather, it simply confirms our existing federal role and creates a statutory foundation for the agency. Further, it responds to provincial and territorial calls for a federal focal point with the appropriate authority and the capability to work with them in preparing for and addressing public health emergencies.
As the federal focal point, the agency is able to link into worldwide efforts in public health and with institutions such as the World Health Organization so we can ensure that best practices can be applied to Canadian settings.
Additionally, the agency worked with the provincial and territorial authorities to establish the Pan-Canadian Public Health Network as a forum for multilateral intergovernmental collaboration on public health issues that respects jurisdictional responsibilities in the areas of public health. The network includes representation from all jurisdictions and is led by a council of senior public health officials, which is currently co-chaired by the chief public health officer and the provincial medical health officer in B.C. Through the council, the network also provides policy advice through conferencing with the deputy minister of health on public health matters.
The network also includes expert groups that focus on key issues around health, such as communicable disease control, emergency preparedness and response, Canadian public health laboratory surveillance and information, injury prevention and control, and population health promotion. There is also a one-time limited task force on public health human resources.
The network represents a new way of federal-provincial-territorial collaboration on public health matters. By facilitating intergovernmental collaboration through the public health network, the agency is also able to develop and draw on scientific knowledge and expertise in order to provide the best public health advice to Canadians. As we can see, the federal government has a well established leadership role in public health, working in collaboration with the provinces, territories and other levels of government.
Moving forward with the legislation at this time reaffirms the federal government's commitment to public health and underscores the important role that the agency and the chief public health officer will play in supporting a strengthened public health system in Canada.
Let me now turn to the actual piece of legislation, which contains three major elements that collectively will help to protect and promote the health of Canadians.
First, the legislation establishes the agency as an entity separate from Health Canada but part of the health portfolio. In practice, this means that the Minister of Health will preside over the agency and will have management and direction of it. It also means that the agency will assist the minister in exercising or performing his or her ministerial powers, duties and functions in relation to public health as set out in the Department of Health Act.
Having a separate agency within the health portfolio will bring greater visibility and prominence to public health issues, while at the same time supporting policy coherence across the health sector. With the complexity of public health issues and growing public health threats, it is important that the agency be integrated as a key player in the federal system.
Further, the departmental type model will allow the agency to be part of and influence government-wide policy discussions. This is of particular importance to support effective federal efforts on key public health issues, such as pandemic preparedness. For example, the agency developed in collaboration with the provinces and territories Canada's pandemic influenza preparedness plan which is recognized by the World Health Organization as one of the most comprehensive in the world. This model will also ensure continued ministerial accountability with respect to public health issues.
The legislation also sets out the unique dual role for the chief public health officer. This dual role reflects the consensus of the Dr. Naylor and Senator Kirby reports and responds to strong expectations of the public health stakeholders and Canadians that the chief public health officer should be able to speak to Canadians on issues of public health.
What does the dual role imply? First, as deputy head of the agency, the chief public health officer will be accountable to the minister for the operation and management of the agency. In this respect the chief public health officer will be expected to advise the minister on public health matters, giving the federal lead on public health a very influential role in the policy making process. Second, the legislation also recognizes that the chief public health officer will be Canada's lead public health professional with demonstrated expertise and leadership in the field.
As such the chief public health officer will have the legislative authority to communicate directly with Canadians, provide them with information on public health matters and to prepare and publish reports on any public health issues. The legislation also requires the chief public health officer to submit to the minister for tabling in Parliament an annual report on the state of public health in Canada.
The legislation, by conferring on the chief public health officer the status of lead health professional, enhances the credibility and authority not only of the chief public health officer but also the Government of Canada more generally on public health issues. As an impartial credible voice on public health able to communicate directly with the public, the chief public health officer is a visible symbol of the federal government's commitment to protect and promote the health of Canadians.
The ability to collect, analyze, interpret, publish, distribute and protect public health information is critical in managing and controlling disease and preparing for and responding to public health emergencies. The SARS outbreak showed clearly the importance of government having not only accurate information but also the ability and the means to access that information.
That is why the legislation includes specific regulatory authorities for the collection, management and protection of health information, to ensure that the agency can receive the health information it needs to fulfill its mandate.
Specifically, the provisions provide the governor in council with a regulation-making power, to regulate, on the recommendation of the Minister of Health, the collection and management of information relating to public health, including personal information. The information gathered by the agency will continue to be subject to the Privacy Act. Moreover, regulations made by the governor in council on the recommendation of the minister may contain provisions dealing with the protection of confidential information, including personal information.
That information is necessary for the effective functioning of the public health system, which is a lesson we learned during the SARS outbreak and which needs to be addressed before any other health emergency, such as an influenza outbreak pandemic. In light of this possibility the health information provisions in the proposed legislation are crucial to give the agency a clear legal basis for the systematic monitoring and surveillance needed to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to such an emergency in a timely manner.
These provisions are also needed to provide assurances to the provinces and territories that they can lawfully share information with the federal government. With such provisions, provincial and territorial ministries will have the certainty and clarity to confidently share health information with the agency. Having this power in the legislation is also critical to ensure that the collection and protection of health information is done in a manner that respects the privacy rights protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Rest assured that the information provisions in the legislation reflect the government's concern for protecting the personal health information of Canadians. As regulations are developed, we will ensure the privacy of Canadians is respected.
My colleagues and I support the legislation as it represents a critical piece in the ongoing improvements this government is making to strengthen Canada's public health system. By giving the agency its own enabling legislation and making the chief public health officer an independent critical voice for public health, the government will not only bring greater visibility to public health issues or threats facing Canadians, it will be taking a step to renew and strengthen the public health system as a whole.
It will support the agency as it continues to promote and protect the health of Canadians through leadership, partnership, innovation and action, just as it has been doing since its creation. Ultimately the legislation will give the Public Health Agency of Canada a sound legislative footing to assist the minister to protect and promote the health of Canadians. The agency is meeting, and will continue to meet, the challenges and critical responsibilities that have been given to it by the Government of Canada.
I have appreciated the opportunity to start the debate on behalf of the Minister of Health on this important piece of legislation.