Mr. Speaker, in recent years several significant public health threats, such as SARS, West Nile virus and avian influenza, have prompted both the medical community and policy makers to work together to better respond to public health threats.
Responding to the SARS outbreak, the Liberal government of 2003 established the National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health. The committee's mandate was to provide a “third party assessment of current public health efforts and lessons learned for ongoing and future infectious disease control”.
Chaired by Dr. David Naylor, the committee recommended several legislative changes to better address risks of emerging or re-emerging public health threats. One of those recommendations was to update the existing quarantine legislation, which had remained largely unchanged since 1872.
In October 2004 the Liberal government acted upon these recommendations and introduced the new Quarantine Act. It received royal assent in May 2005 and most of the bill came into force this past December.
The new act enables the federal government to respond more effectively to disease outbreaks. While each province and territory has its respective public health or emergency preparedness legislation in place, which includes the ability to isolate or detain individuals who pose a risk to public health, the new Quarantine Act enables the federal government to apply public health measures at Canadian borders in order to prevent the spread of communicable diseases entering Canada or other countries. It complements provincial and territorial health legislation that deals with provincial-territorial borders.
The act also helps Canada meet its international obligations as a signatory to the World Health Organization's revised international health regulations. These regulations aim to ensure maximum security against the international spread of disease with minimum interference with the global movement of people. These WHO regulations are scheduled to come into effect in June of this year.
More specifically, the Quarantine Act contains provisions to divert aircraft to alternate landing sites, to designate quarantine facilities at any location in Canada, and to prevent entry to Canada of travellers who represent an imminent and severe public health risk.
The bill also created two new classes of officials: environmental health officers and screening officers. These officials, along with quarantine officers, oversee the screening assessment and, if necessary, the detention of people, vessels, goods and cargo that represent a public health risk. The presence of these officers strengthens national preparedness for future potential public health risks, including an influenza pandemic.
The bill we discuss today, Bill C-42, proposes to amend the Quarantine Act by doing three things.
First, it obligates the operators of certain conveyances to report potential health issues to quarantine officers, as opposed to officers designated by the minister as stipulated in the act at present. I have no problem with this.
Second, it requires conveyance operators to report to a quarantine officer “as soon as possible” before entering and departing from Canada. This is distinct from the current act, which stipulates that reporting be done simply before entering or departing the country. Again, I do not find this problematic.
However, it is the main amendment proposed within Bill C-42 that I have concerns about. As the act is currently written, the operators of commercial air, water and ground transport are obligated to report when they are carrying a person who has died or have reasonable grounds to suspect that any person or cargo they are carrying could cause the spread of communicable disease.
However, Bill C-42 proposes to restrict this reporting requirement to aircraft and commercial watercraft only. This means that the huge volume of truck and rail traffic and cargo that crosses our border each day would be exempt from these reporting requirements.
As we all know, disease-carrying cargo and passengers pose the same health threats to Canadians, irrespective of the mode of transport by which they enter the country. Therefore, I do not understand the logic behind an amendment that seeks to narrow the scope of those required to inform Canadian officials of real or suspected health threats. It would appear to me that it creates a gaping hole in our strategy to protect the health of Canadians.
I must say that I find this very odd considering the extreme measures the government is prepared to take to ward off other threats it perceives to our physical safety. Just last month, the government tried to extend the two sunset clauses within the Anti-terrorism Act that empowered authorities to detain suspected terrorists without charge, subject to release on strict bail conditions, and to permit police to force witnesses to testify in a closed court before a judge. Those measures ran counter to the basic legal rights we all share and which have served our nation well.
It is instructive, too, that the Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled against the related security certificate measures which, similarly, allowed authorities to indefinitely detain foreign-born nationals without charge and without making public any evidence against them.
As the government well knows, the Anti-terrorism Act was drafted at a time when North American was under extreme duress and reeling from the events of 9/11. Security issues had jumped to the top of America's priority list. There was both internal and external pressure for Canada to tighten its security detection and enforcement measures.
However, it was also recognized that the preservation of civil rights is absolutely fundamental to our democracy and that it is precisely at times of stress that our commitment to civil rights is most important.
That is why the Anti-terrorism Act was drafted to ensure those clauses that withdrew longstanding fundamental civil rights were only temporary measures. It is to the great credit of the House that we had the foresight to sunset these contentious clauses, thereby forcing a sober second thought at a future date, a date which came just recently.
I find it disturbing that an issue as important as the basic charter rights of Canadians was treated in such a highly partisan and highly politicized manner by our Prime Minister in the debate surrounding the Anti-terrorism Act. I would like to address a few of the misleading ways in which the Prime Minister attempted to frame this important issue for Canadians.
As noted above, the original Anti-terrorism Act included sunset provisions in order to ensure that the measures I have outlined were reviewed again under less emotional circumstances. That is precisely what happened.
Both parliamentary and Senate committees reviewed the act. In neither case did they recommend renewing the sunset provisions as is. The Prime Minister would have us believe that these committees had fully endorsed the sunset clauses when in fact they had not. In both cases, in both houses, committees recommended various revisions to the act to ensure that proper checks were in place, checks that would counter the potential for abuse that the two sunset clauses posed.
After the committees reported, there was ample time for the Prime Minister to act upon their recommendations, but he chose not to do so. He chose to ignore these inconvenient truths when framing this discussion before the media and in the House.
Instead, he turned what should have been a very important and sober discussion around fundamental human rights into rancorous partisan gamesmanship, which brought the level of discourse in Canadian politics to a new low. He also impugned the reputation of a member of the House in an audacious effort to imply that the Liberal position on the sunset clauses was formulated in order to protect the family of a sitting member from participating in an Air-India investigation.
This was and is ludicrous. The Prime Minister's refusal to apologize reveals a hubris that is quite extraordinary and is evidence of a value system that places personal political ambitions over a respect for truth or respect for others.
The Prime Minister also claimed the Liberals were flip-flopping on the Anti-terrorism Act, when he and his colleagues know full well that the insertion of the sunset clauses at the beginning of the process was designed by the Liberals to allow these clauses to expire. The Liberal position is completely in accord with the intent of the original bill.
However, if the Prime Minister wants to know what a real flip-flop looks like, he need look no further than his own income trust tax policy: now that was a flip-flop.
Next in the Prime Minister's plan was to dredge up the old tactic of accusing one's opponents of being soft on terror. This is a very odd accusation given that it was the Liberal government that brought in the Anti-terrorism Act in the first place. Perhaps another way of looking at this recent fiasco would be to consider the Prime Minister tough on human rights.
This is the other side of the coin that the Conservatives never want to discuss. Their actions, however, speak louder than words. The cancellation of the court challenges program, which was a key instrument in protecting civil rights, the cuts to funding for advocacy groups and the cuts to literacy training, all while politicizing the process of judge selection, are but a few examples of their policies in action.
The Prime Minister also tried to portray the Liberal Party as being deeply divided on the issue of the sunset clauses. Of the 101 Liberal caucus members, only a few expressed an interest in reviewing the clauses and most of these were only in favour of doing so if they were accompanied by offsetting amendments to ensure that the provisions could not be abused. This could hardly be seen as a major fissure.
What it does reveal, however, is that the Liberal Party is an open and inclusive party in which all members have a say and a healthy exchange of views is in fact encouraged. This, of course, is in contrast to the iron fist with which the Conservative cabinet and caucus are ruled. One does not need to take much time to decide which process fosters the best long-reaching policies.
Lastly, the Prime Minister tried to create the impression in the minds of Canadians that allowing the sunset clauses to expire would in some way impinge upon the ability of the RCMP to continue its investigation of the Air-India disaster. Once again, this is a politically motivated distortion that is simply unsubstantiated by the facts.
The RCMP has been investigating the Air-India accident for decades. For over five years now, RCMP members have had the Anti-terrorism Act at their disposal, and in over five years not once did they choose to use either of the two sunset clauses. I repeat: not once in over five years did the RCMP members feel they needed to use either of the two provisions that the House has now allowed to expire.
Furthermore, there have been close to 450 public inquiries in Canadian history, several of which have dealt with tragedies and legal issues of various sorts, yet never has there been a request for broader police powers by the chairs of these inquiries. They simply are not needed. Yet according to Mr. Harper, the nation's security is in imminent danger--