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House of Commons Hansard #78 of the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was appointments.

Topics

Treatment of Rare DisordersPrivate Members' Business

April 14th, 2008 / 11 a.m.

Liberal

Don Bell Liberal North Vancouver, BC

moved:

That, in the opinion of the House, the government should respond specifically to the challenges faced by Canadians with rare diseases and disorders, and the initiative put forward by the Canadian Organization for Rare Disorders by: (a) establishing the definition for serious rare disorders as those with a prevalence of less than 1 in 2000 Canadians; (b) examining the feasibility of a national “Chance for Life Fund” equivalent to 2% of the total annual public drug expenditure to be designated for therapies for rare disorders; (c) considering the establishment of a multi-stakeholder advisory body, including treaters and patients, to recommend treatment access for life-threatening or serious rare disorders, based on scientific standards and social values; (d) considering the establishment of centres of reference for specific rare disorders, comprised of national and international experts, who will develop criteria for treating patients based on scientific evidence and patient impact and provide on-going surveillance into the real-world safety and effectiveness of these treatments on individual and group basis; (e) considering options to provide incentives through orphan drug regulation and policy, to assure Canadian organizations and researchers are motivated to conduct research and development into treatments for rare and neglected disorders; (f) supporting internationally accepted standards for conduct of clinical trials in rare disorders appropriate for the challenges inherent to very small patient populations; (g) considering ensuring that Health Canada’s progressive licensing framework provide appropriate support to the design of clinical trials for very small patient populations and appropriate review of evidence submitted from these trials; and (h) reporting the progress accomplished to the House within six months.

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to begin debate on my private member's motion, Motion No. 426, which addresses the issue of rare disorders. If passed, Motion No. 426 will begin the process of bringing Canada into line with numerous other developed nations that have already implemented effective policies offering extensive support and treatment for citizens with severe and life threatening rare disorders.

More specifically, Motion No. 426 calls on the government, through Health Canada, to consider the policy proposals advanced by the Canadian Organization for Rare Disorders. I consider this motion a starting point and CORD's Chance for Life Fund an ideal framework in which to examine many of the challenges faced by Canadians living with rare disorders.

Based on experience and evidence, I hope to prove that proposals within Motion No. 426, if implemented in Canada, would be as effective here as they have been in other nations. I also believe that doing so would reflect not only the principles of universality as outlined in the Canada Health Act but also the compassionate approach that most Canadians feel is at the core of our public health care system.

I have been greatly encouraged by the support I have received from the other parties on this issue. As rare disorders affect thousands of Canadian families from all walks of life and backgrounds, so too has my family dealt personally with this issue, and I have been impressed by the spirit of cooperation and non-partisanship that has been constant in my discussions with my colleagues as I have moved this issue forward and developed the motion we are debating today.

There are some issues that are truly non-partisan, and this is one of them. In particular, I would like to thank the Parliamentary Secretary for Health, the member for Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia, as well as the health critic from the NDP, the member for Winnipeg North, and the Bloc health critic, the member for the riding of Québec.

I have also worked closely with CORD as well as many of the organizations affiliated with it, such as the Pulmonary Hypertension Association of Canada and the Canadian MPS Society, and wish to thank their representatives for their continued support and diligent work in bringing this issue forward.

Before I continue, I will clarify that I will often refer to “rare disorders”. Other nations have adopted similar language to describe these conditions, such as “orphan diseases, disorders or rare diseases”, and I will refer to them all throughout my remarks, but for the purposes of today's debate, they mean the same.

February 29 of this year marked the first annual International Rare Disease Day. With 2008 being a leap year, “the rarest date on the calendar”, February 29, was the perfect date to launch what will be an annual occurrence.

In the simplest possible terms, Motion No. 426 addresses the issues faced by Canadians who suffer from a wide range of rare diseases that affect very few people. At present, Canada does not have a definition of, or an official policy on, rare disorders and, as such, our health care system does not differentiate between someone who has a very common disease and one that is extremely rare. Essentially, the prevalence of their occurrence among Canadians is not considered.

In order to develop a comprehensive Canadian policy on rare disorders, it is necessary to establish a Canadian definition of rare disorder or, more specifically, what prevalence among Canadians a disorder should have to be considered rare. Motion No. 426 calls for the definition of rare disorders as those with a prevalence of less than 1 in 2,000 Canadians, and I will deal with this further in a moment.

The inspiration for Motion No. 426 is found in the Canadian Organization for Rare Disorders Chance for Life Fund, an action plan that CORD developed to address this issue and begin the process of establishing a made in Canada policy that will ensure patients with rare disorders have the exact same right and access to effective therapies, or the same “chance for life”, as all Canadians.

A policy for rare disorders is based on the basic principle of the equitable provision of health care that many Canadians assume is an unshakable element of Canada's universal health care system, but in the case of rare disorders, this principle of universality is currently missing.

Rare disorders include such conditions as cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease, legionnaires' disease, muscular dystrophy, thalassemia, MPS, pulmonary hypertension, Fabry disease, Gaucher disease, ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, Waldenstrom's anemia, AIDS, and acromegaly, to name a few.

Rare disorders can be acquired or genetic. It is also important to note that several rare disorders fall within more common conditions. For example, while cancer is obviously not considered a rare disorder because of its prevalence, kidney cancer is. Many of these rare disorders we may have heard of, because self-help groups have done a good job of public awareness.

From the brief list of rare disorders that I just named, I am sure many Canadians can already identify a family member or friend who suffers from a rare disorder. My grandson, Dylan Bell, was diagnosed at the age of 3 with a rare disorder, pulmonary hypertension, and passed away the day after his 12th birthday. In my own riding, young Nicolas Harkins has MPS 1, an enzyme deficiency disease that is also life threatening. Today's Globe and Mail article on page 3 by Lisa Priest refers to 11 year old Szymon Cajmer, who has MPS 2, otherwise known as Hunter syndrome.

However, that list of disorders is minuscule when compared to the complete list of approximately 7,000 rare disorders that are currently identified. Using the prevalence standard or definition of rare as being 1 in 2,000, it is estimated that 1 in 12 Canadians has been diagnosed as having, or being a carrier of, a rare disorder. That is over two and a half million Canadians who today are affected by a rare disorder.

Clearly the impact of rare disorders is much greater than most realize. While only a small number of Canadians may have a specific rare disorder, as a group Canadians with rare disorders are far from rare. It is for this reason that CORD, which is the only organization of its kind in Canada, plays such a vital role. By collecting information on rare disorders and raising awareness, CORD is developing networks for Canadians with rare disorders, networks that allow them to speak effectively with one voice and, most importantly, to realize they are not alone. Simply put, there is strength in numbers.

Not only does Canada not have an official definition of prevalence of rare disorders, which is critical in order to move forward on this issue, but it lags far behind most countries in the developed world when it comes to rare disorder policy. For a country that considers its health care system to be a badge of honour, the envy of the world, as it is often referred to, I believe the manner in which we deal with this issue would surprise most Canadians.

The United States was the first country to enact rare disorder legislation 25 years ago in 1983 and was quickly followed by Australia, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea in the 1990s. In 2000 the European Union established its own orphan drug legislation.

Official definitions or prevalence of rare disorders vary in each country. In the U.S., a prevalence of less than 200,000 persons in the total population, which is approximately 1 in 1,300, is the official definition. On the other end of the spectrum is Australia, where “rare” is a prevalence of 1 in 15,000. Other nations generally fall somewhere in between. Establishing a definition, or prevalence, is only the starting point, and it is through that definition that other policies and changes to our system can flow.

Access to medication for Canadians with rare disorders has been described as “trying to untangle a Gordian knot” and is the greatest challenge faced by those with rare disorders. Because Canada does not have a rare disorders policy, medications and treatments available to a person with cystic fibrosis, for example, in the United States, South Korea or France may not be available to a Canadian or, worse, are available but not necessarily covered under all provincial health plans, and therefore weakens the aspect of universality.

Rare disorder policy, such as the orphan drug act in the United States, which, I would like to add, was the result of a bipartisan effort, has produced positive, tangible results; a key area of improvement being a dramatic increase in the number of innovative therapies in development due in part to economic and regulatory incentives included in rare disorder legislation. This has led directly to an exponential growth of the biotechnology industry and the development of more cutting edge technologies and treatments for those living with rare disorders.

Canada's policy void in this area has forced many Canadian biotech firms to offer free clinical trials to small groups of patients as the only way to give them access to life-saving therapies. In many cases these clinical trials have proven to be immensely successful. Unfortunately, such trials were limited to only a few individuals and participating in them often involved regular travel which can be too expensive or difficult for those with advanced conditions.

A Canadian rare disorder policy must view the biotechnology industry as a priority sector in a knowledge-driven economy that not only helps with the “brain gain”, but can also produce life-saving technologies for those suffering from rare disorders.

Motion No. 426 asks the government to consider the establishment of centres of reference for clusters of rare disorders, comprised of national and international experts, who would develop criteria for treating patients based on scientific evidence and patient impact, and provide ongoing surveillance into the real world safety and effectiveness of these treatments on an individual and group basis.

Motion No. 426 also asks the government to consider options to provide incentives through orphan drug regulation and policy to ensure Canadian organizations and researchers are motivated to conduct research and development into treatments for rare and neglected disorders.

There is a tremendous pool of talent in Canada in the health research fields that we must encourage through a made in Canada policy on rare disorders. In the other countries I have mentioned, orphan drug legislation has provided incentives for the development and marketing of medicines for rare disorders that otherwise would not have gone forward.

Motion No. 426 can begin an evaluation of how this process could develop in Canada. Recent data reveals how effective such changes have been in helping those in need. For example, CORD reports that during the 2003 review of the U.S. orphan drug policy, it was found that 1,100 products received orphan drug designation, 231 were marketed, thereby impacting over 11 million patients. During the 2005 review of the European Union policy, 260 products received orphan drug designation, and 22 received market authorization, thereby impacting over 1 million EU patients.

Clearly, Canada has work to do to catch up to our friends to the south and in Europe. Perhaps the greatest roadblock for those with rare disorders accessing drugs and treatments is the common drug review process.

As part of the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health, the common drug review performs systematic reviews of clinical evidence, pharmacoeconomic information, and with detailed recommendations by the Canadian Expert Drug Advisory Committee, CEDAC, it provides evidence-based recommendations to provincial drug plans on which drugs should be covered under provincial health plans. All provincial drug plans, with the exception of Quebec, participate in this process and use CDR decisions as a starting point when deciding on funding.

While there are some provincial programs that do offer assistance for specific rare disorders, AIDS being one example, these programs can be temporary and only create a patchwork system. While the CDR provides a streamlined drug review process in Canada, it only accepts specific evidence-based data in its decision making process.

More simply put, stringent evidence, a mandatory requirement for a drug even getting to the starting point in the CDR process, must have been produced from a study with a minimum number of patients. Without a specific minimum number of patients enrolled in a study or trial, evidence is simply not considered to be of high enough quality to advance in the CDR process let alone be considered for approval.

We can imagine the frustration of researchers and doctors who are unable to find enough patients to participate in a process that they believe could result in life-saving treatments becoming available to those who so desperately need them.

Motion No. 426 calls on the government to consider supporting internationally accepted standards for conduct of clinical trials in rare disorders appropriate for the challenges inherent to very small patient populations and to consider ensuring that Health Canada's progressive licensing framework provides appropriate support to the design of clinical trials for very small patient populations and appropriate review of evidence submitted from these trials.

Some rare disorders are known to affect as few as 20 Canadians. One can only imagine the incredible challenge of not only attempting to identify enough cases for a clinical study, but the tremendous travel costs and other concerns such as work, family and health concerns of individuals who may be able to participate.

It is my hope that with the passage of Motion No. 426, we can begin the process to move Canada a little further down the road in developing a rare disorder policy and at the same time raise public awareness on this important issue.

As parliamentarians, I encourage all members to rise above partisanship and continue to work together to ensure that those Canadians with rare disorders are given a chance for life.

Treatment of Rare DisordersPrivate Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

Questions and comments, the hon. Parliamentary Secretary for Health.

Treatment of Rare DisordersPrivate Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

Charleswood—St. James—Assiniboia Manitoba

Conservative

Steven Fletcher ConservativeParliamentary Secretary for Health

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the member for bringing forward this very important motion.

The health minister and I have been following the progression of this motion very closely and empathize greatly with the people who are affected by rare diseases.

It might be of interest to Canadians, if the member does not mind, for the member to explain a little bit of his own life. Often when members bring motions such as this to the House, they have been touched in some way by a constituent or a family member. I wonder if the member would be willing to share with us his motivation, from a personal perspective, for bringing the motion forward.

Treatment of Rare DisordersPrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Don Bell Liberal North Vancouver, BC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to express my appreciation for the parliamentary secretary's support in bringing this motion forward.

As I mentioned, my first awareness was when my grandson, at age three, was diagnosed with what we found was in effect a terminal disease: pulmonary hypertension.

As any member who suddenly finds a family member with a rare disease or life threatening illness, after getting past the period of shock, I began to look into it. I found out more about the disease from a website and worked with my son and his wife to try to find out if there was a cure, if there was a way in which we could deal with it and to avoid what was obviously a life threatening consequence.

I can say that Dylan, at about age three, was treated; he was given a 24 hour intravenous pack which he wore for the last nine years of his life. He wore it when he went to bed. He wore it during the day time. His illness affected his ability to participate in regular life activities. He went to a regular school, but he could not perform any of the physical activities because he would be short of breath, part of the side effects of his condition.

One of the first drugs he was on had a life cycle of about 30 minutes. That means, if the alarm went off indicating his pump had failed, we had about 15 or 20 minutes to get him to a hospital, with the risk of him passing away at that moment. Hon. members can imagine the pressure that puts on a family.

Through that and through my son's involvement in the Pulmonary Hypertension Association of Canada, and he is now the president, I became aware that there were many other diseases, particularly by talking with people from CORD. I became aware that this was only one of many diseases that affects people in this way. I mentioned Nicolas Harkins in my own community. The story about another young man is in today's Globe and Mail.

One in twelve Canadians are either carriers of or affected by rare diseases. What I heard from CORD, and from the patients, the caregivers and the families was that the problems in the Canadian system that I have identified were access to treatment, therapies and the approvals.

I determined, as Dylan's legacy, that I would do what I could in my position as a member of Parliament to bring forward what I hope, with the help of the government, would be an effective way of addressing those problems.

Treatment of Rare DisordersPrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Bloc

Christiane Gagnon Bloc Québec, QC

Mr. Speaker, since they have recognized the Quebec nation in Parliament and boasted about having recognized it, it is now time to act. This morning marks a wonderful opportunity to do so. An amendment has been submitted and discussed for a week that would give Quebec the right to opt out with full compensation. In fact, the 10 year plan to strengthen health care, from 2004, gave Quebec the right to do just that.

Why is it taking the Conservative government and the Liberal Party so long to accept this type of amendment? Otherwise, we would be voting in favour of it this morning.

Treatment of Rare DisordersPrivate Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Don Bell Liberal North Vancouver, BC

Mr. Speaker, I am aware of amendments that will be proposed by the parliamentary secretary on behalf of the government and the Bloc. Those issues will be discussed with my critic and with the government. I have indicated that we will consider that and I hope address those in the second hour of debate.

Treatment of Rare DisordersPrivate Members' Business

11:25 a.m.

Edmonton Centre Alberta

Conservative

Laurie Hawn ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for North Vancouver for raising this important issue and also to make members of this House aware that the government is interested in finding common ground on this important issue.

The subject the hon. member has raised is quite serious for many people, those diagnosed with these rare diseases, their families and loved ones, and Canadians across Canada who sympathize with their suffering.

Rare disorders affect people of all ages, races and ethnic backgrounds. Some disorders are genetic, for example, Tay-Sachs, Huntingdon's, or Sickle Cell disease. Some disorders are acquired, such as Legionnaires' disease. Other rare disorders can cause general health conditions, such as heart disease and cancer. Most have no known treatment.

A rare, or orphan, disease is one that affects fewer than 1 in 2,000 people. However, there are more than 6,000 rare disorders that, taken together, affect approximately 3 million Canadians. One in ten individuals in Canada has been diagnosed with a rare disorder. Many Canadians are affected, but very few with any one particular disorder. This is a serious issue for this government.

We recognize that Canadians who suffer from rare diseases have health needs that frequently are not met, particularly, in terms of access to needed treatments. Few therapies exist to treat these diseases.

The rapid advance in medical technologies and therapies has given many Canadians new hope, but developing and providing these medical techniques, such as genetic therapies, requires enormous resources. Potential treatments have often been considered too difficult and expensive to develop because of a very small patient population.

It is often difficult to conduct clinical trials and to demonstrate outcomes because the number of people suffering the disease is too small to allow the standard scientific techniques, like random sampling, control groups and so on. Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the suffering of Canadians with rare diseases.

Recently, new drugs for rare disease have become available in Canada, but evidence on whether they work is often weak and the costs of these drugs are beyond the budgets of most Canadians. Thus, important public policy regarding these drugs is essential.

This government has not been idle on this issue. My colleagues can attest to the fact that we have already taken many steps towards improving pharmaceutical management in this country, most notably in relation to drugs used to treat rare diseases.

We are improving the way we regulate drugs as part of the food and consumer safety action plan. This includes a life-cycle approach which goes beyond a simple decision on market access and also monitors drugs once they enter the market.

Along with our provincial and territorial partners, we have been working on improving the common drug review process.

We continue to work with the provinces and territories to improve drug management, including for rare diseases, as part of our collaboration under the national pharmaceutical strategy, a component of the 2004 health care accord.

As mentioned before, the government and the hon. member for North Vancouver have been working behind the scenes to find common ground so that this motion can pass this House. We have focused our discussions on several aspects of the motion and I am happy to outline these areas for my colleagues.

First, and foremost, the government believes the motion ought to take into account the roles played by the provinces and territories with this issue.

Our provincial and territorial counterparts are primarily responsible for deciding the extent of drug coverage for Canadians. Provincial and territorial governments determine who qualifies for public coverage within their jurisdictions, what drugs qualify for reimbursement, and what portion of the costs will be covered.

They also negotiate with drug manufacturers on the prices for the drugs they choose to reimburse, including prices for rare disease drugs. They regulate prescribing and dispensing of these drugs within their jurisdictions. This is an important element of this issue, given the key roles doctors play in determining appropriate prescribing and developing clinical practice guidelines.

As such, the government believes that we must include a reference in this motion to our provincial and territorial colleagues; a fact that the hon. member for North Vancouver has listened to and demonstrated a willingness to accept.

The government also believes that Motion M-426 should note the important role of the common drug review process—a productive collaboration between federal, provincial and territorial governments that assists them in their decisions about drug coverage.

The common drug review process evaluates the therapeutic benefits of drugs as well as their cost-effectiveness in comparison with existing therapies. It also provides recommendations such as if and under what circumstances drugs should be covered under government drug plans.

As the House is aware, the Standing Committee on Health undertook an examination of the common drug review and released a final report this past December. In that report, it recognized the importance of the role played by the common drug review and it made recommendations to improve it. One of those recommendations was the creation of a public advisory board for the common drug review.

The recommendation is quite similar to an element of this motion, which suggests that we consider establishing “a multi-stakeholder advisory body, including treaters and patients, to recommend treatment access for life-threatening or serious rare disorders”.

This government believes that the common drug review should be included in any work on rare disease issues.

In our response to the committee's report, the government indicated its interest in pursuing discussions with participating provinces and territories on opportunities to appropriately involve the public in the common drug review process. Appropriate public involvement can lead to better decisions, as well as confidence in the fairness of the decision making process.

Adapting the common drug review approach to assessing drugs for rare diseases was also highlighted.

One of the more challenging aspects to the motion surrounds a reference to defining a “rare” disorder. While experts have focused their study on defining this issue, to date there is no common definition of a rare disease.

Determining what diseases count as rare and, therefore, who will benefit from any changes that governments might collectively or individually implement, is a vital step and not one to be taken lightly.

If governments adopt special approaches for rare diseases, how then do we deal with the almost rare?

For example, if diseases affecting fewer than 500 Canadians are considered rare and treated differently, what happens to the people suffering from diseases that affect slightly more than 500 Canadians?

The government feels that we need processes that can adapt to the needs of all Canadians and all diseases, and we thank the welcoming nature with which the sponsor of Motion No. 426 has received these comments.

We recognize that these diseases have few options for treatment and that available drug therapies are often extremely costly. However, in the absence of solid analysis of other ways in which we could address these challenges, we are not convinced that this motion's proposed fund is the best way to deal with this difficult issue.

The government recognizes the difficulties faced by Canadians suffering from rare diseases and acknowledges the spirit in which the motion was put forth. However, the hon. member's motion does not take into account the necessity of working with the provinces and territories and the government is also concerned that some elements of this motion are premature.

These are serious issues that need to be addressed but we must do so in way that is prudent and respects the roles of those involved.

I can identify personally in a very small way with those who suffer from rare diseases. When our son was born in Germany 34 years ago, he was initially diagnosed as having PKU disease. Although PKU disease is not that rare, it does involve severe lifelong dietary restrictions to prevent irreversible brain damage. The prospect for our son was scary but in the end the diagnosis, thankfully, proved to be inaccurate.

The motivation and intent of the motion are entirely honourable and worthy of very serious consideration. I know the hon. member for North Vancouver has a strong personal investment in this issue and that he is committed to doing the right thing. I and all members of this House applaud him for that.

We look forward to working with him and other colleagues to arrive at a positive course of action that will ease the load on families dealing with the impact of rare diseases, while still respecting the requirement for collaboration and cooperation with all levels of responsibility and authority in the delivery of effective and affordable health care to all Canadians.

Treatment of Rare DisordersPrivate Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

Bloc

Christiane Gagnon Bloc Québec, QC

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Motion No. M-426, which calls on the government to respond to the challenges faced by patients with rare diseases and disorders. I thank the member for North Vancouver for making us aware of this important issue today. The lives and quality of life of many young people—most of these patients are young people—are at stake today in this debate.

This is a very important motion that sheds light on a regulatory problem that limits access to drugs to treat rare diseases, either because they are not allowed on the market or because they are not covered by provincial drug insurance plans.

Before I address the issue that is at the heart of the motion we are debating today, I would like to say that the Bloc Québécois cannot vote for this motion as is, not because of the principle behind it, but for a very specific reason that I will explain. The Bloc Québécois is in favour of the motion, but it requires an amendment, which we proposed to the sponsor of the motion, concerning how this motion applies to Quebec.

Under the 2004 10-year plan to strengthen health care, Quebec is not subject to the common drug review or the national pharmaceutical strategy. The 10-year plan to strengthen health care recognized Quebec's right to withdraw unconditionally, with full financial compensation, from any national health initiative.

I would like to reiterate certain principles set out in the 10-year plan to strengthen health care. The plan clearly states that nothing shall be construed as derogating from Quebec's jurisdiction over health.

We would have liked the Conservatives and the Liberals to agree to this amendment this morning so that we could go ahead with this motion today. Quebec has already set up a committee to look at this issue. This committee has begun looking at another way to deal with rare diseases and verify the efficacy and safety of drugs, taking into account their cost. This is the role of the common drug review. Quebec has its own drug review program, known as the Conseil du médicament du Québec, and is therefore not subject to the federal program. We need no lessons from the federal government, because Quebec is completely independent in this regard.

As such, any national strategy or policy concerning rare disorders and governing access to drugs to treat those disorders cannot apply to Quebec.

The only recommendation in this motion that can apply in Quebec is (g), which is about the drug approval process and clinical trials, issues that clearly fall under Health Canada's jurisdiction. We may be able to build consensus on this motion based on the proposal in (g).

That being said, as everyone knows, in the spring of 2007, the federal Standing Committee on Health conducted an in-depth study of the CDR, the common drug review. The committee then submitted a report containing five recommendations. The Bloc drafted a dissenting opinion to reiterate its preference that the national strategies for rare disorders not apply to Quebec. Instead, we asked the federal government to establish a specific approach to the evaluation of drugs for the treatment of rare disorders.

Last week, we received the government's response to the report. Even the government was quite vague with respect to recommendation 5, which called for a real policy on rare disorders. We are very disappointed in the government's response.

Here is what the government said in its response to the committee's report on the common drug review.

The government supports the “idea of exploring options”. It also recognizes that there might be “merit in exploring approaches to assessing these drugs as one of the first steps”, and in the end, it said it was interested in “pursuing discussions”.

That gives us some idea as to whether the government will support this motion or not. The response is pretty lukewarm and bears little resemblance to the proposals in the member for North Vancouver's motion. It is highly unlikely that the government will support this motion. I would be very surprised and also very pleased if the government decided to move more quickly and make the rare disorders policy more proactive and more considerate of the circumstances surrounding rare disorders.

As I said earlier, the Conseil du médicament du Québec has already begun working on a draft of the evaluation criteria for drugs to treat rare disorders. There must be specific criteria because rare disorders are not like other, more common disorders.

We know that in the United Kingdom, for example, 1 in 50,000 inhabitants has a rare disease, while here it is 1.1 in 10,000 inhabitants. That is why, in the approach set out in the motion—and this is what Quebec focuses its research on—we have to take into account the fact that clinical trials have been conducted in other countries in addition to those done in Canada and Quebec. Then we could have a better sample from a larger population base, instead of basing research only on the population of Canada. In fact, as far as certain diseases in certain countries are concerned and other diseases in Canada and Quebec, we could have better sampling and a much broader assessment of the safety and effectiveness of the drugs. That information could be used in approving the cost of drugs.

That is where the CDR or common drug review comes in, since it could recommend that a drug be covered. Quebec is not subject to a national strategy because it has its own drug review program.

Often the reason provided for not covering the payment of a drug treatment for a rare disease is that it is too costly and the patient base suffering from the disease is too small. The cost is astronomical.

In my opinion, we have to look at the situation from a human perspective. When we can offer not only a better quality of life to people with rare diseases, but also greater longevity, this certainly touches us emotionally. By agreeing to pay for a drug, regardless the cost, we are offering patients a better quality of life.

I know the hon. member presented this motion because people very close to him have suffered from a very rare disease and access to drugs was not possible.

I know that the hon. member is doing a good job raising awareness within his party and that is why I sincerely hope the Bloc Québécois amendment will be accepted in order to exempt Quebec from the strategy we are debating this morning. Nonetheless, we could support a national strategy for all of Canada, except Quebec, just to show some openness.

In Quebec, I met with one of the members of the committee, and he was saying that this issue has to be addressed differently and there should perhaps be more progressive reviews that take into account different factors. Then we might be able to approve the drugs for rare diseases.

Treatment of Rare DisordersPrivate Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

NDP

Judy Wasylycia-Leis NDP Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in this very important debate on a motion submitted by my colleague from North Vancouver.

This motion represents an important discussion for the House of Commons and it is relevant for many Canadians. Although we are talking about rare diseases and treatment for such rare diseases, when we add up the numbers, in fact we are talking about a significant proportion of the Canadian population. Well over 10% of Canadians today are affected in one way or another by this issue and by the absence of adequate treatment and drug coverage for those who are affected by this very serious issue.

I want to thank the member for North Vancouver for bringing this issue to this House. It was inspired by his personal experience. His story of his grandchildren is tragic and devastating. We take courage in his ability to take some hope from these dire circumstances to change the world for others, to make this world a better place so that the kind of experience he and his family has had to endure will not have to be repeated by so many over and over again.

All of us bring our personal experiences to this House and they intersect here in the political world. It is here at that intersection where issues are most poignant and where they become relevant in a very deep, personal way for action.

I too bring to this House a personal experience on the issue of rare disorders. I have talked many times in this House about my son, Nicholas, who is now 23 and suffers from a very rare disorder. In fact there are only 11 boys in the world with his particular genetic disability or disorder. It is called band heterotopia, or double cortex syndrome. It causes uncontrollable seizures, profound intellectual disability, and of course many behavioural issues.

We became aware of this when Nick turned three. He started having seizures and he was diagnosed as simply having epilepsy. We were told not to worry, that everything would be okay. As the years passed and the drug trials continued and the tests persisted, we soon became aware that we were dealing with something very difficult. To this day we still struggle with drug therapies to bring his seizures under control. We keep hoping and praying that there will be a discovery that will help his particular situation.

In our case, we have been blessed with a wonderful medical system in Manitoba, with good access to neurologists. Obviously we have tried every drug in the world that exists. We have also used the exceptional drug program to access drugs that were not approved. We continue to be blessed by a system that is sensitive, insofar as it goes to the particular situation facing Nick.

However, we always hope that there will be the resources to find a cure, to find a solution, to find some remedy to help him, just as my colleague from North Vancouver hopes that something can be done to prevent the tragedy he has had to go through with the death of his grandchildren.

My other colleagues bring similar stories to this House. My colleague from Acadie—Bathurst is fighting for a family in his constituency. It is the case of a two year old girl in Paquetville, New Brunswick, suffering from xeroderma pigmentosum, a condition in which she cannot be exposed to sunlight. Cancer development is triggered by sun exposure and she has already recently suffered some new developments pertaining to cancer.

She lives in the dark all the time and can only go out at night after sundown. She requires special windows. She would need a special dome to protect her outside to play normally, and of course this is a very costly method of protection. Her parents have had to leave work to care for her. The family continues to struggle to ensure that this little girl has a future.

My colleague from Windsor—Tecumseh mentioned to me today that Szymon Cajmer, the little boy who is mentioned in the Globe and Mail story, is in his constituency of Windsor--Tecumseh. When this little boy was six years old, he was denied entry into a clinical trial to test the only drug to treat his rare disease because his lungs worked too well. Now at age 11 he suffers from severe hearing loss and easily loses his breath. The drug he did not qualify to receive years ago, idursulfase, has since been approved by Health Canada to treat his disease, Hunter syndrome, but now Szymon cannot obtain the enzyme replacement therapy for a different reason. It is funded in British Columbia and Alberta but not in Ontario.

With this range of personal stories we have a better understanding of the problems facing many Canadians. We need a strategy to help Canadians who are faced with rare disorders.

My colleague from North Vancouver has presented a comprehensive motion that does not prescribe exactly what the federal government ought to do, but recommends that the government consider various steps to ensure that a strategy is put in place. The first recommendation my colleague has made is that there be a strategy, that we define what rare disorders are, that we do what the United States has done at least, which is to give it a word, give it definition, give it meaning, and then develop a strategy to act on those issues.

I commend my colleague for that. I certainly support in general his motion. We can quibble with some of the aspects but that is for us to sort out as we move this along.

It is the responsibility of the federal government to take the wisdom of the experience of the member for North Vancouver and the personal experiences of so many in this House and build on them and come up with solutions. We do not want these rare disabilities and disorders to become a jurisdictional football, as is the case of the family living in Windsor—Tecumseh.

It is wrong that provinces with more wealth and ability to pay for expensive rare drugs can do so while others cannot. We need a national strategy.

The government could immediately recommit itself to a national pharmaceutical strategy which is sitting on a shelf somewhere gathering dust without action and without purpose. We need a minister of health and a Government of Canada that is prepared to get back to the drawing board and recognize that this country needs a national pharmaceutical strategy with a national formulary that would have a specific fund allocated for people suffering from rare diseases as a part of it. Otherwise, it will never be possible to address those particular conditions. They are too specific, too small, too narrow to be part of a common drug formulary. That is clear.

We are not suggesting that every province reinvent the wheel and come up with funds from scarce resources in order to cover these particular rare disabilities. We need a central clearinghouse. We need a place where those families with family members who suffer from rare disabilities, disorders and diseases can have some hope. These families are facing serious challenges in terms of drug coverage. Drugs may not be thoroughly clinically tested, may not be thoroughly without side effects, but might provide people facing these circumstances with some hope that they might be able to enhance the quality of their lives or even add to their lives. The government must recognize that and put a plan in place.

There is no excuse for the government not to recognize the importance of having a national drug coverage plan that would ensure that all Canadians would never have to make the difficult choice between paying for needed drugs or buying food for their family and paying the rent.

There needs to be a planned approach on all fronts. Serious discussions are needed with the brand name drug companies that are still spending very little of their profits on research and development which would help people with rare diseases and would be of significant benefit to Canadians in these circumstances.

We need to convince the drug companies that spending 90% of their budget on marketing and advertising does not make sense. They have to invest that money in helping Canadians, whether it is in terms of rare disorders and disabilities or whether it is in terms of a universal program that would help many across all jurisdictions in this country.

I commend the member for North Vancouver for bringing this motion to the House. I will support him in his efforts. We look forward to strategies and recommendations and courage from the federal government on this issue.

Treatment of Rare DisordersPrivate Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Liberal

Susan Kadis Liberal Thornhill, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise today to address and fully support Motion No. 426, a motion to address the lack of a rare disease drug policy in Canada.

Health care is always among the top concerns of residents in my community of Thornhill and, of course, all Canadians. From access to treatment to quality of care, residents in my community and all across Canada want a health care system that is there when they need it and that is inclusive.

I am very proud to speak in support of the motion by my colleague from North Vancouver, which has been very much inspired from his own very difficult, sad family experience and has been used in such a positive fashion to help others in the same predicament. I am very proud to support all of his efforts. We were all very moved today to hear the story that he shared, as well as other members' personal experiences.

His motion would move Canada toward a system where Canadians with rare disorders would receive the same standard of care as patients with more common disorders. As a breast cancer survivor for 16 years, if I had not had the drugs available to me at that time, I cannot imagine what would have happened to me. The same is true for many others. I can well understand all those who need to be part of our system. When we consider that other countries are doing so, it is vital that we move together. I am happy to see there is some consensus.

As a member of the health committee and part of the common drug review, it was very clear from the organizations and advocacy groups that this issue has not been adequately addressed. The time has come to do so now.

A telling example was brought to the committee's attention, and it was particularly disturbing. It revolved around Nexavar, a drug to treat kidney disorders. It was rejected by the CDR essentially because it was too effective. The interim data from clinical trials of Nexavar were producing stellar results and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said that patients in the control arm of the study should be allowed to enter the treatment arm. It was the obvious ethical choice.

Many patients in the control arm of the study, obviously enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to receive this new, groundbreaking drug, but because most U.S. patients had left the control arm, there was not enough data left to satisfy CDR requirements. The placebo data was determined to be statistically insufficient and the drug was rejected on these grounds. Clearly, the placebo data would not be forthcoming and access to Nexavar, available to those suffering in the U.S. and Europe, was severely hampered in Canada.

There is not much motivation in these kinds of cases for Canadian biotech companies at this time to simply duplicate a clinical trial that has already proven to be successful elsewhere. That is one of the other dilemmas.

Because data from trials conducted in other countries is not accepted by the CDR process presently, patients are often forced to wait years for clinical trials to conclude in Canada while patients in other countries, as I have said, have already had access to the drugs being tested. In Canada, patients with rare disorders are forced to wait for no logical reason and to their detriment, except for the rigid requirements presently, in this case, in the CDR process.

Drugs that are often covered by private drug plans to treat conditions such as gigantism, Fabry disease, Fabrazyme, MPS, Gaucher disease and kidney cancer have been rejected by the CDR and are not accessible to those with public drug plans.

Who is being denied treatment the most often? The sad reality is that in many cases it is Canadian children who have rare childhood disorders. In fact, it is those children and their families who are being denied access to treatment. Even in cases where drugs for rare disorders have been approved through Health Canada's progressive licensing framework, often CDR will stand in isolation and essentially reject the conclusions of Health Canada and numerous international studies.

Motion No. 426 asks the government to consider the establishment, and rightly so, of centres of reference for specific rare disorders that would be comprised of national and international experts who would develop the criteria for treating patients based on scientific evidence and patient impact. They would provide ongoing surveillance into the real world safety and effectiveness of these treatments on individual and group bases so that we could consider supporting internationally accepted standards for the conduct of clinical trials in rare disorders appropriate for the challenges inherent to very small patient populations.

By expanding the CDR and developing a separate process for the consideration of rare disorder drugs, we can even the playing field as so many other countries have already done, be it in the U.K., the U.S. The examples are everywhere. It is time for Canada to follow their lead and embrace the international framework model that has proven to be so successful.

Many countries, such as France and the U.K., and others in the EU have successful models of separate bodies that consider treatments for rare disorders. Canada must take a hard look at the cooperation that is happening in these countries as there is much it can learn from their experiences. The time has come, again with our collective resolve, to do so.

It was suggested to our committee that changing the CDR process to allow for the pooling of limited Canadian data rejected by the CDR with rare disorder patient groups outside Canada would likely set the stage for more approvals of treatments of rare disorders, which is what is necessary.

The testimony the health committee heard on this issue was compelling. When our final report on the issue was tabled, included in it was the recommendation, as referenced today by the government, that the government look at options. We are happy to see the government has accepted that recommendation favourably. Again, we will very much be looking to see this is implemented and moved forward in a very expeditious fashion. Often we hear there is interest by a government, but it does not always moved on it. In this case there is no other acceptable option but to move on it.

Clearly there is consensus, as I have mentioned, including the government and the health committee, that a new approach is required and that the one currently taken by the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health in approving drugs for rare disorders is not yet there.

When the government tabled its response, I was pleased it was received well. I very much look to see that this has everyone's total support and that we will see action in this area, which is so vital. It is predominantly affecting children and other Canadians.

I fully support this, and again commend my colleague for moving on and taking leadership forward. We want to see this happen not in a long period of time, but in the very near future so those suffering currently will feel they are part of our health system in every fashion and that they do not have to look elsewhere.

Treatment of Rare DisordersPrivate Members' Business

Noon

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

The hon. member for Cambridge has 10 minutes of which 4 minutes will be today.

Treatment of Rare DisordersPrivate Members' Business

Noon

Conservative

Gary Goodyear Conservative Cambridge, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to stand in the House today on behalf of my riding of Cambridge and North Dumfries and speak to this very important motion.

The government understands the seriousness of the issues faced by Canadians who suffer rare diseases. We have taken action on these issues for this vulnerable population of Canadians and will continue to do just that.

These disorders affect a very small number of people, which is the good news, sometimes fewer than 100 people in the entire country, making them difficult to diagnose and even harder to treat. The government recognizes that Canadians who suffer from rare diseases can face unique challenges, due in part to the limited information available to doctors, hence making it even more difficult to diagnose and leaving treatment options restricted.

Rare diseases means just that. They are rare. Very few people get them, but that truth makes it a very tricky thing to develop drugs for them. Appropriate testing is difficult and the potential market is very small. Research and development is often prohibitively expense for drug companies.

Perhaps it might be useful to briefly explain the system and how it works and the roles of the different participants.

The federal government is responsible for deciding what products can be sold on the Canadian market, based on sound and practical assessment of the drugs benefits and its risks. We first must do no harm. This is done through a review of the safety and efficacy data from clinical trials conducted on patients. In fact, therein lies one of the problems.

Traditional clinical trials use hundreds and in some cases thousands of patients in a study. Clearly this is not an option for analyzing treatment protocols for rare diseases. This means that by making regulatory decisions about drugs for rare diseases, it is just that much more difficult and that much more challenging.

However, after all that has been done, after all the trials and the research, the drug is approved for sale in Canada. Now each public drug plan, provincial, territorial and in some cases the federal drug plan, for example with first nations or veterans, must decide whether to pay for the drug treatment in their respective jurisdiction.

The high per patient treatment cost means that there will almost never be considered a cost effectiveness using traditional measures and traditional methodologies. It is challenging to know where to draw the line or whether we should even apply different standards if we were to do so, considering only the rarity of a condition.

Physicians must make difficult decisions on how to prescribe these drug therapies or even if they should prescribe them at all based on limited data. Patients must make the ultimate choice of whether to use them and, sadly, sometimes there are no other alternatives.

The good news is the government is taking steps forward on a system meant to improve the health of Canadians, including those with rare diseases. Our recent investment of $113 million in the food and consumer safety action plan is evidence of this progress. The action plan includes a comprehensive set of measures to improve the safety of products that we use, including prescriptions drugs for rare diseases.

Treatment of Rare DisordersPrivate Members' Business

Noon

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Royal Galipeau

The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

When Motion No. 426 returns for study by the House, there will be six minutes left for the hon. member for Cambridge.

The House resumed from March 14 consideration of the motion that Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Judges Act, be read the third time and passed.

Judges ActGovernment Orders

12:05 p.m.

NDP

Joe Comartin NDP Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-31. It is a very short bill. It is a government bill that will have the effect of increasing the number of judges at our superior court levels across the country, from 30 currently to 50.

We have roughly 900 judges at that level across the country. These particular appointments are in a special category and they are as a result of an agreement that the federal government made with the provinces a number of years ago, which allowed us to manoeuvre around what was a constitutional problem and allowed for these appointments to be made at the request of the provinces.

That is what has happened in this case. A number of provinces have come forward and made requests to increase the number of judges, with the current federal government recommending to Parliament, in the form of this legislation, that the number be increased from 30 to 50.

It is important to note that we are at third reading and that we have had committee hearings in the justice committee. This is the committee that is no longer functioning, but it was at the time this bill went to it. We did take some hearings on it. They were quite brief because, as I said, the issue is a very narrow one.

Before we get to what happened at committee, I want to put in context what has happened with the workload of our judiciary at the superior court level across the country. That workload has been increasing dramatically as a result of a number of factors.

First, we simply have a growth in population. The last time the number of judges was increased across the country was almost 25 years ago. Therefore, in that period of time, we have had a substantial increase in our population, resulting inevitably in an increase in the number of cases coming before the courts.

I want to make the point that this level of court is not the court that deals with most of our criminal cases. Roughly 95% of all criminal cases and charges in the country are dealt with at the provincial court level and by judges appointed by provinces. However, what does happen at this level and what has happened more and more often is the number of trials that run on for extended periods of time have increased dramatically.

We have seen this under regular charges and the more serious charges under the Criminal Code. However, where we have particularly seen it, has been in the area of drug charges. Oftentimes there is an element of organized crime involved and the trials go on with multiple accused for extended periods of time, literally in some cases, for more than a year, but often for three to six months. This is almost becoming the norm when there are multiple defendants in these areas because of the amount of evidence to be put forward by the prosecutor and then the response from the defence. The length of the trials has increased dramatically therefore putting a burden on our courts in that regard.

The area where the workload has gone up dramatically has been in family law. Without any doubt, I think any observer of our courts would accept this is the reality, that the biggest workload increase by our judges at this level of courts has been in the family law area. It takes the form in two ways: huge increase in the number of motions brought prior to trial, which most of our judges at the superior court level sit on and try these motions; and then the actual trials.

Again, in the family law area well over 90% of all matrimonial breakdowns that result in any kind of litigation never gets to trial, but a good deal of it does get dealt with at the motions level, and those numbers have gone up dramatically.

There were a series of articles in the Toronto area at the end of last year, early part of this year, showing the number of times cases at the motion level had to be adjourned simply because there were not enough judges available to hear them. This makes it much more expensive for the claimants in those cases, whether they are the plaintiffs or the defendants. Lawyers attend, wait for their turn on the motions and then, at the end of the day, time runs out and they have to come back another day. They end up charging their clients for their time in court even though they were not able to argue the case.

This happens repeatedly. I certainly know in my home community of Windsor that it is happening. I know it is happening in Toronto because of those articles. It is my understanding it is happening across the country in greater numbers.

Because of the costs, we find more claimants who end up in front of the courts at the trial stage unrepresented. This puts an additional heavy burden on our judiciary to ensure the trial is conducted properly and fairly for both sides. Even when one side is not represented by counsel, it requires additional time for the judge to ensure there is a fair trial, thereby lengthening the trial. Therefore, that has increased the workload and the time allocated.

We can look as well in the civil litigation area around personal injuries files. I can remember when I first started to practise a long time ago, those trials would take on average two to three days. Now, often two to three weeks is pretty well the average, and it is not usual for them to take over a month's time. Again, for most of that period of time, the number of judges in Canada has not been increased at all.

Having set that context, I want move to what happened at the committee. I had expressed in my speech at second reading, as did other members of the House, concern as to whether the increase in the number of judges, from 30 to 50, would be adequate to meet the growth in demand for services by our judiciary.

I want to then put in context and make it clear what came out of the committee, and I think a number of us knew in any event. The way the system works is the additional judges who will be appointed will be paid out of funds from the federal level of government. However, all the services that go with the additional judicial appointments are paid out of provincial funds, and that is all the staff. For those people who have not been in court very often, that is a very significant number of people. There are court reporters. There are usually one or two people providing security. On average, at this level of court, between six and ten people have to be there for that courtroom to function. In addition, there is the capital outlay for the building space so there are sufficient courtrooms available for the judiciary to perform their functions.

Therefore, the tab, if I can use that colloquialism, at the provincial level is substantially higher than the wages of the judicial person on a ratio of about 3:1 people, on average, across the country.

During the course of the committee hearings, there was a strong feeling that additional judges were needed, and we heard this from the bar associations, the law societies, the judicial councils, the senior judges who provide the administration for our courts. However, and I do not want to overplay this evidence, it was quite clear, from what we heard from the justice minister, that there would have been, if it had been left up to the judicial councils, the bar associations and the law societies, a significantly greater number of judges, on top of the 20 judges, being sought by the provinces. However, because the provinces were not in a financial position to cover those added expenses, this was in effect to what they agreed.

Even the wealthier provinces like Ontario were not prepared to seek additional judicial appointments at this time because of the costs that were attended thereto.

With regard to the bill, I have to think that sometime in the next few years we will again be faced with another request from the provincial level to make additional appointments. I believe this simply will not be sufficient.

I want to make one final point that came out in the course of our debate around the bill. Of the 20 judges, 6 judges' time will be allocated to the land claims tribunal. All of that other work that needs to be done, whether it is in the criminal law area, the family law area, the area of personal injury or other general civil litigation, we are only getting the time of 14 additional judges, not 20.

We also heard a concern from a number of the first nations communities as to whether the six judges appointed to the tribunal on a periodic basis would be sufficient, in addition to the ones who were already allocated. We may, in the next few years, be hearing from the first nations community, which is dealing with a huge number of land claim applications, that it may require additional judicial appointment time in order to get through a huge backlog in that area.

I want to make the point that all political parties and all sectors of the community are adamant that we deal fairly but in an expeditious way with those claims. However, we will not be able to do that without having a sufficient number of judges. I expect that at some point in the next few years there will be a request for additional judges to cover this off and another government will be back asking for additional appointments.

Although we have grave concerns about the adequacy, there is no doubt that we need at least these 20 judges and probably many more. The NDP will be supporting the legislation on third reading but with the caution that at some point in the near future we will probably be back before the House asking for additional judges.

Judges ActGovernment Orders

12:15 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for his always wise input to brief but important legislation.

I took the opportunity to look at the government's representations with regard to Bill C-31 before it went to committee. It laid out very clearly many of the facts of which the member had advised the House in his speech, particularly about the concentration of the family issues in Ontario and the Atlantic provinces, as well as the pressures in the aboriginal communities.

One of the things I do not hear is that the case was made that these were existing and projected demands on the judicial system.

Second reading of Bill C-31 started on January 28, two years after the government took office. It makes me wonder where the accountability is of appointing sufficient judges to ensure we do not run into a situation where someone could say that justice delayed is justice denied. From a lay perspective, if we cannot have our courts operating in an efficient fashion there will be consequential implications to that.

I do recall what we went through in the first session when a myriad of bills were thrown at the justice committee. I think there were 10 or 12 bills at one point in time. The government was saying that somebody was delaying these things but Bill C-31 was not among them.

When we came back in the second session, rather than reintroduce most of those bills at the same point in the legislative process, many of them were rolled into an omnibus bill, which meant that we had to restart most of the work on a lot of these bill that already had been done.

Accountability is the concern I want to raise with the member. This is a very straightforward priority. The justice department was clearly aware of it and it briefed the government and the minister at the outset. However, the government did not get the job done.

I wonder if the member could help us understand why it is that we are faced with a significant and tragic backlog at a time when the government had the opportunity to address it very quickly in a straightforward bill.

Judges ActGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.

NDP

Joe Comartin NDP Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

Mr. Speaker, there were two points to which I want to respond.

First, there is no doubt in my mind, from watching the government function, both in the public safety arena and in the justice arena, that it is not paying significant attention to the consequences of some of the criminal laws and amendments that are being passed as it affects the provincial level of government. We have seen that with some of the criminal law bills, one of which, I am proud to say, we were able to fix to such a degree that it would not have a major economic consequence on the provinces, which would have been the result had the bill gone through as first drafted by the government.

However, when both those ministers were in front of the justice committee and when I was sitting on the public safety committee, there is no doubt that the government does not do an analysis of the consequences of its legislation, whether it is on the judiciary, the police services or the prosecutors. It is not doing that analysis and it is being dumped over onto the provinces.

Second, when the provinces come back to say that they have these needs, they are not given any kind of affirmative response from the government in saying that it will figure out some way, in the transfer of payments or in some other fashion, to provide them with the necessary resources. We are seeing that with regards to not getting enough police officers on the street, not getting enough prosecutors into our court and, as we are seeing now in this bill, not getting enough judges into our courts.

Judges ActGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is helpful to know the two areas. It is easy to make laws at the federal level but when they need to be enforced and applied at the provincial and territorial levels and they do not have the resources to enforce them, then we have a situation where the laws are ineffective. In fact, there may be some unintended consequences.

The question I want to ask the hon. member has to do with a concern I have with regard to the independence of the judiciary. This has come up from time to time. We now have a situation where the bill would provide additional salaries for up to 20 more judges. However, there has been some evidence of partisan appointments. Even the Supreme Court justice had expressed some concern about claims matters at the tribunal.

I would ask the hon. member for his opinion. How do parliamentarians approach this? When we make the argument in this place about the need that we are fulfilling on behalf of Canadians in the judiciary, the police, et cetera, how do we do it in a way that is open, transparent and does not involve the appointment of people who have some connection or political involvement that may undermine the independence of the judiciary?

Judges ActGovernment Orders

12:20 p.m.

NDP

Joe Comartin NDP Windsor—Tecumseh, ON

Mr. Speaker, from the comments made to me by the Law Society's Bar Association and the legal profession generally, there is no doubt that since the Conservatives took power the judiciary has a great deal of concern over their drive to ideologically frame the courts.

I have worked, as have a number of other members, on various committees that have been attempting to review appointments. I was involved in some of the Supreme Court of Canada appointments and came forward with suggestions on how the appointment system should be changed to not only make it as accountable and transparent as possible, but to guarantee that there will not be a partisan nature to those appointments in terms of absolute party politics. The criteria should always be the most qualified person to fill the opening.

We continue to have that problem. We saw the government change the committees that screen the appointments at the provincial level, which had nothing to do with merit. I think the number of committees was up to 15 across the country. The government changed the composition of that, which was clearly an attempt to ideologically imprint a Conservative bent on the appointment.

I do not think it will work. I have much more respect for our police officers who were added. I do not think they will fall into that trap set by the government. We badly need a process that is much more transparent and much clearer, where the only criteria for our judicial appointments has nothing to do with what political party one belongs to or the political spectrum one is on. It must be the absolute best candidate for that position available at the time.

A lot of work has been done on this internationally. I have sat on committees where we have reviewed all of that, but the government, since it has been in power, has not done anything about changing the appointment process, except that one change to the current committees, which was clearly to imprint a right wing ideology on our judges.

Judges ActGovernment Orders

12:25 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in the debate on Bill C-31. Members will know that this bill is simply a one paragraph bill to amend the Judges Act.

Yet after reading the debates at second reading and hearing about the discussions at justice committee, as well as hearing the member who just spoke, it is clear that the bill would have some fundamental implications for all Canadians with regard to providing the kinds of services we require in our judicial system at both the federal and provincial levels.

As well, there was some discussion about the federal government making new laws that have to be in force at the provincial and territorial levels, but we have not taken into account the resources necessary for the provinces and territories to be able to enforce those laws. Passing laws that cannot be properly enforced across the country is a bit of a nil process. We have heard this time and time again.

I want to reflect on some of the comments made by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice when this bill was first debated on January 28, about two years after the government took office.

It would be a tough sell to convince Canadians of this significant, emerging and terrible situation that we have with not enough judges to hear the various cases in various jurisdictions. If this is such a priority, what happened during the last two years?

Members will recall that the member for Windsor—Tecumseh referred to the activity within the justice committee. Members also may recall that during the first session of this Parliament there were 10 or 12 bills, all pretty well straightforward, all pretty well involving many of the same witnesses, and yet those bills were not introduced as is normally the case. Normally where there is a broad range or potpourri of items to amend the Criminal Code, they all would be included in an omnibus bill which we would then be able to deal with in a more productive fashion. Many of those bills were very straightforward and, quite frankly, were not contested by anybody in this place.

However, this process dragged on for a bit. As a matter of fact, instead of using an omnibus bill, the government introduced each bill one at a time. It was done that way for political purposes. The government was trying to paint a picture. It was trying to say that because somebody else had done a bad job many changes needed to be made to the Criminal Code. The Conservatives said they were going to be tough on crime. All that really did was delay the processing of important legislation.

The justice committee is one of the busiest committees, if not the busiest, and cannot deal with 10 bills all at once. It has to deal with them one at a time. The committee has to decide the priorities. If the committee streams to them sequentially, it is very difficult to do anything other than the next one coming at it.

The House also may recall that when the parliamentary session came to an end a number of those bills were at various stages. I think one or two were already in the Senate. After the throne speech, when the second session started, the government reinstated some of those bills at the same point they were at when the House was prorogued, but most of them were then put into an omnibus bill and we had to start right at the very beginning again.

Again, I suggest that this had to do more with trying to get political points for reintroducing or repackaging legislation that had already been in the House for over a year, simply for the government to be able to say, “Look at how busy we are on justice issues and there are a lot of things we have to change”. All that it really did was delay the passage of important legislation and amendments to the Criminal Code.

When I saw the timeline on Bill C-31 and read the speech of the parliamentary secretary from January 28, it laid out a case that clearly there was a problem, that there were not enough judges to handle the cases in Ontario and Atlantic Canada, particularly in family law cases, and in the north, aboriginal land claims items were being delayed.

One starts asking oneself questions if a backlog has been built up, if there are projections of population increases that are going to require certain things, and if more and more people have less and less money to be able to defend themselves and hire lawyers. People are going to court without being represented by counsel, which means that suddenly judges have longer trials. It was well laid out by the member for Windsor—Tecumseh.

Is it not a priority? If it was a priority and if it is a priority today, and I think it is, why was it not introduced earlier in Parliament? We are talking about two years after a government takes office. The justice department clearly is aware of it, because it is the continuity. Politicians come and go, but the people in the various departments are the continuity and they know what the priorities are.

Why is this so? The member for Windsor—Tecumseh had some thoughts about it, and it had to do with basically setting up some things for appointments of judges. This is another area of concern. I do not think there is a party that is going to oppose this bill with regard to providing the legislation that is necessary to amend the Judges Act to pay salaries for up to 20 additional judges.

There are two issues that remain. First, how are we going to prevent the same circumstances from occurring in the future? The country is growing. The litigious nature of our population is increasing. The courts are backlogged. This is going to continue. What is the plan to make sure that we do not find ourselves in the same situation of the courts not being able to respond, where instead of the average case taking three to six months, it is taking a year? Suddenly that involves a lot more time, a lot more money, a lot more delay and a lot less justice. There has to be a commitment.

Second, the other point raised by both the parliamentary secretary and the previous speaker in questioning was with regard to the independence of the judiciary. The previous speaker was very diplomatic in suggesting that the questioning of judicial independence was a cloak for ideological preferences for people. However, there is some evidence that what has happened already has in fact shown that there can be some partisan influence, which I do not think is very appropriate. As has been stated, it causes some concern to the Law Society, the Bar Association and those who have a stake in making sure the judicial system operates efficiently and effectively.

There have been such cases. For instance, the Prime Minister's former campaign manager in New Brunswick was appointed as a judge, a former president of the Conservative Party in Quebec was appointed as a judge, and the party's former chief money raiser in Alberta was appointed as a judge. I do not know what signal that gives to people, but I am not sure that it is a good signal to be giving to Canadians.

With regard to ideological side, even the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada has had reason to be critical of the government for its attacks on judicial independence. We have seen a number of examples of that as well.

Thus, the bill may be only a paragraph long, but it is a proxy for looking at the bigger picture with regard to the condition the courts are in, why they are in that shape, and why the government has not been accountable and responsible for making sure that this situation was not exacerbated. Delaying the appointment of qualified, properly recruited judges for our various levels of the courts is an ongoing and very important process, and it was ignored. I think that speaks volumes.

As has been indicated, the bill amends one paragraph, paragraph 24(3)(b), of the Judges Act. It authorizes salaries to be paid for up to an additional 20 new judges in provincial and territorial superior trial courts.

I found it interesting to hear about the demographics and the needs of Ontario and Atlantic Canada, particularly in the family court side, and the fact that 90% of these cases never do get to trial. In fact, now we have this other operation, where trials are pending and suddenly go to motions, and the judges are more engaged now in this.

The whole nature of the operation of the judicial system is starting to morph itself into something a little different than Canadians might realize. It is taking our judges a lot longer to do cases simply because they are more complex. As was laid out in debate, we have a lot of cases that have more serious problems to deal with, such as issues of drugs, organized crime or gang violence, and so on.

As this changes, Canadians need to have the assurance from the government that when we deal with legislation like this there is in fact an accountability as to the progress being made. Have we taken sufficient steps to make sure that not only can these backlogs be dealt with but so can the projected growth? Have we ensured that we have a mechanism and a plan in place so the courts continue to be responsive to the needs of our judicial system?

The other important part has to do with some of the other legislation and the consequences of passing federal legislation when the responsibility for the enforcement is at the provincial level. If we do not have the resources at the policing levels to enforce the laws that the federal government passes, there really is a question that comes up. How effective are our laws if they cannot be enforced? What about plea bargains and the number of cases that are just not heard in time so charges are dropped and justice is not seen to be done?

These are the kinds of questions that lay people ask. The lawyers can deal with the details and some of the more profession-specific issues, but I wanted to speak on this simply from the standpoint of a lay Canadian. In terms of the Canadian justice system, the operation of the courts, my observations, what I hear from debate and what I hear from the bar associations or the legal community itself, is that there are some concerns. There is a lack of confidence in the ability of the federal government to be responsive to the needs of Canadians and to make sure that the judicial system is operating efficiently.

Those are significant indictments of our federal system: to make laws but not have the resources to follow them. It is easy to do laws, but where is that partnership in terms of making sure that we have the enforcement side of the equation taken care of?

This is where it would be good to see the Government of Canada coming to this better arrangement with the provinces and the territories to ensure that those resources are going to be there. There has to be a proper analysis of the implications of our federal legislation.

From time to time there is gender analysis that is required in certain cases, but in this particular case, what we are talking about is to demonstrate that if we do this, here are the consequences, to say we understand what the consequences are going to be. We understand where the financial burden is going to be and we understand there is a plan to make it happen.

Parliamentarians ought to know whether there is a plan, whether there is that certitude that if we were to pass a law, that it would really happen, that it would be enforced, it would do the right things, it would deal with backlogs, and would ensure that the increasing demands on our judicial system would be met in a timely manner.

Those things have not happened. Parliamentarians have not been given those assurances by the government. We have just simply been told there is a backlog and so we have to have 20 more judges, but that is only a small part of it. I just cannot imagine why we cannot have a responsible government being open and transparent with Parliament and with Canadians, because that is who we represent, to say we have done the work, we know what has happened.

Those were the two concerns I wanted to raise today. First, that I did not see the analysis of the implications of passing this legislation to the consequences of those who must enforce the legislation. The second one has to do with the plan to ensure that, at the federal level, we continue to monitor this and that the priorities are there. It was clear to me, by reading the speeches and from the committee work, that the priority is clear and uncontested, and this bill will be supported by all parties.

However, the problem is it took two years before a one paragraph bill came before this place. That is unacceptable to Canadians. It is unacceptable to Parliament. I ask the government to ensure that these kinds of priorities are not simply put off to the side only from the standpoint that they are not as spicy and interesting to the public for partisan purposes. The real implications are that the courts are backlogged; the courts are jammed. They are affecting people's lives and delaying justice, and that means that justice is denied.

Judges ActGovernment Orders

12:45 p.m.

Bloc

Carole Freeman Bloc Châteauguay—Saint-Constant, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to rise today to speak to the debate on Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Judges Act, at third reading.

Bill C-31, if passed as is, would make it possible to appoint more judges to the provincial superior courts. This would mean 20 judges more than the current limit.

The purpose of increasing the number of judges is to improve the flexibility of the legal system so that superior courts can handle the many cases for which they are responsible, as quickly and efficiently as possible. Moreover, it would allow judges from superior courts to be assigned to the new specific claims tribunal, which was created by the Specific Claims Tribunal Act.

Bill C-31 is necessary because the number of judges provided for under the Judges Act has not changed for years. Accordingly, the act does not take into account the population increase and the resulting new social realities, including divorce, and the increasing complexity of some cases. These factors have caused delays in the legal system that penalize citizens.

This bill is a necessary update to accelerate and improve provincial legal systems. It makes sense, which is why this bill was recommended without amendment by the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.

That being said, beyond good intentions, it is important to point out that Bill C-31 will never successfully cover up two major problems concerning justice that are of grave concern to me, that is, the judicial appointment process and the elimination of the court challenges program. Any citizen who cares about having an impartial, efficient judicial system deserves to know about this government's questionable intentions on these two issues.

Regarding my first concern, I would like to emphasize the subjective nature of the judicial appointment process. I have talked about it on several occasions during past speeches. It is such a major problem that it could compromise the desired effects of Bill C-31. I would remind the House that, since being elected, this government has always said it would rather get tough on crime than prevent it. Bill C-31 is nothing more than a slight blip in an ideology that advocates penalizing and imprisoning as many people as possible as the only way to reduce crime.

First of all, I will provide some context by saying that judges are appointed by the government from a list made by a judicial advisory committee whose members voted for the candidate they deem best qualified.

Before the changes made by the Conservatives, the advisory committees had seven members. Out of seven evaluators, four members were politically independent, in other words, there was a representative from the Canadian Bar Association, another from the bar of the province concerned, a representative of the provincial department and, finally, someone to represent the judges. The three other members, appointed by the federal Department of Justice, came from the public. These individuals frequently subscribed to the ideas of the government of the day.

It is important to realize that, as it turned out, the federal government was in the minority on that committee and therefore could not impose a candidate. Nevertheless, the Conservative government was not happy about this situation because it would have had a hard time passing its political “law and order” agenda for justice. So without consulting the legal community, this government unilaterally decided to change the makeup of the advisory committees in the following manner.

First, in addition to the three members of the public, it decided to appoint a police officer, thereby ensuring that four members would be government supporters. Then the judges' representative was denied the right to vote except to break a tie. This means that the government has a majority on these committees and is able to impose its repressive law and order ideology with ease. I believe this is blatant disregard for the entire legal community and clearly shows a shocking lack of faith in the judicial system and the recognized professionalism of judges.

I would like to draw to my distinguished colleagues' attention to the results of The Globe and Mail 's investigation into the matter, published on February 12, 2007, which showed that, apart from the police officers, no fewer than 16 of the 33 individuals appointed to 12 advisory committees were connected in some way to the Conservative Party. This is not a mistake; we are talking about half the candidates. Coincidence? Unlikely. The newspaper revealed a number of cases where the connection was extremely clear.

The members of the Bloc have been saying for a long time that we can hardly wait for the day when partisanship no longer plays a role in judicial appointments and independent committees will choose the most competent judges.

As for my second concern, the government used the excuse of budget cuts to government operations—even though they had a $10 billion surplus—to eliminate the court challenges program, which was cherished by minorities that wished to defend their fundamental rights. That program was created to put individuals and citizens' groups on a level playing field when going to court against a government they felt was is interfering with one or several of their constitutional rights.

When citizens must take the government to court to seek justice, the latter has a slew of lawyers at its service, while ordinary citizens must use their own savings to defend themselves. Since court costs are huge, these people could rely on the court challenges program to balance things out.

With this completely unjustifiable budget cut, the government is showing us, yet again, that its vision on legal matters is narrow and shortsighted and has nothing to do with the word “efficiency”. One thing is certain: the abolition of the court challenges program violates at least five laws or provisions of the Constitution. Before making such a huge decision, the federal government should have consulted with the interested parties, the minorities affected.

But, as is the case with the judicial appointment process, the Conservative government did not consult anyone before shamefully eliminating a program that had proven effective, all to save a mere $5.6 million out of an annual budget of $283 billion. Many organizations have harshly criticized this cut, and rightfully so.

It is clear that the court challenges program was abolished for purely ideological reasons. I think that the Conservatives do not care one bit about minority rights. I feel strongly about this because I am a staunch defender of human rights, as shown by my Bill C-384, which will soon be debated in this House.

It seems as though the Conservatives are discomfited by minority groups such as disabled persons and gays, and by immigrants' rights organizations, women's rights organizations, and all organizations that defend minority groups.

I stated that the court challenges program has proven its effectiveness not only by defending minority rights, but also in the context of common law, by providing jurisprudence. I will provide a recent example of its effectiveness so that everyone will understand how important this program is.

On April 11, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Marie-Claire Paulin and the Société des Acadiens et Acadiennes du Nouveau-Brunswick, stating that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police must offer its services in both official languages across the entire province of New Brunswick. The RCMP, as a federal institution, was only required to provide services in the minority language in areas where numbers warrant. In her comments about her lawsuit, which has taken eight years, Mrs. Paulin clearly stated that she would not have been able to take her case all the way to the Supreme Court without the help of the court challenges program.

This is the program that the Conservatives have eliminated. Without this opportunity, this woman would have had to have been content with unilingual English service in her own province. This is the sad vision being offered to us today, which greatly concerns me. But the people can always rely on the vigilance and efforts of the Bloc Québécois to make the government understand that this situation is wrong and that they should reverse their decision.

I would like to conclude by saying that if one puts the aforementioned concerns into perspective—the political machinations involved in appointing judges and the elimination of a program as important to minorities as the court challenges program—one cannot help but question this government's real intentions when it comes to justice.

Exactly how will Bill C-31 be able to meet the demand when the intent is to punish rather than prevent? On the one hand, we can expect the legal system to become overburdened very quickly. On the other hand, having more judges will not make a difference if citizens do not have the means to exercise their rights. In my opinion, Bill C-31 is nothing but a drop of good intention and effort in an ocean of ill-conceived punitive approaches.

Nevertheless, the Bloc Québécois will support Bill C-31 so that it can go through the legislative process. All the same, the problem remains: partisanship will always play a major role in the selection of judges regardless of the total number of judges on a superior court.

The Bloc Québécois will always continue the fight to eliminate partisan appointments to the bench. It will do all it can to help the people get truly independent committees whose judge appointment processes ensure that the most competent people are chosen. The Bloc Québécois has also always been extremely supportive of the court challenges program. The government's lack of sensitivity on this issue is inconceivable, as is the fact that it is so out of touch with the needs of our community.

We will do everything in our power to ensure that the government understands that when it comes to justice, it is headed the wrong way. It is even contradicting Quebec's approach, which has often put the lie to the Conservatives' ideological shortcuts and preconceived notions.

We will always be there for Quebec.

Judges ActGovernment Orders

12:55 p.m.

Liberal

John Maloney Liberal Welland, ON

Mr. Speaker, I stand today to address the act to amend our Judges Act, proposed by the hon. Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.

From the outset, I would certainly put on the record that our party supports efforts to appoint additional judges to deal with the increasing backlog in our superior court system. As we have heard many times today, justice delayed is justice denied, and we see examples of this all too frequently.

When there is a backlog, judges' schedules are overcrowded and they also suffer from the stress of the overcrowding, as do their staffs. It is not only the litigants to the process who are concerned and are impacted, but the judges themselves, and all that that means. Sometimes certain judges may become ill as a result, and that only compounds the necessity of increasing the number of appointments.

This bill, however, does nothing to address our party's concerns about the Conservative government's attack on judicial independence. This is so important and at the same time, the Conservative government, I respectfully suggest, has stacked the Judicial Advisory Committee to ensure that the justice minister's chosen representatives have a majority voice on every provincial judiciary advisory board.

This partisan tone certainly will not fare well in the future and I think we need independent individuals who are not swayed by a certain political ideology in order to improve and preserve the independence of our judiciary.

Actually, this is the same government that went out of its way to make a large number of patronage appointments to Canada's judiciary, including the Prime Minister's own former campaign manager in New Brunswick, the former president of the Conservative Party in Quebec, and the party's former chief money-raiser in Alberta.

There was much to-do in the previous Parliament about partisanship and when the members opposite were in opposition, they were vehement in their opposition with such suggestions of partisanship. What happens when they get in the government? They ignore that.

I would also point out that even the chief justices of the Supreme Court, like Beverley McLachlin, have also had a reason to criticize the government for its attacks on judicial independence.

The Conservative government claims that this legislation is being introduced to help alleviate the backlog in the provincial superior court system and to help provide justices to the independent tribunals which are being set up to adjudicate first nations specific land claims. Certainly, this has not been addressed for a considerable period of time, and we need additional judges to deal with some of these land claims that have existed for too long. It is important to move forward with additional judges to help get these out of the way.

The bill amends paragraph 24(3)(b) of the Judges Act to create the authority to appoint 20 new judges to the provincial and territorial superior trial courts. In particular, the superior courts in Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Nunavut are experiencing serious and growing backlogs and delays. Nunavut, in particular, faces severe challenges in providing access to justice for its aboriginal communities. Certainly, we look forward to more aboriginal judges too in our territories.

The remaining provinces are experiencing significant strains, particularly in the family court branches of the courts, as a result of population growth. As of January of this year, there were currently 31 judicial vacancies that the Minister of Justice is responsible for filling, so if we add that 31 with the additional 20, we still have a significant backlog in judicial vacancies. There are also 10 vacancies in the provincial Court of Appeal and the provincial Supreme Court.

The specific claims tribunal, which I mentioned briefly, will have the authority to make binding decisions where specific claims brought forward by first nations are rejected for negotiation, or where negotiations failed. Based on the federal government's analysis of the specific claims workload, it has been estimated that the new tribunal will require the equivalent of six full time judges to manage approximately 40 claims per year. These claims are dispersed across the country, some in my area of Ontario, with the greatest number arising in British Columbia, and some of the most complex cases originate in Ontario and Quebec.

It is anticipated that six new judges will be appointed to the superior court of these provinces in proportion to their respective share of the specific claims caseload. It is intended that this infusion of new judicial resources will allow a number of the superior courts to free up their experienced judges, so that they may be appointed to a specific claims tribunal roster.

The roster will consist of up to 18 judges who will be appointed as tribunal members by the governor in council on the recommendation of the Minister of Justice. These judges would be assigned, likely on a part-time basis to specific matters by the tribunal chairs in consultation with the chief justice of the affected court.

To support these additional requests for judges, the provincial and territorial courts have provided the federal government with detailed proposals containing statistical data and information on relevant geographical and cultural factors that impact judicial resource needs.

They have made their case and it is time to proceed with this legislation with all due dispatch. As I indicated, the government and courts of the jurisdictions provided statistical data and information with respect to the average sitting hours or days per judge, evidence of trends in case volumes, backlogs and delays, and information on relevant geographical and cultural factors that impact judicial resource needs.

There is a perception that perhaps the judiciary is a position that people would aspire to because of perhaps an easy workload. I suggest this is very wrong. Our judiciary is very diligent and it works very hard, has long hours and certainly is most deserving of the compensation it receives.

There is currently no authority under the Judges Act to appoint new judges to any of the provincial superior trial courts and this amendment would provide the government with that flexibility, to respond to objectively substantiated requests for new provincial superior trial court judges at present. It would also address the new demands of the specific claims tribunal.

I suppose my only complaint is that we should have moved forward on these some time ago, months ago, perhaps as soon as the new government took office. In the previous Parliament similar legislation was before the House and when the House fell of course, because of the intervening election call, the legislation died. It could have been immediately introduced and it could have in fact been law today.

We have been well aware of the backlog and the government should certainly have moved forward much sooner to respond to it. The delay has not only exacerbated the situation of backlogs, but also it has exacerbated the conflicting situations of the trials and the litigants who are in the system waiting for their day in court.

In moving forward with the appointments, I urge the government to be aware of the need for francophone judges who are fluently bilingual. This would be especially important in my region of Niagara, in Ontario and certainly in my constituency of Welland.

The appointments process will no doubt come under scrutiny and perhaps the partisan flavour of appointments may become a concern once again. In the previous Parliament, and at the urging of the members opposite who were then in opposition, the appointments process was certainly reviewed and alternative suggestions were made. In fact, there was a review of the proposed applicants. This was done to advance the idea that capable, qualified applicants be considered for these positions.

Heretofore, the vast majority of our judicial appointments have been excellent with men and women, I would say, of the highest quality. In fact, Canada is known throughout the world for the quality and expertise of its judiciary and we hope this phenomenon, this policy and practice will continue.

I did question the inclusion of police officers in the evaluation of applicants when the Conservatives introduced some new changes. It certainly feeds into their law and order agenda, but it takes away from the independence and impartiality of the selection board. I would encourage my friends opposite to revisit that situation. Certainly, judicial appointments should be independent of any type of influence and made objectively of the highest quality individuals.

Soon we will also have to deal with the question of compensation for our judges. I respect it is just as important that they be well compensated and earn good salaries for the very serious work they do, the long hours they put in and the importance of making impartial judgments. It is a difficult task and they should be compensated for the hours that they put in.

That is about the end of my comments on the Judges Act. I would hope that we move forward on this legislation and pass it. It is important and necessary, and it is needed now. I would hope that there would be all party support for this; I would see no reason why there would not be. I certainly will be standing in favour of this bill.

Judges ActGovernment Orders

1:05 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

Mr. Speaker, I too am pleased to see Bill C-31 move forward. I listened to my colleague's comments on the various issues of concern that he has. I have to ask why he thinks it has taken so long to deal with an issue of such importance as ensuring we have sufficient judges across the land to deal with the variety of issues that are currently out there. Is there any particular reason he thinks that this has taken a while for this to come forward?

Judges ActGovernment Orders

1:05 p.m.

Liberal

John Maloney Liberal Welland, ON

Mr. Speaker, I think the answer lies in the agenda of the justice minister as to which legislation he wanted to bring forward. This would have been very simple to reintroduce and get through the House. As I indicated in my address, this bill could be law today and we could be addressing the backlog. This has not happened and it is disappointing. What can I say? We are here now. It is disappointing that we did not do this two years ago, but it could now move forward quickly and become law.

Judges ActGovernment Orders

1:10 p.m.

Liberal

Judy Sgro Liberal York West, ON

Mr. Speaker, there are 31 judicial vacancies to be filled. British Columbia currently has the highest number of vacancies, with 10 vacancies between the provincial Court of Appeal and the provincial Supreme Court. We are only dealing with 20 vacancies.

Does the member have any comments as to why he thinks the government has decided to deal with only 20 vacancies rather than the 31, given the fact that it seems to take quite a long time to get these bills prepared and forwarded and given, we also understand, the amount of legislation the justice minister has been responsible for?

As the member said, there are only so many things that can be dealt with at a particular time, but there are 31 vacancies. Does he have any suggestion as to why we are not dealing with 31 vacancies rather than the 20 vacancies that are currently part of the bill?