Mr. Speaker, it is not difficult to imagine how pleased I am to speak to Bill C-11. I thank my party whip's office for providing me with this wonderful opportunity.
This bill may seem technical on the surface. But when we examine it a little more closely, we see that it is a technical bill through and through.
Nevertheless, in spite of its technical nature, this bill is important because it deals with pathogens, those micro-organisms that can carry infection and disease, that can cause devastation and that can transmit viruses and sources of infection. This bill is about pathogens, toxins, laboratories and research. It is also about our desire to ensure that research facilities are safe and secure without adversely affecting research activities carried out throughout Canada.
When it comes to health—my colleagues know this—we can always question if this is a federal jurisdiction. I would like to remind members that when the 33 Fathers of Confederation met, in what was called a constituent assembly, they divided the powers.
Naturally when we examine the facts, we know very well that when we ask which authority has the constitutional power—known as a head of jurisdiction in constitutional law—to intervene in a particular area, we must read sections 91 and 92. We note that health may well be an area of greater concern to the provinces because it deals with providing care to the population and it concerns the operation of health establishments.
In all modern societies, many resources are allocated to the operating budget of the various departments because health is a concern of all citizens. I am pleased to remind members that, from 1995 to 1997, the government refused to make investments in health. There were campaigns throughout Canada and a federal-provincial conference including all health ministers of all political stripes. The Bloc Québécois took out ads in the papers calling on the federal government to assume its responsibilities and to make significant investments through its health transfers. The Bloc was obviously speaking on behalf of the National Assembly of Quebec.
I am not trying to suggest that the federal government has no responsibility for health. For example, we know that the federal government has fiduciary responsibility for aboriginal people. In addition, if I am not mistaken, more than half the federal health department's programming has to do with aboriginal people. The federal government obviously has a role to play in patents, and that responsibility is shared by the Department of Health and the Department of Industry.
I have wondered about the whole issue of patents. Are they in consumers' interests? How do we strike a balance? There needs to be a public policy of investment to promote research. Ten years can easily go by from the time a molecule is isolated to the time a drug is available to consumers. That is an investment cycle involving several million dollars. There needs to be a balance between consumers' interests and policies that promote research, because there are major investments involved.
The federal government has a role to play with regard to aboriginal people, patents and epidemics. Perhaps we need to look at this bill in that light.
This bill says that guidelines exist for pathogens that may be viruses or major sources of infection. The idea is to create a stricter system of regulations for pathogens and toxins.
I read in the bill we received and the research notes prepared by my party that there are thousands of labs in Canada that may not fully comply with policies that are not as strict as what is proposed in the bill.
From now on, we will need a licence or permit to conduct what are being called controlled activities. People in labs will need a licence to possess, handle, use, produce, store, authorize access to, transfer, import, export, release, abandon or dispose of human pathogens or toxins.
We could ask if such a system is necessary. I believe that my colleague, the member for Verchères—Les Patriotes, mentioned that the Bloc Québécois is not opposed to the bill, but we would like to know a bit more about the repercussions. For example, what will this mean for the research institutions? What will this mean for the laboratories?
One of the great advances for humanity in recent years is that we do not simply talk about old age anymore, we now talk about very old age. As a human society, if we are prudent, if we do not drink too much, if we do not smoke, if we do a bit of physical activity, if we go to the gym regularly and if we pay attention to what we call health determinants, chances are good that we will live to be 100 or more. That is what we mean by very old age. We have met centenarians in our ridings. I could ask my colleagues how many of them have, in their activities as a member, met people older than 95 or 100. There are more and more of them. In Canada, it is said that there are more than 100,000 centenarians. I have no doubt, Mr. Speaker, when I look at you and see how healthy you are, that you will be a centenarian yourself, and I wish that for you.
We live in a society in which there are more and more centenarians, in which people are living much longer and in better health, and this is thanks to research. It means we are able to control certain diseases that used to be crippling, and not all that long ago. Remember, just a few years or a few decades ago, mononucleosis was a fatal disease. Today, there are some differences, depending on the strain in question, but people do not die from mononucleosis. It has been called the kissing disease. Of course, I do not wish to get too autobiographical about it.
That said, I think my point is clear. More and more of our fellow citizens are living longer and longer thanks to research, and this research may require the use of pathogens that must obviously be isolated in conditions where this is no contamination, understandably. As an aside—and I am sure you know this, Mr. Speaker—I have 16 years of service in this House and I have had various responsibilities within the Bloc Québécois caucus. My first role was as our research and development critic.
I recall Lucien Bouchard, a great leader whom I respect and regard very highly, inviting me to a meeting in his office. I had been elected in October 1993. At the time, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had recalled the House for January. We did not sit in November and December because Prime Minister Chrétien had to attend various international meetings with NATO.
When Mr. Bouchard appointed his shadow cabinet, he gave me a very important responsibility: research and development. I told Mr. Bouchard that I was flattered. During the 1993 campaign, we were very concerned, as a political party, about the fact that there had been a lot of public investment in the national capital region, where several public laboratories were—and still are—located, and very little investment on the Outaouais side. There was a lot of investment in the national capital region, but even though research was being done, compared to the numbers for the Outaouais, there was a huge disparity.
The Bloc Québécois wants to make sure that this bill's worthy objectives result in all laboratories complying with human pathogen handling standards. We have been told that several thousand labs in Canada do not follow Health Canada's biosafety guidelines. The government wants to make the guidelines more coercive by introducing a licensing system. It wants to ensure that organizations conducting research will not be penalized. The bill's schedule differentiates between pathogens that can be very harmful to public safety and those that are less dangerous. We see that different classes of licences will be issued.
The Bloc Québécois would like to know what this means for research. I was a member of the Standing Committee on Health when we studied the bill to create the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. In the 1990s, John Manley was the minister responsible for that file: as minister of industry, he was responsible for research and development. The OECD had released a report that lambasted Canada for investing so little in research and development. The bill was introduced.
The Bloc Québécois had a number of concerns. We wanted to ensure that various funding organizations, such as the Medical Research Council of Canada, would continue to support us. In good years, Quebec received nearly 30% of the funding. We wanted to be sure that, under the new Canadian Institutes of Health Research, we would hold on to our share of research contracts.
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research is a network of virtual institutes across Canada. Some of these institutes are concerned with population health, while others focus on cancer, aboriginal people, mental health and so on. The institutes are connected to each other in a structure that can produce interesting outcomes. Certainly, within these publicly funded research labs, research involving pathogens is being conducted. If the bill is passed, what will that mean? That is one question the Bloc Québécois has.
We also have questions about fines. As I said, we are told that biosafety guidelines already exist. In Canada—and I feel it is my duty to share these figures in the interest of full disclosure—there are 7,500 labs, nearly 4,000 of which allegedly do not comply with the guidelines. In addition, 5,500 labs, including 1,100 in Quebec, reportedly import pathogens. This comes as no surprise, considering how vibrant the research sector is in Quebec. There are apparently 24 labs in Quebec and 150 in Canada that are working with group 3 and 4 pathogens and are subject to these guidelines.
This bill tries to impose a system of offences that opens the door to criminal proceedings. We must always be extremely careful when it comes to imposing fines.
I used to sit on the Standing Committee on Health. That was a great time in my life. I was the health critic for at least five years. I focused on research and development. I was a bit surprised when Mr. Bouchard told me he was giving me the research and development file, because I was someone who had trouble plugging in a VCR. But I learned about it, I took an interest in it, and I understood its importance. I then became the immigration critic. Immigration is an extremely important issue, and as I am a member from Montreal, it was an issue in my own community. After that, I was the health critic for five years. Today, I am the justice critic. I have led an interesting life, when you sum it all up.
I would remind the House that when I was the health critic we examined the issue of new reproductive technologies. I was very disappointed to learn something about the regulations for new reproductive technologies. We know that one in five couples in Canada is infertile. Therefore, it is important that the issues of surrogate mothers, gamete conservation and donations be covered by regulations. I am very surprised to see that the regulations we have been expecting for at least two years have not yet been submitted to the Standing Committee on Health. I hope that the Minister of Health will remedy this situation because we worked very hard in committee.
The Government of Quebec went to court to challenge certain legislative provisions with respect to new reproductive technologies, known as assisted reproduction, because some of the legislation's provisions meddled in provincial jurisdiction. Quebec already has its own support system for infertile couples.
Why am I mentioning this? To make a link with the offences established by the bill. Failure to obtain a permit would result in a hefty fine of $250,000 for a first offence and increasing fines for subsequent offences.
It is not clear to me—nor does the bill provide clarification—how this system of fines will be administered. Will there be an inspection system? How will licences be issued? How will laboratories be monitored? And how will inspectors carry out annual inspections of the 5,000 or so laboratories that are deemed not to be compliant with the guidelines? And what will that mean?
It is a complex bill that may have a noble goal, taking precautions against possible transmission, but certain aspects of it are troubling. I know that the members of the Standing Committee on Health would like to ensure that this bill, before obtaining royal assent, has been the subject of proper consultation. Have universities and hospitals been consulted? Have large research and development associations been consulted? And the pharmaceutical industry, in terms of both generic and brand name drugs, has it been consulted? If we looked a little more closely, we would find that the consultations have been rather superficial.
I am being told that my time is running out, which is too bad because I have many more things to say about a bill as gripping as this one, but I will finish with three things. First, the Bloc Québécois will work very hard in the Standing Committee on Health to make sure that we have a thorough understanding of this bill.
Second, we hope that the principal stakeholders will appear before the Standing Committee on Health. Finally, we will judge the bill according to its merit.