Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased we have the opportunity today to speak to Bill C-11, important legislation that deals with human pathogens and toxins. One thing that needs to be said at the outset of this debate is that nowhere is it more important to have a proactive government using all the tools available through the public sector than when it comes to human pathogens and toxins.
We start from the basic premise that the legislation, at face value, looks good. It is long overdue. It is part of a package of antiquated legislation that needs to be updated and brought into the 21st century. However, there also needs to be a new kind of thinking on the part of government, the kind of thinking that appears contrary to the ideological predilections of the Conservative government.
I want to start by putting on the table the overriding concern for Canadians. When it comes to the safety and well-being of Canadians, there can be no shortcuts. There can be no privatization, no offloading and no passive regulatory scheme.
This area demands a proactive government, a strong public sector component and laboratories that are within and only within the public sector, not privatized, no public-private partnerships, no deals with the private sector, no commercialization.
First and foremost, this is about safety. Canadians know a lot about exposure to dangerous pathogens and toxins, and they are worried. They are worried because they have not seen from the government the kind of action that is necessary to guarantee their safety and security at times of crisis.
The record of the Conservatives, and the Liberals before them, is atrocious. Neither party has understood the role of government in this area. The dismantling of our health protection system started under the Liberals and has continued to this day under the Conservatives.
Under the Liberals, we lost laboratories in the federal public service. We lost laboratories that tested for dangerous pathogens. We lost laboratories that looked at interactions between drugs and foods. There were outcries from scientists who felt their scientific judgment had been pushed aside in the name of expediency.
In the past the Liberal government took away the resources and means by which one could actively oversee a system pertaining to human safety, whether we talk about drugs, foods, pathogens, toxins, organs, blood, just name it. Let us not forget the Krever Commission and the whole blood scandal. Let us remember the lessons of our history and ensure that history does not repeat itself when it comes to something as fundamental as human health and safety.
The path set out by the Liberals has been continued by the Conservatives. Did we see a replenishment of inspectors when it came to problems in our food safety systems? Did we see a well coordinated, thoughtful, profound response when it came to something as devastating as listeriosis, which resulted in 20 deaths in our country? No. We saw once more the kind of scattergun approach that the Liberals brought to this chamber. We saw a passive government response that said it would let the industry regulate itself. We saw confusion everywhere, with no central coordination or authority to oversee this entire area.
We have lost something fundamental that has to be regained, that the Conservative government has to recommit to, if we are going to get anywhere with something as profound as protecting people from dangerous pathogens and toxins.
I want to start with some basic principles. This legislation says it will broaden the mandatory application of the laboratory biosafety guidelines from just imported pathogens to include domestic sources as well. It will supposedly ensure that the government has a complete inventory of where potentially dangerous pathogens exist and that sites are licensed appropriately. It says it will parallel the treatment of pathogens in many other industrialized countries, because we are far behind the rest of the world on these issues, and that it will bring the malevolent use of these organisms under the criminal code regime and provide for the inspection of work sites and penalties for misuse.
That sounds good. It sounds progressive and along the lines of what Canadians have been asking for on other issues pertaining to drugs and foods for some time.
It would appear that this bill will make Canadians safer, or will at least make them feel safer. That comes after dealing with Walkerton, SARS, listeriosis, and what have become regular announcements of food contamination and recalls. Just remember that E. coli, salmonella, and listeriosis have all now become household names across this country. There are no exceptions across communities in this country.
In Winnipeg, as my colleague from Winnipeg Centre mentioned earlier, we have a level 4 lab. We are very proud of that fact. We are proud of the record of achievement of that laboratory, but we know that it takes a certain ideological perspective to ensure that the public safety is guaranteed whenever such a facility is established in a community. It takes a perspective that says that government's job is to protect people from any dangerous spills or seepage or accident pertaining to pathogens and toxins. It says that the workers in that lab must be safe, that the people in the community must be safe, and that whenever such dangerous pathogens are transported, people everywhere must be safe.
But there was a bit of a problem back in 1999 with that lab. The Liberals were in power. There was a leak, and 2,000 litres of lab effluent were dumped into the public sewage system. That was on June 23, 1999.
It took a community to stand up and demand its rights for government to take action. The Liberals were then in power, and the Government of Canada decided to keep things relatively quiet, to keep it a secret, to not be fully transparent. Health Canada did not publicize the spill. News of it came through media reports.
Naturally the community was very upset. I and my colleague, the member for Winnipeg Centre, decided to work with the community to make sure that their voices were heard and that lessons were learned from this incident. In fact, shortly after that spill we launched a community lab safety task force, hosted a round table of experts and activists, and met with many people in the community on this issue.
It paid off. Eventually the government announced a community liaison committee to improve communications, and other measures were taken as a result of this incident.
However, it took the community to speak up about it. There was no full disclosure, and that should never happen.
That is why I started this debate by saying there must some basic principles in place in order for this legislation to mean anything and to work.
At the top of the list is the principle that there must be full transparency and accountability to the public. There can be no secrets. There has to be full disclosure when accidents happen or mistakes are made. The public has to be kept informed every step of the way.
I know that the Conservatives are not naturally inclined to do that, despite all their protestations when they were in opposition and their promises during the last election to be accountable and transparent. We have seen almost no evidence of that. They break their word, they change their minds, and they refuse to disclose when the public needs to be told of an important public policy development. I do not need to go into the long list of issues on that front. We could talk about appointments to the Senate or about breaking their own law on fixed election dates. The list goes on and on. There are all kinds of issues related to the Conservatives' promises of transparency and accountability.
However, that kind of action on the part of the Conservatives cannot be allowed to continue, especially when it comes to something as important as human pathogens and toxins. We are talking about life-and-death situations. There is no room for that kind of culture of secrecy and arrogance to be continued for one second in this country today, especially on this critical issue.
The first issue, then, is public accountability and full transparency.
Second, there has to be coordination. The right hand of government has to know what the left hand is doing. There has to be some semblance of a coordinated system within government to deal with the issues pertaining to human pathogens and toxins, partly because of the public health issue at stake here, but also because of the threat of bioterrorism.
We all have questions today pertaining to the legislation. Is the government any more prepared today than it was last fall with respect to the listeriosis crisis? Is it any more prepared today than when we had the SARS crisis? Is it any more prepared today than when we learned the tragic news of September 11? Do we have a coordinated, centralized shop within government that oversees this area?
I do not think so. I am having a hard time finding it. I know the public safety department is sometimes responsible. Health Canada is sometimes responsible. There are pots of money here and pots of money there. There is a little bit of shifting here and there between government departments, but who is in charge? Where does the buck stop? Which minister is absolutely responsible?
This is a very legitimate concern in the light of a couple of recent developments. In September 2008 the Senate Standing Committee on National Security and Defence found our response capabilities lacking. The Senate committee found that the federal government will not even tell local front-line responders where it stashes its emergency medical supplies. It will not tell them where they are located.
It is interesting that when those who are responsible for delivering emergency services at the local level in Medicine Hat stumbled on a federal supply, the federal government, rather than using the opportunity to build coordination and efficiency, took the supplies and hid them somewhere else. Does that make sense? Is that responsible, accountable, fully transparent government action in the midst of a very serious situation? It certainly does not bode well for future crises that are likely to occur in this country.
Canadians are especially concerned about the government's ability and capacity to protect them from a non-terrorist threat.
I talked about listeriosis earlier. Let me go back to that for a moment because it is our most recent example of what happens when we do not really have a government in charge that knows what it is doing and puts the needs of Canadians first. We only have to refer to the Canadian Medical Association's article in the midst of that crisis to give full meaning to this point.
The Canadian Medical Association Journal actually stated on October 21, 2008, that “...the most visible figures in the recent recall of affected foods have not been public health officials but rather the head of Maple Leaf Foods and the minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada”.
Where was the Prime Minister? Where was the Minister of Health? Where was the coordinated response to something as tragic as listeriosis? Why was it left to the private sector to explain the situation? Is it not the job of government to put in place regulations and standards and laws and programs that the private sector must adhere to? Is it not the fundamental role of government to set the stage and to put in place the framework by which those who operate in the private sector are guided? How was it possible that through consecutive Liberal and Conservative governments we just let this system deteriorate to the point that nobody was in charge, the private sector was regulating itself, inspection capacity was greatly reduced, and standards based on a series of recommendations on paper were not on site? Were there regular surprise visits to meat plants, food stores, retailers, manufacturers, and producers?
No. Rather, there was simply a risk management model that said there might be a problem, that we were going to let business live up to these standards, that we were not going to inspect them regularly to make sure that they were, and that when it happened, we were going to duck and run.
There is the lesson. That is why this legislation is so important today and why we need more than simply the words of this bill before us. We need a whole government plan. We need to know that this government finally gets it and understands that we have to have a precautionary model when it comes to pathogens and toxins, just as we have to have a precautionary do-no-harm model when it comes to protecting people from dangerous drugs and problematic foods. There is no other way around it.
I do not see that here. I do not see the government coming forward with a plan about how it is going to coordinate any government plan in this regard and how it is going to put in the resources necessary to make sure we actually have that kind of proactive do-no-harm model in place.
It is not risk management. It is not saying, “Well, this is out there in the market. These pathogens or toxins exist, and we are going to protect as much as possible”, but in fact, “We are going to warn people, and if something happens, then we're going to take action. We'll wait until someone dies or gets sick before we take action.”
Has that not been the way of the Conservatives, and the Liberals before them, on all these issues? I think so. I heard someone say no. I think it has been the way, and that has to change.
I know my time is almost up. There is much more to say in terms of this issue, but I want to end by saying that the framework we expect to be in place in dealing with this legislation must include transparency and accountability. It must emphasize public ownership and public sector involvement, and not privatization or P3s. This model must be based on the precautionary principle, the do-no-harm model, and not on risk management. Finally, it must ensure that all Canadians are involved and fully informed and participative in any schemes or programs that address threats to people's food security, threats in terms of bioterrorism and threats in terms of human pathogens and toxins.