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House of Commons Hansard #16 of the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was arctic.

Topics

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

February 23rd, 2009 / 11:05 a.m.

Conservative

Gary Lunn Conservative Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

moved that Bill C-11, An Act to promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:05 a.m.

Oshawa Ontario

Conservative

Colin Carrie ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to have this opportunity at second reading to address the important issues of the safety and security of human pathogens and toxins. That is a primary reason behind Bill C-11, An Act to promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins.

I want to begin by explaining what a pathogen is. A human pathogen is a micro-organism capable of causing disease or death in humans. Examples include: salmonella bacteria, the agent of anthrax, listeria bacteria and the Ebola virus. The need to enhance biosafety in Canada's laboratories and prevent an inadvertent release of these agents is one of the two primary focuses of Bill C-11.

The need to safeguard Canadians from the risk of an intentional release of these dangerous agents constitutes the second primary focus of the proposed human pathogens and toxins act. As we know, the world changed after September 11, 2001. The events of that day highlighted the need for greater vigilance on our part. This was emphasized in the month that followed when an anthrax attack in the United States resulted in 22 identified cases and five deaths.

The cost of a bioterror attack is high, both in terms of lives lost, lives affected and economic consequences. It is the responsibility of government, of this Parliament, to put in place the necessary measures to minimize the likelihood of such an event.

There are approximately 3,500 laboratories that import human pathogens into Canada. These laboratories are regulated under the existing human pathogens importation regulations which have been in force since 1994. They must also comply with our laboratory biosafety guidelines which are widely accepted as Canada's national biosafety standard.

Unfortunately, these regulations and associated laboratory biosafety guidelines are only mandatory for facilities that import human pathogens. They are not mandatory for the additional 4,000 laboratories that do not import, but which acquire human pathogens within Canada.

While labs working with these pathogens do so in a safe manner and widely apply these guidelines on a voluntary basis, we need legislation and regulations in place to reinforce these safe practices, and establish consistency by ensuring all labs in Canada, whether federal, provincial or private, are adhering to these guidelines.

Canada faces some serious risks as a result of this legislative and regulatory gap. These include risks to the safety of persons working in and around laboratories and risks to our national security. There is always the potential for accidental release of human pathogens or toxins.

As I have said, about 4,000 laboratories in Canada use domestically acquired human pathogens and toxins. The fact that these laboratories are subject only to a voluntary biosafety regime is not acceptable, especially since similar laboratories that import human pathogens operate under a mandatory biosafety regime.

It is time to level the playing field in Canada so that all persons working with these agents, and especially all laboratories, are required to operate under the same rules and to comply with the same national biosafety guidelines.

To this end the new human pathogens and toxins act is designed to ensure that unless exempted, no person may carry on activities with these dangerous substances without a licence and without complying with the laboratory biosafety guidelines.

Beyond accidental release, Canada also faces the risk of a deliberate release of a human pathogen or toxin. This is not a pleasant scenario but one which we must consider fully in order to protect Canadians. To address this risk the new legislation includes a provision for a new national system of security screening for persons handling the most dangerous of these agents. Other than for individuals working in federal government laboratories, there is no such system in place in Canada at this moment.

It is important that the government take reasonable precautions to ensure that while not interfering with research, people handling the most dangerous human pathogens and toxins in Canada have received appropriate security screening. At the same time, the government will seek to ensure that there is a minimal paper burden on those handling less dangerous human pathogens and toxins.

The new legislation will address both biosafety and biosecurity risks through a range of mechanisms including: new criminal prohibitions, offences, and penalties; expanded inspection and enforcement; a new authority to make regulations; and new security screening requirements for persons having access to the most dangerous human pathogens and toxins.

This proposal would render Canada more consistent with its international partners and allies, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, which have all passed new security legislation. It is time that Canada joined them.

This new legislation is needed now. It is required to safeguard the health and well-being of Canadians, especially those persons working in laboratories. It is also required to demonstrate to the Canadian public, and to our international partners, that the Government of Canada is taking very seriously the issue of national security related to dangerous human pathogens and toxins.

The proposed legislation represents a made in Canada approach that would emphasizes safety and strong security linkages. The urgency in moving ahead with expanded federal oversight over human pathogens and toxins has been widely recognized. We have discussed this proposal with our provincial and territorial public health colleagues and with the diverse laboratory community in Canada, including academia and the private sector. They have agreed with the need to move ahead and they have shown a keen interest in further discussions concerning details about licensing, inventories, security screening, and how they will be included in future discussions.

We will continue to engage our stakeholders as Bill C-11 moves through the parliamentary process.

As well, we will commence in-depth consultations with stakeholders across the country on the program and regulatory framework. These consultations will help us ensure that we have correctly balanced the needs of biosafety and biosecurity, on the one hand, and the interests of ongoing science and research, on the other. In proposing this legislation, we are building on our existing importation program.

It is important that we turn our attention to applying existing biosafety and biosecurity controls equally to all persons carrying on activities with these dangerous agents across Canada. For this reason, I call on my colleagues in this House to support Bill C-11. I am looking forward to questions.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Joy Smith Conservative Kildonan—St. Paul, MB

Mr. Speaker, I would like to ask the parliamentary secretary to clarify the difference between human pathogens and toxins.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Colin Carrie Conservative Oshawa, ON

Mr. Speaker, a human pathogen is a micro-organism capable of causing disease or death in a human. For the purposes of this legislation, this includes animal pathogens that can cause disease in humans. For the purposes of this legislation, toxins are defined as substances produced by or derived from micro-organisms which are able to cause disease in humans and which are listed in schedule 1 of the proposed bill. Human pathogens are divided into risk groups, taking into account varying levels of risk.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Dave Van Kesteren Conservative Chatham-Kent—Essex, ON

Mr. Speaker, I, too, was listening with interest to the proposed bill. I have a question for the parliamentary secretary. How would this relate to existing regulations for import of human pathogens?

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Colin Carrie Conservative Oshawa, ON

Mr. Speaker, my colleague brings up a very important question because right now there are regulations and legislation that exist for importation. However, for laboratories actually using these pathogens in the laboratory, they are not legislated and regulated in the proper way. That is why it is very important that we move this legislation forward, so we level the playing field for all laboratories in Canada.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Greg Rickford Conservative Kenora, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to ask the parliamentary secretary this question. What would be the implications of an intentional release of human pathogens?

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Colin Carrie Conservative Oshawa, ON

Mr. Speaker, as I said in my speech, Canadians are concerned. On September 11, 2001, the world changed. There have been attacks in the United States. The member probably remembers the anthrax incidents. There were 22 cases, resulting in the death of five people.

It is about time that Canada brings our legislation and regulations up to the level that our international partners expect. It is not a scenario that one wants to think about. The release of these pathogens and toxins could have severe consequences on our population. That is why I am calling on all my colleagues to work with me, to work with the minister, and to work in committee to get this legislation passed because it is definitely needed.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:10 a.m.

NDP

Judy Wasylycia-Leis NDP Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the remarks made by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health and his description of Bill C-11. I agree with him that this is a very important issue and we have learned a lot based on some very traumatic episodes in our history over the last little while.

My concern is that all of these great plans will come to nought if in fact the government does not have an underlying framework that respects the question of government supported or sponsored initiatives, whether it be in terms of emergency services or laboratories.

My question to the parliamentary secretary is quite simple. Could he give the House assurances that the government, unlike in other areas, has absolutely no intention of privatizing our public laboratories?

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Colin Carrie Conservative Oshawa, ON

Mr. Speaker, that is a very important question. Our laboratories play an important role for public health in Canada and I would like to assure the member that federal laboratories are going to remain in that framework.

Extensive consultations were held with stakeholders, particularly the laboratories. I want to let the member know that stakeholders, including the biosafety officers at laboratory institutions, welcomed these proposals and generally support the expanded federal oversight of human pathogens and toxins.

However, some important issues were raised at the stakeholder consultations. These include: the documentation requirements for permits, registration, inventory maintenance, security screening of personnel with access to dangerous human pathogens, and potential cost implications of compliance with these new biosafety requirements. The government intends to address all of these concerns by engaging in a wide range of consultations with stakeholders over specific elements of security screening in order that the legislative and regulatory framework is implemented in such a way to allow for efficient compliance.

Stakeholders involved in research and development also asked whether the proposed legislation could have negative implications on their research. As the member brought forward, it is very important that these labs continue with their research.

The focus of the proposed legislation is the strengthening of biosafety. The principles of biosafety do not in any way impede research and development but, rather, aim at those activities proceeding without harming the scientist or the public. The Public Health Agency of Canada will aim to find the appropriate balance between safety and security, and supporting this very important scientific research.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:15 a.m.

NDP

Pat Martin NDP Winnipeg Centre, MB

Mr. Speaker, I with to thank the parliamentary secretary for some of the references he made to the handling protocols of these pathogens. I want to ask him, what specifically in the bill would give satisfaction to the people of my riding, where the level 4 federal laboratory is located?

In the case of what happened recently, a car accident occurred where a FedEx truck ran into a car and its contents spilled out. Guess what was in the FedEx truck? There was anthrax, the Newcastle disease virus, and a number of other serious toxins. People who farm chickens will know that Newcastle disease is not something we want in the community.

There was a level 4 virology lab shipping anthrax and Newcastle by FedEx with no protocols whatsoever, any more than one would give to sending a Christmas gift to a relative. I want to see very strict protocols within this bill and some satisfaction, so that I can tell the people of my riding that we are addressing this appalling issue.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Colin Carrie Conservative Oshawa, ON

Mr. Speaker, I have actually had the privilege of visiting the hon. member's riding and the very important level 4 lab in Canada. He is correct that these labs handle extremely pathogenic substances, such as Ebola.

That is exactly why the government is moving forward on this very important legislation. We need those specific controls when laboratories handle these substances and transfer them from one lab to another. In the present legislation, it is only mandatory when the laboratories import those pathogens into the country. However, for transfer within the country, as the member so rightly pointed out, it is voluntary. I would point out that the lab in his riding is exceptional and has very high standards, but it is important that the Government of Canada is able to regulate and watch over the particular instances that the member mentioned.

It is a very good question and I am looking forward to getting this important legislation before a committee, so the experts can appear to be asked those very specific questions. Hopefully, we can support this bill and move it forward for specifically the reasons that the hon. member brings forward.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

Mr. Speaker, I seek consent to share my time with the member for Etobicoke North.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

Is there unanimous consent?

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:20 a.m.

Some hon. members

Agreed.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Carolyn Bennett Liberal St. Paul's, ON

Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure today to speak to Bill C-11, an act to promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins. The Liberal Party supports improving Canadians' health and safety. We support measures that improve the safety and security of laboratories in Canada for all Canadians. We will scrutinize this bill in committee to ensure that it is as accountable, transparent and useful as possible.

It is important that we establish a legislative framework that extends beyond the present importation and storage regime for pathogens and toxins, especially for things such as anthrax, salmonella and influenza. The current regime is inadequate and not up to the standard of other international regulations. It only requires that all labs that import human pathogens and toxins adhere to the laboratory biosafety guidelines, the LBGs, but these existing guidelines are not mandatory for labs that acquire human pathogens and toxins from domestic sources even though they are applied widely on a voluntary basis as an industry standard. This voluntary approach is no longer good enough. We need to bring Canada into the modern world that actually deals with the biosecurity reality we now face.

The bill would require laboratories carrying out activities with risk groups 2, 3 or 4 human pathogens or select toxins to register with the Public Health Agency of Canada's Office of Laboratory Security. It would subject the licensees with a risk of group 3 and 4 pathogens and possibly select toxins to stricter operating regulations and it would require a permit to import a human pathogen or toxin. As well, as was raised by the hon. member from Winnipeg, the bill would require transfer permits to send and receive any human pathogen or toxin between laboratories within Canada that are not part of the same facility.

It would also require licensees, as part of their annual or biannual update of inventory, to notify the Public Health Agency of Canada of the nature of the disposal of human pathogens and toxins. These changes would bring Canada into line with more stringent regulations in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Although there is a need for the minister to have the ability to improve the safety and security of Canada's laboratories, the powers given to the minister in the bill are very serious. We believe that putting in place the kind of scientific advice that would be important to the minister should be as transparent as possible. I am in favour of there being an advisory committee to give transparent advice to the minister, so it is clear that scientists make scientific judgments and politicians make political judgments.

The Liberal caucus will support this bill at second reading because it modernizes and improves the laboratory licensing system and improves the overall health and safety of Canadians. However, since provinces and territories are responsible for licensing, we will have to further study and listen to the representatives from the provinces and territories at committee to make sure that those jurisdictions are comfortable with this collaborative approach.

I want to thank the minister and her department for the excellent briefing they gave us this morning on the bill. I was relieved to hear that the $36 million that will be required to implement the bill is already in the fiscal framework and that the bill will protect the health and safety of Canadians by closing the significant gap in Canada's national security framework.

The current regime is inadequate. As we have said, there has been this legislative gap about knowing where these dangerous human pathogens or toxins exist and how they are transferred. It is hugely important as we go forward that there be a comprehensive framework that the rest of the world understands exists in Canada, which is now seen to be a weak link in dealing with human pathogens and toxins through the various controlled activities.

I am very comfortable with the different levels of penalties. Obviously, in this dangerous world, the idea of releasing, abandoning or disposing on purpose a human pathogen or toxin must face the highest possible criminal offence.

It is important that these new criminal aspects include duty of care, the complete prohibition of controlled activities with certain human pathogens, such as the smallpox virus, as well as prohibition of controlled activities with a human pathogen or toxin without a licence.

I am happy that the regulatory framework will be enhanced in terms of the specific licensing requirements, inventory requirements, security screening requirements, and the outlining of the duties and qualifications of the new biological safety officers.

I am happy that since the bill was last presented, there have been changes to it in terms of the schedules; the transferring and the inspection powers now explain that inspection must be on reasonable grounds; and there is now the ability to move conveyances.

I am pleased that the stakeholder consultation was done properly. No real opposition was expressed, although some issues were raised around the implementation. The need for balance, the technical issues and the cost of complying with the new requirements for the individual smaller labs seem to have been taken into consideration and there is a commitment for continued consultation with the stakeholders.

The basic approach of the bill makes colossal sense. On royal assent, in phase one, the prohibitions, the duty of care, and the offences in the registry will come into force. I am happy that in phase two the development of the regulatory framework will again involve extensive consultation with the stakeholders. Phase three will bring into force the rest of the requirements.

I am very pleased with the collaboration and cooperation of the department on this bill. I look forward to studying this bill in detail at committee.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

Kirsty Duncan Liberal Etobicoke North, ON

Mr. Speaker, we live in an era of change and uncertainty. Infectious disease remains among the leading causes of death worldwide and the greatest killer of children and young adults.

New infectious diseases, such as HIV-AIDS and SARS, are emerging. Old infectious diseases, such as malaria, plague and tuberculosis, are re-emerging, and intractable infectious diseases remain an ever-present threat.

Although most deaths from infectious disease occur in developing countries, no region of the world is risk-free. It is, therefore, in the best interests of all countries, including Canada, to support initiatives to control infectious disease.

Bioterrorism also remains a very real threat. As mentioned, in October 2000, letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to American news media offices and two senators. The letters killed five people and infected over twenty others. Broad public health measures were implemented to treat the thousands who were potentially exposed and decontamination of government buildings and postal offices took years. The total cost to the United States was more than $1 billion.

Microbiological agents and toxins can and do impact global health. In 2003, SARS spread to 30 countries across 5 continents and killed almost 800 people, 44 of them in Toronto.

We must protect Canadian health and we must protect global health. The more we increase biosafety measures, the greater the probability that we will be able to mitigate the deadly effects of infectious disease, even if they are launched deliberately by human agents.

The World Health Organization urges countries to promote biosafety practices for the safe handling, containment and transport of microbiological agents and toxins; to review the safety of laboratories and their existing protocols; to develop programs that enhance compliance of laboratories; and to encourage the development of biological safety training.

Thousands of infectious samples are shipped daily around the world for clinical trials, disease investigations, surveillance, et cetera. Animal and human specimens need to be transported efficiently, legally, safely and in a timely manner. Shippers must be aware of regulatory requirements, personnel must undertake appropriate training and specimens must be packed to protect transporters from risk of infections.

There are new reports of infections resulting from transport related exposures, excluding the 2001 anthrax letters in the United States. However, there have been reports of the transmission of acute respiratory infections associated with air travel as a result of direct person-to-person contact.

Best practices regarding the transport of microbiological agents and toxins must be used to protect the environment and human health. Perhaps more support is needed to prevent the introduction and spread of communicable diseases from other countries and among provinces.

In the laboratory, containment of microbiological agents and toxins is critical to preventing outbreaks of emerging and re-emerging diseases. Over the last 70 years, research to combat infectious disease has resulted in over 5,000 associated infections in the laboratory and almost 200 deaths. Infamously, in 1978 a smallpox laboratory accident caused one death and led to the suicide of the laboratory director. More recently, in 2008 the Bush administration acknowledged that the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, the only U.S. facility allowed to research the highly contagious foot and mouth disease, experienced several accidents with the virus.

It is, therefore, imperative that laboratories have strict facility safeguards, microbiological practices and safety equipment that protect laboratory workers, the environment and the public from exposure to infections, micro-organisms and toxins that are stored in the laboratory.

Responsible laboratory practices will help prevent intentional release, loss, misuse, theft or unauthorized access of biological material, and will contribute to preserving important scientific work for future generations.

New research shows that infectious diseases are now emerging at an exceptional rate, with humans accumulating new pathogens at a rate of one per year. This means that agencies and governments will need to work harder than ever before to keep abreast of the increasing threat.

It is, therefore, imperative that we take every opportunity to protect people and the environment from infectious disease, as emerging infectious disease has the potential to eliminate opportunities for infectious disease eradication or elimination.

In 1969, smallpox remained a devastating disease, killing 1.6 million people that year. Eradication of the disease was achieved because of a worldwide effort that was supported by the necessary political will, human and technical resources and a safe vaccine.

In 1979, the year that smallpox was declared eradicated, HIV was rapidly spreading across Africa and the world. If the global smallpox eradication campaign had been postponed, the world might not have been able to eradicate smallpox as easily as it did in 1980. Biosafety must be paramount, whether in the air, across the land or in the lab.

After six years of planning, I led an expedition to the Arctic to search for the cause of the 1918 Spanish influenza, history's deadliest disease. My research team would safely exhume six bodies with the hope of identifying the influenza virus to make a better antiviral or a flu vaccine.

Opening the graves was akin to opening Pandora's Box as there was the chance of re-releasing history's deadliest disease. Our safety protocols, planned over two years, were approved by a blue ribbon panel hosted by the National Institute for Health and the government of Norway. We did our utmost to provide a safe working environment on the frozen tundra.

After receiving all the necessary permits for transportation, my research team shipped tissue samples, packed in containers to prevent mechanical and temperature damage, from the High Arctic to our most secure laboratory, a biosafety level four laboratory in Britain.

For six years I lived and breathed biosafety, lived with the risk of finding live virus and took every precaution to undertake our work safely and ethically. No formal permission process existed for exhuming bodies. However, we asked permission from the families, the governor of Svalbard, et cetera. We also developed our own biosafety protocols related to exhumation and sampling decontamination.

Strengthening global surveillance is not enough to eliminate or eradicate infectious disease. We need close ties among public health, trade and transportation organizations. We need strong laboratory regulations and an improved means of communicating and reporting to protect the lab workers and the surrounding community from accidental exposure to infectious agents. We also need better collaboration with those monitoring the biological weapons convention.

We have had multiple wake-up calls. This new bill is a step in the right direction. Complacency cannot be an option when it comes to biosafety.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:35 a.m.

Bloc

Luc Malo Bloc Verchères—Les Patriotes, QC

Mr. Speaker, this morning, my colleagues spoke to Bill C-11, an act to promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins. Now it is my turn. The summary of the bill reads as follows:

This enactment creates measures to promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins and all activities associated with them. It establishes a comprehensive legislative regime that extends beyond the present importation regime. It requires every person conducting activities involving human pathogens or toxins to take all reasonable measures to protect the health and safety of the public.

As my colleagues said, it is important to keep Canadians safe. It is every Parliament's duty to ensure the safety of Canadians within the scope of its constitutional powers. As we have seen, the proposed legislation would require all persons conducting these activities to comply with a number of guidelines. It would ensure consistency by obliging all labs to adhere to laboratory biosafety guidelines developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada. Licences must be obtained for controlled activities, such as possessing, handling, using, producing, storing, permitting authorized access to, transferring, importing, exporting, releasing or otherwise abandoning, or disposing of a human pathogen or toxin.

The federal government claims that it is entitled to introduce this bill because of its jurisdiction over criminal law. However, at this point, I have to wonder whether the government should really have made this bill a priority. As we know, since the guidelines were introduced over 15 years ago, there have been no incidents in Canada, regardless of whether labs have been following those guidelines.

Also on the order paper is a bill the government introduced in January, Bill C-6, formerly Bill C-52, on the safety of consumer products. The government has known at least since November 2006 that there are problems in this area. The Auditor General said so. Since the summer of 2007, there have been several major recalls, including a recall of toys containing lead. It would have been better if this bill were before the House now, seeing as how there have been no pathogen problems to date under the existing acts and regulations.

We know that the highest risk groups are groups 3 and 4. I would remind this House that the human pathogens in these groups pose a high risk to the health of individuals and a low or high risk to public health. Twenty-four labs in Quebec and 150 in Canada fully meet the guidelines for groups 3 and 4. In addition, the backgrounder on Bill C-54, which is the number this bill had in the last Parliament, states that “The risk to Canadians posed by the presence of human pathogens and toxins in labs is low.”

This is still a very important issue. However, this bill, in its current form, must not be allowed to stop or impede lab work, which is crucial to determining the causes of diseases and advancing science through research. In committee, it will be very important to look at this aspect of the bill in depth and to meet with a wide range of specialists working in this field to make sure that they will be able to do this work once this bill has been passed, especially with regard to risk group 2, which poses a lower risk to the health of individuals and public health. Of course, these labs include hospital and university labs where very important research is under way.

I would like to raise another point before I go on to the topic of university research. I am just wondering whether the Criminal Code already covers intentional threats to public safety, such as terrorist acts, and unintentional threats, such as criminal negligence. To my way of thinking, these threats to public health or public safety are already covered by legislation passed here.

I would like to start with the issue that, in the current version of the bill could, in our opinion, pose a number of problems. That issue is research conducted in our universities. The parliamentary secretary told us earlier that the government had held a number of consultations. And at a meeting with officials from the Public Health Agency of Canada, we were told that a number of consultations had been held. However, despite these consultations, researchers still have a number of important questions, especially regarding who will pay the costs of complying with the new requirements. This concern is mentioned in the Public Health Agency of Canada notes, but was not addressed by the parliamentary secretary in his earlier remarks.

We know that university research is already underfunded, yet today, as we prepare to refer this bill to committee, we do not know if assistance will be made available to institutions to help them comply with the new guidelines or if labs will be left to cover all the costs themselves.

Has the government actually conducted studies to determine the impact this new legislation would have on university courses, on how our hospitals operate and on the research industry in Quebec and Canada?

This question is extremely relevant because, as I said earlier, I have not yet received an answer. I understand the government's desire to impose a new guideline so that no products are released that could pose a risk to public health, but as for the operations of laboratories, I have yet to receive an answer.

I simply have one question. Does the government want us as parliamentarians to pass legislation that I think is incomplete, in the sense that it does not address all the concerns raised by the community? It is asking us for carte blanche, in a way, and asking us to trust it and wait until later. It seems to be saying that it will communicate with the various stakeholders and labs again, that it will ensure that the regulatory framework will meet their expectations and not pose a problem for their operations. If that is in fact what the government and the department intend to do, why then, from the first draft, from the time this bill was introduced for first reading, has this bill not included provisions to address the concerns justifiably raised by the community?

Once again, the government decided to introduce a bill in this House without assessing the direct impact it will have on the community. If it had done so in a responsible manner, this version of the bill would already include provisions to address the concerns raised by the academic community. We would have already heard the government's response regarding its assessment of the impact of Bill C-11 on university education.

The bill also proposes a number of fines. I understand that when a bill is introduced that will affect the Criminal Code, for example, fines must be imposed. However, what the government wants to do is impose fines on universities and hospitals, when everyone knows very well—and I said so a little earlier in my speech—that there is an abysmal lack of funding for those two kinds of institutions where research is done.

The bill also establishes penalties and fines for anyone who shows wanton or reckless disregard concerning pathogens and toxins. The bill also establishes financial penalties and imprisonment for anyone who intentionally releases pathogens.

I am wondering, as are my Bloc Québécois colleagues, about the need for these new prison sentences given that they are already contained in existing legislation. Are measures put in place by this bill with respect to breach of duty, wanton or reckless breach of duty and intentional release not already in the Criminal Code and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act? And are measures prohibiting intentional misuse of pathogens not included in the Anti-Terrorism Act? These are the questions to ask when the bill is before the Standing Committee on Health.

I am pleased that my colleagues from the Conservative and Liberal parties have agreed to hear important witnesses who, on a daily basis, will have to work under and adapt to this new legislation to establish new standards for storing and handling human pathogens and toxins.

Before concluding my remarks, I would like to go back to two or three other aspects that are more directly related to the bill. Clause 39, for example, states:

The Minister may, without the consent of the person to whom the information relates, disclose personal information and confidential business information obtained under this Act to a person from whom the Minister seeks advice, to a department or agency of the government of Canada or a province, to a foreign government or to an international organization—

For all intents and purposes, although those receiving this confidential information are required to maintain confidentiality—as stated later in the clause—I find it rather strange that consent is not required. It should be understood that the person may not be consulted or, at the very least, notified that information will be disclosed. This could be discussed with the minister and his officials in order to clarify this aspect of the bill, which could be problematic if, in fact, confidential information is disclosed without notifying the individuals or institutions concerned.

I would also like to talk about another issue that relates a bit more directly to the bill. Clause 67 states that the minister may make an interim order involving a product in the case of problems with enforcement of the legislation. The minister would then make an interim order effective immediately. The clause also states that the two houses of Parliament need not be informed for up to 15 days.

Should an emergency occur that requires immediate action on the part of the minister, this House should be informed much sooner than that. Perhaps the parliamentary secretary or even the minister would like to touch on that. When it comes to incidents involving public health and safety, all members of the public, as well as all parliamentarians, should be informed and given the opportunity to debate the issues without delay. To me, that means within hours or, at most, a few days. Fifteen days is far too long. Indeed, it would be odd for Parliament not to be informed of a situation endangering public health within 15 days.

In conclusion, I want to emphasize the importance of ensuring public safety. We must also ensure that our universities and hospitals can carry on doing their research, and that the government provides more support for research.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

11:55 a.m.

NDP

Carol Hughes NDP Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague from Verchères—Les Patriotes for his speech and comments.

I think that we all agree that we need effective health protection and that this bill could be a step in the right direction. I think it will be very important to hear witnesses in committee in order to ensure that this bill is the best way to guarantee that necessary, useful research poses no risk to Canadians.

My colleague has raised some real concerns about this. He spoke about funding for laboratories and wondered whether these labs would be able to cover the additional costs new legislation would impose.

Some research laboratories have protested because obeying the new law will cost them more time or money.

Is my colleague worried that no funding has been proposed to help these laboratories actually make these changes? Is he also worried by the fact that these laboratories may have to make cuts elsewhere in order to pay for these changes?

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

Noon

Bloc

Luc Malo Bloc Verchères—Les Patriotes, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague for her question. She is absolutely correct. The parliamentary secretary has also said that the laboratories are not against the bill.

The laboratories are conscious of the risks that their activities pose to public health. However, my colleague rightly pointed out, they are asking how they, with the financial resources they currently have, will be able to adapt their practices and, as I said earlier, not cause any incidents. No incidents have been recorded in Quebec or in Canada. They are wondering how they will absorb the cost—billions of dollars for all of the laboratories. How will they absorb this?

My colleague is right to be worried when she suggests that cuts might have to be made elsewhere in order to obey the law. When there is a finite amount of funding for the work to be done, it is obvious that spending on unanticipated items means cuts elsewhere.

She is also quite right to say that when this bill is studied in committee, it will be very important to hear the stakeholders' concerns clearly and directly from them. Furthermore, we will ensure that this bill includes satisfactory answers for these people, and not simply some future regulatory framework without apparent guidelines or content. Clearly, there must be a balance between safety and research.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

Noon

Oshawa Ontario

Conservative

Colin Carrie ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health

Mr. Speaker, my colleague brought up some important comments and questions.

I would like to put on the record the fact that this government is very open and willing to work with our colleagues to ensure we have strong legislation. I think he will agree that this is long overdue. Just because there have not been any particular instances does not mean we should not be ready for something like this to occur because the implications can be incredibly severe.

He brought up questions with respect to funding. I point out that the new legislative regime will be generally consistent with all the existing guidelines. It is expected that most laboratories will be compliant with these guidelines, as they have been since 1990. We are not putting in something that is too unreasonable or something with which the laboratories are not familiar.

If the member has some particularly important witnesses whom he would like to bring forward, the government is willing to work with him in that regard.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

Noon

Bloc

Luc Malo Bloc Verchères—Les Patriotes, QC

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health for his comments. I am pleased to see—and I also noticed from his speech—that he is somewhat open. We simply do not see such clear and precise openness in the bill, but I am pleased to hear that this government is open to hearing from a variety of stakeholders in order to ensure that there will be no impact on the work currently being done in our academic and other institutions.

As we all know, the bill stipulates that a list of all users of these products would have to be submitted. What does that mean for a university? Does that mean all the students in the department, all the students who actually handle the substance or all the students who might walk through the hallways and common areas? These are additional questions that must be answered with the stakeholders and with the goodwill of all parliamentarians.

All these comments must be explored during the committee's study of the bill. I am delighted to see everyone coming together to ensure that this bill can be put in place while respecting current practices.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

12:05 p.m.

NDP

Judy Wasylycia-Leis NDP Winnipeg North, MB

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.

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

12:25 p.m.

NDP

Tony Martin NDP Sault Ste. Marie, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague from Winnipeg for her thoughtful and well presented case in terms of our support for this kind of oversight and her concern about whether the government will actually implement all of it and do the things that will be required to protect us.

As a member of Parliament in Ontario, I will never forget the Walkerton scandal and the scenario that unfolded in front of us in the days of the Mike Harris government. I think the member might have been around in those days. That was as a result of, yes, some human failure but also the fact that over a number of months into the Mike Harris government there was a moving of oversight on the environmental front of laboratories to the private sector. There was also a reduction in the number of people working for the ministry of the environment which all came together to present to us a very tragic circumstance in which people lost their lives.

In bringing this, obviously wanted, needed and important legislation forward, is the member confident that the government, within which there are many from the Mike Harris days, will actually implement it and not, at the first opportunity, shift it all over to the private sector again and/or reduce the number of people in the ministry of the environment in terms of oversight and reporting on this kind of very important public business? Does she believe the government may continue to cut staff to the point where even the best of legislation and oversight will not actually be effective?

Human Pathogens and Toxins ActGovernment Orders

12:25 p.m.

NDP

Judy Wasylycia-Leis NDP Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the question from the member for Sault Ste. Marie who is very knowledgeable about this issue coming from Toronto based on the Walkerton crisis. He asked whether we felt any more confident today than we did back then around public safety with these kinds of scenarios. I am afraid I cannot point to anything that gives me confidence yet that the government gets it and is able to commit the resources and make the policies that will put in place a proactive system that will protect people in the future.

We all learned from Walkerton but I want to go back to listeriosis because that is our most recent example.The Canadian Medical Association said in October, “Overall it would seem that as a country, Canada is far less prepared now for epidemics than in the past”. It almost seems like we may be going backwards, not making new advances.

The national advisory committee on SARS and public health told us that the Chief Public Health Officer should serve as the leading national voice for public health, particularly in outbreaks and other health emergencies. However, as in the listeriosis outbreak, the public received its briefings not from the Chief Public Health Officer but from the head of the very company that was causing the problems.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency actually admitted in November that its silence was a problem but the Conservative government said nothing.

I am not sure that the government has learned yet. I think some of us have some good ideas about how we should go forward but we have no sign yet that the government is committed to the preservation of a publicly administered, publicly run, publicly funded system that has strong oversight based on the precautionary do-no-harm model.