Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure for me today to rise and present my position and that of the Bloc on Bill C-11. As a member of the Standing Committee on Health and the Bloc’s youth critic, I can say that this bill is of great concern to me. I am concerned because it has to do not only with public health and safety but also with the research done in our universities.
The predecessor of this bill was Bill C-54, which died on the order paper when the election was called last October. The purpose of the bill is to create measures to promote safety and security with respect to human pathogens and toxins.
In case any of my colleagues do not know, pathogens are micro-organisms that can cause illness in human beings. Some toxins, produced by micro-organisms, can also cause illness. Pathogens are divided into five categories. The least dangerous are in risk group 1 and the most dangerous in risk group 5.
When I said that Bill C-11 concerned both public health and our scientific community, it was because these micro-organisms are used in both scientific research laboratories and in health care facilities in Quebec and Canada.
At the present time, the regulations on importing pathogens make it necessary to obtain a licence in order to bring them in from foreign countries. Only laboratories that import pathogens have to observe a set of guidelines on laboratory biosafety. Those that use pathogens already present in Canada do not.
The purpose of Bill C-11 is, in short, to make the laboratory biosafety guidelines obligatory for everyone and to require everyone to obtain a licence for controlled activities so that the existing pathogens can be followed. The purpose is to determine where these pathogens are and who is in possession of them and also to institute a system of offences and punishments for people who violate the guidelines.
Bill C-11 would therefore require everyone in the scientific community to obtain a licence in order to conduct research on pathogens and toxins. Whether in order to manipulate, possess, or import them, everyone would need a licence.
As I pointed out earlier, there are guidelines for the possession and handling of pathogens and toxins.
In short, Bill C-11 would require that low-risk laboratories, those using agents from groups 1 and 2, which entail, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, “moderate risk to the health of individuals and a low risk to public health” obtain a licence. That is interesting. According to the agency once again, “They are able to cause serious disease in a human but are unlikely to do so. Effective treatment and preventive measures are available and the risk of spread of disease caused by those pathogens is low.”
Naturally, we understand the government's concern with respect to groups 3 and 4 and the precautions proposed as they could affect the health and safety of the general population. However, there is a problem in that laboratories that handle agents in groups 3 and 4 already observe the provisions in the guidelines.
The guidelines were established more than 15 years ago and, since then, there has not been an incident in Canada in laboratories that use groups 3 and 4 or those that use groups 1 and 2. Mr. Marc Ouellette, a professor at Laval University, appeared before the committee twice and was very clear on that point.
Bill C-54 and then Bill C-11 sent shock waves through the research community. No one was prepared for them. When we examined the bill—and I even read the document explaining it—we thought it was ridiculous, because people had been following the guidelines for 15 years.
In fact, the only major incident involving improper use took place in the United States in the early 2000s and it was in a laboratory run by the American government. Scientists already comply with the framework put forward by the federal government for the use and importing of pathogens.
As I mentioned earlier, Bill C-11 would impose a new framework for university and hospital laboratories as well as private laboratories. At the Standing Committee on Health, we spoke to a number of scientists who work in these laboratories and who have serious doubts about the impact of Bill C-11, and I can understand them.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the new obligations on the circulation of pathogens within a facility such as a university, researchers wonder, not about the safety aspect of their research, but about the way the government is taking control over their everyday research activities.
Once again, the Conservative government is trying to use a variety of tactics to interfere in scientific research, exactly as it did by granting new funding to the Humanities Research Council, but limiting them to economic research. I will return to that point later. That decision, once again, was reached without consultation and without taking the opinion of those most concerned into consideration.
Did the government do any impact studies on the effects such legislation would have on university curricula, on the operation of our hospitals, on the research industry in Quebec and Canada?
Not in the least.
In addition to cutting $162 million in funding to granting agencies, the Conservative government is imposing a legislative framework on researchers, which will require major additional investments for the thousands of facilities wishing to use pathogens with a low level of risk to the public.
The Conservative government is again after carte blanche as far as the regulations are concerned; they will not be reviewed by Parliament. I have serious misgivings about the potential repercussions of this bill on the development of pathogen research in Quebec and on the positive contributions this would make to public health.
We need only think of the swine flu that is rampant at this time. Will scientists be able to work as effectively in future to find solutions to such a virus? I think this issue is worth examining.
Once again, it seems that the Conservative government is introducing a bill without evaluating its direct repercussions on the community. We are beginning to get used to it.
Did the government reflect on the impact that Bill C-11 will have on university teaching? Did it reflect on the investments required to set up a teaching laboratory using groups 1 and 2?
For example, E. coli is currently listed in schedule 2 of the bill. According to the academics, this pathogen is widely used by students in laboratory experiments. The fact that it is in schedule 2 would force universities to step up security in classrooms, although not all types of E. coli are potentially hazardous.
It is true that the government introduced some distinctions in Bill C-11 compared to former Bill C-54 and it could change the classification of pathogens in the schedules. However, that example illustrates the general upgrading problem that will be necessary in some teaching laboratories.
Moreover, the bill restricts the access to licensed facilities. Clause 31 of Bill C-11 says that:
A licence holder shall establish and maintain a list of all persons authorized by the licence holder to access the facility to which the licence applies, including persons holding a security clearance for that facility and visitors. The licence holder shall provide the Minister with that list if requested to do so.
Where teaching is done in laboratories, will the university have to give the list of all students who can access the laboratories or of all students of the university? I do believe that there are still too many questions and not enough answers in that bill.
According to the academics we consulted, Bill C-11 would require major investments in universities where there are laboratories. These investments will not be used to make the necessary upgrades to allow the laboratories to work with groups 3 and 4 pathogens, but to make them conform to the new provisions concerning groups 1 and 2. They told us that universities in Quebec and Canada will have to spend billions of dollars—and I repeat, billions of dollars, in the middle of an economic crisis—to do the necessary upgrading.
Many witnesses also asked the government to eliminate schedule 2 from the bill to reduce the impact on everyday research work. According to scientists, that would considerably change the content of Bill C-11. Indeed, 90% of pathogens used in university laboratories are from group 2.
A scientist at McGill University's Department of Microbiology and Immunology even issued a serious warning about the direct impact of implementing the act if schedule 2 is not repealed:
Removing level 2 would not put Canadians at any greater risk than they face now. Canadians are well protected with what is already present. Keeping level 2 in this bill will certainly slow research in this country and slow our ability to compete internationally and our ability to attract biotechnology and major industries...
In a time of economic crisis, it seems that the worst thing we could do would be to put even more constraints on our universities, which are already faced with serious funding problems. Especially since, as I said, there have been no incidents since the guidelines were introduced 15 years ago. The government is once again trying to impose its right-wing ideology and to control research as much as it can without spending anything. That is completely unacceptable.
As I have mentioned, the handling of pathogens is carried out for diagnostic purposes and for research and development. The Bloc Québécois is concerned with the effects of this bill on the future of research and development in this country related to pathogens. At the risk of repeating myself, I want to say that the Conservative government, in addition to cutting research budgets, is trying to exert maximum control over the scientific community.
It is also important to be concerned about the effects of Bill C-11 on health institutions, such as hospitals, that use laboratories to carry out diagnostic tests. That could have a direct impact on the health services of Quebec and the provinces. The bill also seeks to impose penalties on anyone who contravenes the law. It is important to mention that laboratories, including universities, hospitals and other government establishments, could be forced to pay a fine. Does the government really want to inflict fines on universities and hospitals that already have a crying shortage of funds?
The bill also provides fines and penalties for anyone guilty of careless acts or lack of precaution in the handling of pathogens and toxins. Such action would be liable to a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000 for the first offence. A second offence would attract a maximum fine of $1 million or up to two years in prison, or both of those penalties. Are the measures in Bill C-11 to prohibit intentional misuse of pathogens not already contained within the Anti-terrorism Act?
While we had questioned officials about the possible repercussions, it is now clear that the government did not conduct any study of the impact of Bill C-11. The only response we received was that when it was drawing up the regulations the government would consider the concerns of experts and researchers, to reduce any possible negative impacts. Even though the government still has not conducted an impact study or else is refusing to make it public, the government appears so anxious to have Bill C-11 adopted that it is forgetting that enforcement of the law will not begin for another 4 or 5 years.
I sincerely believe that the government should have acted responsibly before blindly jumping into the implementation of Bill C-11. It should have conducted impact assessments and properly consulted the stakeholders, specifically, researchers, the provinces, medical laboratories and the entire scientific community. Of course the Bloc Québécois supports the notion that the government must consult the stakeholders affected by the bill before drafting any regulations. However, in the clause by clause study conducted by the health committee, of which I am a member, the Bloc proposed that the government consult the provinces before amending the schedules, which obviously was not done.
When asked about the consequences of this amendment, the officials said there would be no consultation with the provinces before the amendments were drafted, thereby forgoing the expertise of public servants from Quebec and the provinces. I would also remind the House that British Columbia has expressed serious reservations about the bill, and that it was these same officials who reassured them, promising that they would be consulted about the scope of the legislation.
This sentiment was echoed by the Government of Quebec. The Quebec health minister, Yves Bolduc, wrote a letter to the Canadian Minister of Health to express his concerns.
The Liberal members who were tearing their hair out in committee because of the failure to respect British Columbia's jurisdictions and the repercussions the bill would have on the people of that province decided to put their trust entirely in the regulations, thereby denying British Columbia the opportunity to give an opinion on the classification of pathogens. The Liberals have a habit of trampling on the provinces, and this is just one more example.
In her speech earlier, the hon. member for Winnipeg North seemed to be saying that the NDP were the only ones to try to change Bill C-11 in committee by proposing amendments.
Perhaps this amnesia is due to the energy she spent on justifying her position.
I would also like to remind the NDP members and all members of the House that the Bloc Québécois also proposed amendments at the report stage calling for the removal of level 2 pathogens and calling on the government to table the regulations before the House before they are adopted. We therefore supported the other parties' amendments that were along the same lines. However, that was not enough.
It would be interesting to know why the hon. member for Winnipeg North and the Liberal and Conservative members of the Standing Committee on Health did not support the amendment put forward by the Bloc Québécois calling for the activities carried out in any facility regulated, operated or funded by a province to be excluded, when Quebec's health minister as well as Ontario and BC officials expressed serious concerns about the impact of Bill C-11 on activities in Quebec and the provinces.
Given that the risk to Canadians posed by the presence of human pathogens and toxins in labs is low, according to the Conservative government; that the bill is designed to make the laboratory biosafety guidelines mandatory through licensing, without the government first consulting the primary stakeholders and assessing the impact on such things as university teaching and labs in health facilities; that the government's goal is to address a potential terrorist risk by regulating pathogens and toxins and that the Anti-terrorism Act and other acts can already cover some of the provisions of Bill C-11; and that this bill can potentially invade the jurisdictions of Quebec and the provinces, for all of these reasons, the Bloc Québécois is calling for an in-depth review of Bill C-11.
We will question experts to make sure that the details of Bill C-11 do not adversely affect Quebec's research community. We will ensure that the proposed provisions are respectful of Quebec's areas of jurisdiction in that they take into account potential implications with respect to university teaching and research as well as health services provided to the people of Quebec.