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House of Commons Hansard #158 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was cfia.

Topics

Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

6:35 p.m.

NDP

Alexandrine Latendresse NDP Louis-Saint-Laurent, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise today to explore in more depth the ideas proposed in Bill C-424 by the hon. Liberal member for Beauséjour.

I am also pleased to announce that the NDP will support the bill so that it can go to committee. It raises some valid points, and I would like to discuss them in greater depth.

But I am well aware that anything to do with electoral reform is far from being the most appealing topic. It is not going to grab media attention or put catchy headlines on the front page of the paper tomorrow. But procedural issues are at the root of the democratic system.

I do not promise a colourful speech, but I still believe that the debate today is very interesting and will be able to hold our attention.

Bill C-424 proposes two very different things. But both are trying to better identify and prevent potential breaches of the Canada Elections Act.

Let me explain the situation.

The bill amends paragraphs 500(5)(a) and 500(5)(b), which provide for penalties for specific offences. The offences are: obstructing or delaying the electoral process; offering or accepting a bribe; compelling or intimidating a person to vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate; acting as an election officer without being one; wilfully making a false declaration; exceeding or evading election advertising expense limits; disclosing the vote of a voter one has helped; intentionally and prematurely spoiling an advance ballot; wilfully failing to declare a candidate elected and finally, wilfully conducting election advertising using government means of transmission.

You will agree with me that these are not choirboy pranks. These are serious offences that undeniably require a degree of premeditation. The word “wilfully” regularly occurs in the list I have just read out, and with good reason. If you show up at a polling station with a baseball bat in order to prevent people from voting, it is not by mistake.

I will now go over the list of people who are liable for the penalties in the act. It is important to name them. They include individuals, voters, election officers, including returning officers, polling companies, candidates, registered associations, party leaders and political parties in general.

All the offences covered by the harsher penalties have to do with wrongdoing that would undermine the legitimacy of the democratic process in Canada.

In an election, there are two types of people. First, there are those to whom the legislation applies, such as candidates, riding associations, leadership candidates, official agents and all those who act directly on behalf of Elections Canada, such as returning officers. Second, there are thousands of volunteers who want to be involved in the electoral process. Those people are indispensable. They are the most valuable resources in an election. The penalties do not apply to volunteers who, unintentionally, make a mistake on an official document or who are not able to apply the legislation to the letter because they do not know it. We need volunteers for our democratic process to work, but they must not be threatened with an election act that could come down hard on them at the slightest error. Those people are protected. The legislation is strict, but it makes a lot of sense and it is applied sensibly.

So the penalties under the legislation only apply to the first category, meaning those who have clear responsibilities set out in the act and who are required to be familiar with the Canada Elections Act.

For the people listening, I will explain that the Canada Elections Act is a document that sets out exactly how to run an election. It is complicated, thorough and constantly being tweaked. The act is also a global benchmark we can be proud of. Representatives of other governments around the world consult it and draw from it. This tweaking is what we are looking at right now.

Ever since Canada came into being, we have learned from our mistakes. Fraud has occurred in the past, and we have always tried to adjust as a result. We need to crack down on fraud and fight it in the future.

Since 1992, precisely 68 violations of the Canada Elections Act have led to convictions. Obviously, they vary in seriousness.

Despite everything, we should acknowledge that these violations are occasional phenomena that are rarely successful.

No one is saying that Canada's electoral legitimacy is seriously at risk. The violations that have been punished are serious but isolated. However, I repeat that higher fines may help deter people from breaking the law. There will always be people ready to cheat and violate the electoral process to get what they want. It is too bad, but I am delighted that these incidents remain infrequent.

There have been 68 convicted violations in 20 years, in six federal elections and one referendum. Think about it. There have been six general elections in over 300 ridings, but only 68 convicted violations, which does not mean that we should ignore them, but that we need to look at all ways to crack down on the culprits. That is our job as legislators. As I said last week, too many countries around the world are victims of democratic processes that lack transparency. Canada is still a symbol of democratic transparency and stability. Despite everything we have lost recently, at least we still have that.

At this time, the fines set out in the legislation are not completely absurd, but almost. We are dealing with so-called cerebral offences, and the maximum fine varies between $2,000 and $5,000. Everyone here agrees that this threat is not very effective. It is not unlike the requirement to own $4,000 worth of “lands or tenements held in franc-alleu or in roture” in order to be a senator in this country.

The NDP would like the penalties imposed for violating the Canada Elections Act to be a far greater deterrent. Increasing monetary penalties related to violations of the Canada Elections Act is a valid means of trying to prevent such violations. For the NDP, this is acceptable, but hardly revolutionary.

We are talking about premeditated fraud committed by organized individuals using sophisticated means to break the law. At the same time, these offences seriously undermine not only the legitimacy of the democratic process, but also our own legitimacy as the elected representatives of the Canadian public. It is important to note that Bill C-424 does not create any new offences. It merely increases fines.

I would like to move on to what is new in this bill. It gives the Chief Electoral Officer the authority to contest the election of a candidate if he or she notes any irregularities in the electoral process.

At present, only a Canadian voter in his own riding or a candidate can file a complaint with the Chief Electoral Officer in order to initiate an investigation.

The problem is that this restriction slows down the process. As I mentioned earlier, the Elections Act is a rather complex piece of legislation. We cannot seriously expect all Canadians to know it inside out. Someone might witness an irregularity, but would not notice it for lack of experience.

We must remember that the act governs electoral conduct down to the minutest detail. The act is well written and, I will say it again, no one expects every Canadian to readily understand its ramifications and consequences. That was never the intention and that is quite all right.

Take, for example, the robocall scandal, which is still being investigated. It took hundreds, even thousands of complaints to Elections Canada before it became apparent that there was a global and coordinated problem. And that was almost one year after the election.

I do not claim to implicitly know the possible consequences of granting the power of contestation to the Chief Electoral Officer. This amendment to the Elections Act is perhaps a good thing. Rather, it most definitely is. However, we must seek the advice of those who are better informed about such matters.

I want to point out that, to our knowledge, the Chief Electoral Officer himself has never asked for this power. After every general election, Elections Canada prepares a list of recommendations to improve the Elections Act. The changes made by Bill C-424, regarding the powers given to the Chief Electoral Officer, are not the result of a specific request by the Chief Electoral Officer.

That is why the NDP is in favour of referring this bill to committee in order to hear from all the necessary witnesses, such as representatives from Elections Canada. They will be able to share with us their analyses and their recommendations. I hope my colleagues from the other parties will support this initiative.

The Chief Electoral Officer is responsible for enforcing electoral legislation. If he or his staff witness an offence, he should have the legislative tools to act if he has concerns about any aspect of the legitimacy of any election. This would be a rare occurrence—extremely rare. If the Chief Electoral Officer already had this power, that does not mean he would already have used it. However, being the independent and impartial expert that he is, he might notice things that someone with less experience would miss entirely.

Giving the Chief Electoral Officer this power does not bother me. It is a valid question worth pursuing in committee. The hon. member for Beauséjour sees a gap in the legislation that he wants to close pre-emptively. Let us see what the experts have to say about it.

In closing, this bill seeks to deter electoral violations through fines increased tenfold, and to anticipate a possible situation of abuse that may very well never happen.

I support Bill C-424 at second reading to refer it to committee. I am curious to hear what the witnesses will have to say about this.

Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

6:45 p.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Liberal Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, it is with pleasure that I rise to speak to what is an important bill for the government to not only look at but also to speak to as well.

The member for Beauséjour has brought an important issue forward to the House of Commons. If we were to canvas Canadians for their opinions, we would find that it is a topical issue, especially if we look at what took place in the last federal election.

In any given election, issues come up at both the federal and provincial levels, but I will focus my attention on the federal side of things.

We do not have to have a partisan debate per se on this legislation. It is important that we look at a couple of examples. It is important that we recognize that this is long overdue. I do not quite understand why any political party inside the House would oppose something of this nature. We appreciate the fact that the New Democratic Party seems to recognize the value of Bill C-424 and is prepared to support the legislation. I look forward to the government responding to the bill. As the member for Beauséjour has always demonstrated a very open mind when it comes to changing legislation, he would no doubt be open to any concerns the government might have in regard to potential amendments.

We have nothing to lose by allowing the bill to go to committee. I would really encourage members, particularly the parliamentary secretary, to open their minds and recognize that there is a need to move forward on this legislation. We should not be fearful of doing the right thing. Doing the right thing in this particular case would be to support the bill.

I join my colleague from Beauséjour in asking the government to get behind this particular bill and allow it to go to committee at the very least, where we can hear witnesses and different stakeholders express their concerns, and to get behind the bill and show that it has substantial support, which I believe it does have.

What would the bill do? First, there would be a significant change to the fines. It would not be a minimum; we are not telling a judge that he has to give a minimum fine of x dollars. We are saying that the amount of the fine has to be increased. The fine for a summary conviction would be increased from $2,000 to $20,000. The fine for an indictment would increase from $5,000 to $50,000. Whether it is the summary or indictment increase, I would argue that the proposed fine is very reasonable. We are not telling a judge that he has to use that amount. We are giving a judge, with the co-operation of the Crown, the opportunity to use some discretion and to levy a fine that would likely be a little bit more appropriate.

When I talk about a “little bit”, I am talking about the fact that a $2,000 fine is really not going to cut it for many of the alleged offences. It is not going to have the desired impact that a $20,000 fine or a $50,000 fine would have if a judge determined that it were an indictable offence. In a particular situation a judge might want to levy a fine of $45,000 or a maximum of $50,000.

When the government responds to this particular bill, it would be nice to hear what it feels about this aspect of the legislation. Does it support the need at the very least to increase the fines? I suspect that the government would be supportive of that.

The second thing that the legislation would change is very significant. The government really needs to understand why it is so critically important that we make this change. The essence of the change is that we are saying that the Chief Electoral Officer in the future would have the opportunity to take a stand and contest something that has taken place before the court.

As it works today, my understanding is that it has to be either a candidate or a resident of the constituency who does that, and that is very limiting. The primary limitation I am concerned about is the financial means of doing so.

Say for the sake of argument that everyone in the chamber agreed unanimously that a particular incident that occurred in riding X should not have taken place and that as a result those election results should be voided and another byelection called to clear the air.

If we have to rely on the local candidate or a voter or a constituent in that riding, there is a fairly significant financial impediment that would, in all likelihood, prevent the result from being contested, even if there were unanimous agreement within the House of Commons that something had taken place that justified some form of intervention.

Therefore, what would the legislation actually do? It would enable the Chief Electoral Officer, who is independent, the opportunity at the very least to bring it to the next level, not to make the decision and not to take a partisan approach. All it would do is to enable the Chief Electoral Officer to take that position and make that intervention. I would argue there is great value in that.

We could talk about the most recent election, but I am a bit reluctant to do that, seeing the member who is going to be speaking after me. He might want to comment and reflect on whether this is about the New Democratic Party or the Liberal Party. Equally, I suspect I could speak of my concerns with regard to the Conservative Party. I suggest that there might be a validity all the way around.

However, the bill is suggesting at the end of the day that the Chief Electoral Officer, whom I think Canadians as a whole have immense respect for and recognize his true independence, would be in an excellent position ultimately to determine whether or not there were a valid public interest in pursuing this, and that it should not be left to the economic means of a person residing in a constituency for us to protect what we all care deeply and passionately about, the democratic foundations of our great country.

It would be a tragic mistake if we collectively or individually took our democracy for granted. I challenge members to not take it for granted, to see the merits of the bill and allow it to go to committee where members on both sides, but more specifically individuals and stakeholders outside the House of Commons, would be able to participate in the debate on this very important bill. I ask all members to stand in their place to support it.

Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

6:55 p.m.

Nepean—Carleton Ontario

Conservative

Pierre Poilievre ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport

Mr. Speaker, I thank the sponsor of the bill who, I believe, does so with good intention and with a skilled hand as a legislator in this place.

The bill would amend the Canada Elections Act to increase the fines for serious election offences. It would provide that the Chief Electoral Officer could contest an election of a candidate under part 20 of the act.

I think everyone in this place can agree that it is our responsibility as parliamentarians to always look for ways to continue to ensure strong, free and fair elections in Canada. Our electoral system must have the trust and confidence of Canadians. Our Conservative government has a proud record of achievement when it comes to strengthening our democracy, a point which I will return to a few minutes later.

We certainly agree that people who commit election fraud and those who break the law should be held to account with tough penalties, and we certainly do not have a problem with tougher penalties. In fact, we welcome the agreement I think we have here in the House on fines and tougher penalties for serious election offences. That agreement is something I hope we will be able to come back to as this session of Parliament continues this fall.

We probably all agree more generally with some sort of strengthening of the enforcement mechanisms of the Canadian Elections Act as well. However, we believe that changes to the Canada Elections Act should be considered in a broader context than that presented in the bill. Piecemeal amendments such as these do not encompass the broader context of the act.

That context is illustrated by the fact that just earlier this year the procedure and House affairs committee produced its 15th report in response to the Chief Electoral Officer's recommendations following the 40th election. That report contained 50 recommendations to the act, and that was not even a comprehensive review of the act. It was simply a review of issues that came up during that particular election.

One of those 50 recommendations dealt with fines. The government is currently reviewing this recommendation and the report as a whole and will put forward a proposal in due course. Therefore, we will have that issue covered in the future and in a more comprehensive way than this bill can provide for. That is plain to see. This bill has two elements. The procedure committee report has 50, so we are talking about a vast difference in scale. That is the broader context at stake.

However, I will not leave it at that. There is a serious problem with the bill. The bill has only two main elements and one of them is, unfortunately, disqualifying in nature. The problem is that the bill would completely undermine the neutrality and impartiality of the Chief Electoral Officer. The bill must be defeated on these grounds alone, even if there were no others.

Right now, participants in an election are able to contest that election. That means any elector or candidate in the electoral district in question can contest it. The application must be accompanied by a security cost in the amount of $1,000. By inserting the Chief Electoral Officer in the arena, we would be undermining his impartial role. The officer is an independent player who represents Parliament. He is not a participant in an election and must therefore act in a manner that is neutral and impartial to all parties and candidates.

Each actor in an election has his or her role. The officer supervises the conduct of elections, kind of like a referee in a hockey game. He does not pick up a stick and start paying. At least he should not.

All complaints alleging offences to the act are referred to the commissioner of Canada elections. The commissioner investigates and enforces the rules. When the commissioner believes that an offence has been committed, the commissioner may refer the matter to the director of public prosecutions who would decide whether or not the matter should be prosecuted.

While the administration and enforcement is left to others, the contestation of elections is left to the political actors, that is candidates and voters. Once again, the Chief Electoral Officer is kept above this fray.

The Chief Electoral Officer should not be an active player in making an election contested. Otherwise, he or she would be put in a conflicted position of potentially filing a complaint against himself or herself. He or she is, after all, the officiator and any bill that requires him or her to make complaints on how an election is officiated would effectively turn his or her own sword on his or her own person.

As such, no measures should be put in place that would risk giving rise to even the perception of any favouritism on the part of the Chief Electoral Officer. I think we can all agree that any favouritism or bias on the part of the Chief Electoral Officer would bring the officer and Elections Canada as a whole into disrepute. The power to contest elections would create just such a risk. The Chief Electoral Officer would have to pick cases to be brought to court. Invariably, those denied will complain of favouritism, having to bear the cost of litigation, and rightly so.

Furthermore, irregularities that may call an election result into question may have been the result of actions or omissions on the part of the Chief Electoral Officer or Elections Canada staff themselves. Imagine if actions or omissions of the Chief Electoral Officer became the subject of a potentially contested vote, and then imagine we had a legal regime that required that same electoral officer to file a complaint against himself or herself. The conflict is obvious and inescapable.

We saw this was the case in the contested election of Etobicoke Centre. In such a case, the Chief Electoral Officer would find himself or herself in a conflict of interest were he or she called upon to defend the actions of his or her staff while at the same time initiating the complaint against the process that he or she ran. So it is clear that the bill would put the Chief Electoral Officer in an intolerable position of conflict. As such, this proposal alone renders the bill unsupportable by the government. Thankfully, we are taking other actions and we hope to co-operate with the hon. member for Beauséjour and the opposition in order to see them to a successful conclusion.

Last night, Bill C-21, the political loans accountability act, passed at second reading in the House. The bill would fix the current rules for political loans, which have been made a mockery of by the opposition parties. Six of the nine NDP contestants in the recent leadership contest failed to meet their filing deadlines for disclosure. They claimed software glitches or having to attend a conference. They had six full months to get their books in order but they could not meet a generous reporting deadline.

The Liberal Party's record is worse. Four Liberal candidates from the 2006 Liberal leadership race, six years ago, have still not paid off their debts despite very generous extensions to the deadline. We are moving to tackle this problem and these abuses through the political loans accountability act.

Finally, we are moving forward with Bill C-377, which would require disclosure of union finances, this being extremely important after the recent discovery that the unions gave $340,000 in illegal money to the NDP.

I encourage the opposition parties to work with us to expand accountability and strengthen the democracy that we all enjoy.

Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

7:05 p.m.

NDP

François Choquette NDP Drummond, QC

Mr. Speaker, some of the things I heard from the hon. member who just spoke are truly unbelievable. It is rather impressive.

I rise today to support second reading of Bill C-424, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act, from the Liberal member for Beauséjour. This bill reflects many values that are dear to the NDP and also to Canadians, such as democracy, integrity and ethics. Furthermore, it reinforces our commitment to a transparent and ethical democracy and electoral process.

More specifically, Bill C-424 would increase the financial penalties for certain offences under the Elections Act. In addition, the Chief Electoral Officer would have greater latitude.

I will summarize the bill. Bill C-424 amends the Canada Elections Act to significantly increase—tenfold—the fines for certain offences under the act. The fines will go from $2,000 to $20,000 in the case of a summary conviction—a criminal offence that is less serious than an indictable offence—and from $5,000 to $50,000 in the case of a conviction on indictment.

The offences targeted by paragraphs 500(5)(a) and 500(5)(b) include delaying or obstructing the electoral process; offering or accepting bribes; compelling a voter to vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate—for example, the whole scandal involving fraudulent calls or robocalls, in which people were asked not to vote, would fit into that category—acting as an election officer without being one; wilfully making a false statement; exceeding or circumventing advertising expenses limits; disclosing for whom the elector voted; intentionally counting the advance poll ballots prematurely; wilfully failing to declare a candidate elected; and knowingly conducting election advertising using a government means of transmission.

These offences apply to individuals, voters, election officers—including returning officers—polling firms, candidates, registered associations, party leaders and political parties in general.

The offences targeted by stiffer penalties relate to inappropriate behaviour that could seriously weaken the legitimacy of Canada's democratic process.

We are really concerned about this bill, because these are all actions that prevent people from recognizing the ethical side of the political profession. It is important that Canadians regain confidence in politics, because right now the public is really discouraged. In Drummond and in Drummondville people often tell me that politicians are all the same and that they are all corrupt at some point. We are trying to improve politicians' image. In order to do so, we need legislation with teeth. Increasing the fines is a good first step to improve the reputation of politicians and politics and to help people regain confidence in politics, so that they will get involved and have confidence in us as politicians.

We are all here because we want to serve our constituents and because we want what is good for our country. That is what the public should see in us, instead of perceiving us as people who abuse the system. That is why it is important to restore ethics. This bill is a good first step in promoting ethics in the context of the Canada Elections Act.

Regarding the monetary penalties for certain violations of the Canada Elections Act, the Chief Electoral Officer himself has questioned some of the disproportionately small penalties. We saw this earlier with fines of $2,000 and $5,000, which is ridiculous. This is not enough to deter malicious people from breaking the law. Much harsher penalties are needed, and multiplying them by 10 is a good start and a good idea. We must support this.

For instance, falsely representing Elections Canada using mechanisms like the infamous robocalls, or fraudulent phone calls, is punishable by a fine of only between $2,000 and $5,000. That is ridiculous. This problem has not yet been resolved in the House of Commons. We must find the guilty parties and ensure that this does not happen again in future elections. Results in some ridings were probably affected by this illegal practice.

The existing fines are not enough to discourage malicious people from doing this terrible deed—preventing people from voting by sending them to the wrong polling station. The Chief Electoral Officer shares our opinion and asked the government to do something. That is what my colleague from Beauséjour has done.

In a scientific article, a law graduate from the Université de Montréal reiterated the remarks of the Chief Electoral Officer:

The current penalties are not tailored to the offences. For example, certain aspects of the law may result in criminal prosecution when administrative penalties would be more effective and more quickly implemented.

She continues by saying that “the amount of the current administrative penalties should be reviewed.” She then again quotes the Chief Electoral Officer and says, “...serious offences carry disproportionately light penalties, including maximum fines that are very low—usually $2,000 or $5,000.”

It is appalling that people are committing such serious acts. Unfortunately, we still have not gotten to the bottom of this. We are having difficulty getting the Conservatives' support, which would allow us to get answers about Mr. Poutine and the absolutely ridiculous story of the fraudulent calls. We are not finished with this yet. Unfortunately, the Conservatives are not co-operating enough to resolve this problem, restore politicians' credibility and ensure that all members of the House, who serve the people in their ridings, act in an ethical manner.

Canadians want more transparency and they want to be able to once again have confidence in our democratic institutions. All elected members of the House of Commons must listen to Canadians. We must do everything we can to restore their confidence in our democratic institutions. That is why this act must be reviewed as quickly as possible.

In order to be thorough, Bill C-424, which was introduced by the hon. member for Beauséjour, deserves to be examined in more detail in committee. The bill is a good starting point, but we must continue to improve it. That is why it is absolutely necessary that it be examined in committee. The NDP supports sending this bill to committee. I hope that the Conservatives will also support it but, unfortunately, I doubt they will.

We look forward to the committee's findings so that we can analyze the direction that my Liberal colleague's bill will take. The Chief Electoral Officer must continue to play an important role in preserving the integrity of the electoral process. It is a matter of public interest. The many alleged offences during the last election clearly show that this is having a negative impact on Canada's democracy. That is why we must immediately take steps to improve the Canada Elections Act. This bill is a good start.

Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

7:15 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

The hon. member for Abitibi—Témiscamingue has only eight minutes.

Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

7:15 p.m.

NDP

Christine Moore NDP Abitibi—Témiscamingue, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-424, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act (contestation of election and punishment). The purpose of this bill, introduced by the hon. member for Beauséjour, is to changes the rules for contesting an election and the fines in cases of electoral fraud.

Since becoming a member of Parliament, I have seen many debates and many issues raised in this House about the last election. It is high time that we took a more serious look at addressing the rules for contesting an election.

The proposed changes in this bill will significantly increase the fines for certain offences under the Canada Elections Act. The fine will increase from $2,000 to $20,000 on summary conviction for a contested election, and from $5,000 to $50,000 on conviction on indictment.

It is perfectly appropriate to wonder what type of offence this might cover. It covers delaying or obstructing the electoral process; offering or accepting a bribe; inciting or compelling a person to vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate by using duress, intimidation, pretence or contrivance; and exceeding or circumventing election advertising expense limits. These are examples of offences that can be punishable under the legislation. These offences might involve candidates, party leaders or the political parties in general.

Another major change this bill proposes is that it will give the Chief Electoral Officer the power to contest an election. Currently, only a candidate for election or a constituent in a particular riding is authorized to contest the results of an election.

This bill gives the Chief Electoral Officer the power to investigate an election or alleged fraud during an election if he believes it is necessary. It is important to understand that the Chief Electoral Officer is often one of the only people who has the complete picture of what happened in a riding. It is unlikely that an individual would file a complaint about the election when he really is not aware, for example, that a thousand people had the same experience. It would be difficult for him to contest the election if he was not aware of all the other problem cases that arose during the same election.

Therefore, I believe that it makes sense to allow investigations to be carried out. Our democratic system is truly precious, and authorizing more frequent investigations of election fraud is a good thing. It is also important to remember that these investigations will take place if there are true concerns. The Chief Electoral Office will only launch an investigation if he has good cause and is truly convinced that there is a problem. Giving him the authority to conduct investigations does not mean that there will be an unlimited number of them. It will simply make it possible to hold investigations in specific situations.

It is also important to remember the context in which the bill was introduced. In recent years, there have been allegations of fraud, intimidation and fraudulent calls during the last federal election. There has been talk of bribes, falsification of voter lists and false information given out in order to prevent voters from voting. We need only think of Pierre Poutine and his 7,000 electronic calls on the day of the election. There were thousands of complaints from all over Canada during the last federal election.

When he appeared before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs in March, the Chief Electoral Officer said:

In that context, concerns have also been raised regarding the administration of the vote in certain electoral districts. This includes allegations of unusual numbers of polling day registrations, people registering improperly and voting by non-citizens. These are very serious matters that strike at the integrity of our democratic process. If they are not addressed and responded to, they risk undermining an essential ingredient of a healthy democracy—namely, the trust that electors have in the electoral process.

He is right. Election fraud jeopardizes our democratic system and the integrity of our democracy.

At the time, nearly 40,000 people had contacted the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer to express their concerns about this scandal. He was the only one who knew about the existence of all the other people. A member of the public cannot know that 39,999 other people called the Chief Electoral Officer to complain. This issue is extremely important and must be taken seriously. We cannot allow our democracy to be jeopardized by partisan games.

I am not sure yet if this bill is the best way to prevent these kinds of scandalous practices in the future, or at least to dispel the doubt people have about the democratic process. I think we must examine it more carefully in committee. That is a start. That will enable us to move forward. It must be studied in committee so that we can make any adjustments that are needed. This is our democracy, our democratic system. The country we represent will reap the benefits.

Canada Elections ActPrivate Members' Business

7:20 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

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

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

7:20 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

The House will now proceed to the consideration of a motion to adjourn the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter requiring urgent consideration, namely food safety.

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

7:20 p.m.

Liberal

Frank Valeriote Liberal Guelph, ON

moved:

That this House do now adjourn.

Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Toronto Centre.

For the second time in four years, we are faced with a major breach in food safety in Canada. The first time, we said never again, but one month ago, we were reminded that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency still does not have the resources it requires, and now, once again, people are sick.

On September 16, 2012, the CFIA issued a recall of just over 20 different meat products, originating at the XL Foods facility in Brooks, Alberta, that were possibly contaminated with E.coli 0157, the same virus that killed seven and poisoned thousands of others at Walkerton, Ontario in 2000. It is a pathogen that when consumed can cause vomiting and bloody diarrhea in most but can go on to attack the kidneys and other organs in vulnerable Canadians, such as seniors and children.

This is a significant date, because the recall occurred two weeks after E.coli contamination was found by American inspectors in a shipment of beef destined for the United States.

On September 3, the Americans positively diagnosed E. coli in an XL Foods shipment after stopping the shipment at the border. On September 4, American inspectors notified Canadian officials that our meat was contaminated, and they held subsequent shipments. On September 13, having found two more contaminated shipments 10 days after their initial finding, the United States Food Safety Inspection Service delisted XL's Brooks, Alberta facility, preventing it from exporting any further meat to the United States.

This brings us to September 16, 13 days after the Americans first found E.coli in a shipment of beef from XL. Our inspection agency's first action to recall tainted meat and protect Canadians from a potentially fatal pathogen took two weeks, which many of the 23 Canadians in Alberta and Saskatchewan who are now suffering would argue was two weeks too long. Despite the rapidly expanding recall, it still took 10 days after the recall to finally shut down the XL Foods Brooks facility for clear violations of the standards regulating sanitation, health and safety.

Now, one month on from the Americans' first finding, we are still looking for answers. Like the recall, which has grown to more than 1.5 million pounds of meat across 1,500 different products, day after day we only have more questions for a government that appears more interested in managing its public relations risk than in working on the real damage being created by a critical break in our food safety system. When was the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food made aware that XL Foods shipped meat contaminated with E.coli to the United States? When was he first aware that the XL Foods facility was no longer meeting minimum sanitation requirements? Why did he argue last week that there was no risk of contaminated product reaching store shelves, when clearly, a recall of 1.5 million pounds of meat, the largest in our history, is not merely a preventive matter?

Conservatives would have us believe that $56.1 million in cuts in the spring budget did not have an impact on the resources available to inspectors or that the hundreds of jobs they cut, including 90 biologists and 140 veterinarians, did not have a negative impact on the speed and efficiency of our front-line food safety workers.

Conservatives would have us believe that regardless of the job they did gutting essential resources this year, they have put enough in over the past five years that it should not matter. Clearly, it does. They answer our calls for more inspectors and more financial stability with derision but refuse to answer these questions: If the resources they gave the CFIA were enough, why are 23 Canadians suffering from food-borne illness related to E.coli? Why has the FSIS shut their borders to meat from XL Foods' Brooks facility? How did the facility get so far behind in meeting whatever food safety standards exist?

In 2008, 23 Canadians died, and hundreds more were sick, after consuming listeria-tainted meat in a situation that is eerily beginning to resemble our current state. In her report stemming from an investigation of what went wrong, Sheila Weatherill found a number of key factors that led to a catastrophic breakdown in inspection and prevention. Among those she pointed out was a major disconnect between senior management of both the industry and the CFIA in their approach to food safety, especially as it pertained to monitoring trends that would assist in identifying recurring bacteria presence.

Notably, as recently as last week, Dr. Richard Arsenault, director of meat inspection at the CFIA, said, “We need to do a better job of managing this data and finding these trends ahead of time…as opposed to having to respond to a crisis like this”, all this so that inspectors might connect the dots.

The second key factor noted by Ms. Weatherill was our state of readiness, or the lack thereof. She was concerned about insufficient training for inspectors, in particular.

Yesterday, before the Senate committee on agriculture, Bob Kingston, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada's Agriculture Union, expressed his concern that only a small number of inspectors at XL Foods are properly trained to manage the compliance verification system, because there are not enough resources or trained inspectors to cover the time and material for bringing all inspectors up to speed.

Ms. Weatherill was concerned that one of the truly fatal flaws during the listeria outbreak was a lack of a sense of urgency at its outset. Concerns about when to notify the public in 2008 were mirrored this month when it took two weeks to notify the Canadian public that there was a threat to their food supply. Ms. Weatherill said: “Until the system is remedied, events like those of the summer of 2008 remain a real risk”.

Despite that being three years ago, here we go again, and her initial concerns still ring true.

Conservatives will tell us that they have fulfilled all the recommendations of the Weatherill report. However, just this year, they removed funding specific to listeria, and they have yet to complete a comprehensive third-party audit of all CFIA resources, including staffing, which she requested as her seventh recommendation.

Allow me to quote Ms. Weatherill further:

Due to the lack of detailed information and differing views heard, we were unable to determine the current level of resources as well as the resources needed to conduct the CVS activities effectively. For the same reason, we were also unable to come to a conclusion concerning the adequacy of the program design implementation plan, training and supervision of inspectors, as well as oversight and performance monitoring.

Accordingly, she recommended:

To accurately determine the demand on its inspection resources and the number of required inspectors, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency should retain third-party experts to conduct a resource audit. The experts should also recommend required changes and implementation strategies. The audit should include analysis as to how many plants an inspector should be responsible for and the appropriateness of rotation of inspectors.

To this day, that has yet to be done.

Conservatives will tell us that they acted on each recommendation. However, they cannot tell us how many inspectors they have, what their roles and responsibilities are, or where they are located. In fact, the only study they engaged in was a superficial review of resources available to the compliance verification system.

They will also accuse us of holding up their newest food safety legislation, which dismantles the various inspection acts, including the Meat Inspection Act, by removing specializations and making inspectors jacks of all trades but masters of none. However, they will not say that we support modernizing our food system, so long as it includes the necessary resources.

Furthermore, contrary to statements by their president earlier today claiming that the CFIA does not currently have the power to compel XL Foods to present proper documentation proving compliance, the Meat Inspection Act provides that:

[A]n inspector may...require any person to produce for inspection, or for the purpose of obtaining copies or extracts, any book, shipping bill, bill of lading or other document or record that the inspector believes on reasonable grounds contains any information relevant to the administration or enforcement of this Act or the regulations.

Moreover, the act compels the operator of the plant not only to comply but to facilitate the process. Hiding behind the imaginary facade of new, enhanced powers should not let anyone off the hook for this blatant failure to act.

The danger posed by Conservative inaction on the food safety file extends beyond the health and safety of Canadians. It is a threat to our ranchers, who have just started to recover from the BSE ordeal.

Borders across the world have finally reopened to our beef trade. Still, the government is currently attempting to negotiate away the very program that caught our contaminated meat at the border.

We have some of the finest inspectors in the world, but they are hamstrung by a lack of resources, leaving them incapable of performing the necessary functions of their jobs. Clearly, we have seen that the industry, while it can work in partnership, can no longer be left alone to police itself.

In terms of immediate action, will the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food finally consent to a comprehensive third-party audit of the resources necessary to operate the CFIA? Will the government finally agree to give our food inspection agency the powers and resources it needs to keep Canadians safe?

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

7:30 p.m.

NDP

Malcolm Allen NDP Welland, ON

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague from Guelph. He sits on the agriculture committee with me and was here in the last Parliament with me as well. Although he did not sit on the listeriosis subcommittee with me, I did sit on that committee with the other member from his caucus, the member for Malpeque.

To state the obvious, it is déjà vu all over again. He quite correctly pointed out what happened in that particular outbreak, when 22 people died of listeriosis, and how that was addressed.

I wonder if my colleague could speak about the 170 inspectors out of the 700 and some-odd the government says it has actually put in place. We know, of course, that they are not actually front-line inspectors. The government has a catch-all phrase for what they call them as a category. Indeed, only 170 inspectors are in front-line meat inspection, but not in facilities like XL. They are actually in the ready-to-eat meat program.

I wonder if my colleague could express his concerns about why there were no new inspectors put into XL?

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

7:35 p.m.

Liberal

Frank Valeriote Liberal Guelph, ON

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague for that question. It is a pleasure to serve with him on the committee.

The facade the government creates is enormous. It keeps talking about all the inspectors it has hired, as my friend has noted. It seems to suggest that these inspectors have been put into the system for the purpose of dealing with food safety at meat processing plants. I found out today that 200 inspectors who were added were added to the invasive alien species program, which is designed to keep harmful organisms out of Canada. They have nothing to do with meat inspection whatsoever.

I have another concern with respect to the Conservatives' continued comments that there are 46 inspectors at this particular Lakeside plant. When I was at that plant several years ago, there were about 3,000 head processed a day. There are now over 4,000 head processed a day. That is a one-third increase. They have not increased the number of inspectors by the same proportion. My concern is that they are cutting corners, and that cutting of corners is what has led to this outbreak.

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

7:35 p.m.

Liberal

Wayne Easter Liberal Malpeque, PE

Mr. Speaker, I have a press release here from the NFU, which states: “Cattle farmers are already feeling the effect of the closure, as prices for fat steers and cull cows have already dropped by 20% and 30% respectively”.

Both the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Health are missing in action. They are failing to show control of the problem and to give assurance of safe meat in the country. I am worried that it is almost like a run on the banks during a financial problem.

There are very good meat operations out there. The cattle producers produce good quality meat.

What should be done in that regard to give assurance to consumers and help the farm community out as well?

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

7:35 p.m.

Liberal

Frank Valeriote Liberal Guelph, ON

Mr. Speaker, the member is quite right. There is good meat out there. A lot of ranchers are quite concerned about the impression that has been left by the government and its failure to protect our food supply. I met with some of those ranchers and with other processors today.

We need to reassure Canadians that there is a way to eat safely, notwithstanding the government's failures. I am not a cook or a chef, but I will say that they need to cook their meat to 70o C or 170o F, which will actually kill the E. coli.

As quickly as borders were opened, they can be slapped shut instantly by the failures that have been demonstrated by the government. The slapping shut of our borders is our deepest concern on behalf of the ranchers of our country.

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

October 3rd, 2012 / 7:35 p.m.

Liberal

Bob Rae Liberal Toronto Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague from Guelph for having moved this motion. I know it was an idea that was shared by the member for Welland. It does give the House a chance to debate a subject of great importance to Canadians.

I want to make a comment in that regard. This is a real concern for consumers. People want to know that their health will never be in danger because the government did not do its job. That is the first thing that needs to be said.

This matter does not affect only consumers, but also Canada's reputation. We live in a world where products like meat are exported to the United States, Europe and Asia. For quite some time now, Canadians have been working hard to maintain a positive reputation around the globe.

This issue also affects the producers of this meat, including those in Alberta and the west, and across Canada. It is a nationwide industry. We believe it is a situation that requires a more tangible and direct response from the government. It is not enough for the government to say that it has appointed 700 inspectors. Besides, 700 were not appointed, but rather 170. The government can appoint 10,000 inspectors, but if the result is the same, then we have a problem.

The government can say it took action, but frankly, it moved too slowly. The American authorities acted a lot faster, for they began refusing products from that plant on September 13. It was not until September 16 that the Canadian government insisted on recalling products that had been sent all over the place. The plant was not closed until last week. The government did not respond appropriately to protect not only Canadian consumers, but also our reputation around the world.

Canadians have to understand that operations like the one in Brooks, Alberta are huge operations. We are looking at thousands of cattle being processed every day. We are looking at hundreds of millions of pounds of meat being dealt with across the country on an annual basis. We are looking at fewer and fewer large slaughterhouses being available for farmers. We are looking at a system that requires and insists that there be an absolutely seamless process of inspection and of assurance that in every step of the way steps are being taken to protect the consumer, the rancher, the producer and those who buy our product. Those who buy our product are not only in Canada, they are around the world.

Every minister of agriculture knows that Canada's reputation is only as strong as our ability to ensure the health and safety of every consumer of this product each and every day. That is why I cannot understand some of the responses we have heard from the government. I cannot understand the performance I saw on television by the Minister of Agriculture. He spoke for four and a half minutes, left the stage and said that he was sorry he had to go. Then as soon as the president of the CFIA stood to speak, the government spokesperson said that the press conference was over.

That is cowardice. How else could we describe a minister who cannot defend himself in the House of Commons, cannot defend the actions of the CFIA in the House of Commons and he goes to Alberta for a photo op and he cannot even defend himself at the photo op? Something has gone clearly wrong.

Yes, we have other examples. We had the listeriosis crisis, which affected the country four years ago. By contrast with what we have seen from XL, Maple Leaf Foods was out there every day, defending itself, explaining, trying to get people to understand the importance because it understood from the get-go that this was about reputation as much as it was about health.

It affects everything including the credibility of the system. Where has XL been? We do not hear from the people at XL. They are not there. When people call the company, they get an answering machine.

This is affecting hundreds of thousands of consumers, and the company says that its responsibility is to disappear. Companies can disappear, but we have seen a disappearing act that matches Houdini by the Minister of Agriculture.

That is something which requires a real response from the government today. Canadians expect better and expect answers. They expect more than a Prime Minister who says that it is a great system and the government has added all the inspectors.

I am sure the minister and the parliamentary secretary will have exactly the same rote responses, that the first priority they have is the protection of consumers. If it is the first priority, why are the consumers the last to know? If the Americans could close the border on September 13, why could we not have done the same thing on the same day?

The government takes great pride in the fact that it is now signing this seamless border agreement with the Americans. What is going to happen to that as a result of this incident? What is going to happen to that when the Americans wake up and realize that the standards we are putting in place are not as strong as we claim they are and are not as good and seamless as we claim they are?

The consumer has to be told much earlier. The public has to know how and why this happened. The government has to come clean with the Canadian public, not giving us press release after press release, not holding photo ops after photo ops. There has to be an understanding that this has happened because something went wrong, not because something went right. This has happened because something was wrong for a long period of time, and consumers were left vulnerable for too long.

The enthusiasm on that side for privatization and deregulation will not deal with this problem. This is a problem which requires robust government capacity, a robust capacity to protect the public interest and a robust capacity to protect the public health.

Yes, the companies have to be involved. Yes, there will never be enough inspectors to cover every situation, every moment. Companies have to be engaged in helping us to deal with this question.

However, the people who are working for the companies need to have the independence and the power to do their jobs. They need to have the training to do their jobs. We have to ensure that this system is clearly and honestly in place.

This is why we believe that in addition to the answers we have been asking for over the last several days, there clearly needs to be a report, very quickly, by the Auditor General of Canada, some independent way of assessing the government statements that all of the recommendations of the Weatherill report have been carried and a real assessment as to how our CFIA compares with inspection in the U.S. and in Europe. We cannot simply be among the best; we can be the best country.

The food industry is an absolutely fundamental industry to our country. I do not think many Canadians understand that for all the publicity about other manufacturing industries, the food industry is at the heart of manufacturing. It is at the heart of prosperity in the country. It connects agriculture and the farmer, the small and the large producers with some of the largest companies in the world. It gives Canada its global reach.

That global reach is only as good as our local reputation. It is only as good as the actions that we in fact take and the assurance that we are as good as our word and that we are up to the job. Right now, that bunch is not up to the job. That is why we have had to call for this emergency debate.

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

7:45 p.m.

Conservative

James Bezan Conservative Selkirk—Interlake, MB

Mr. Speaker, I listened intently to the interim leader of the Liberal Party's comments. The one thing that was missing through it all was he never once mentioned how this was devastating cattle producers across the country. He went on and on about fear-mongering and scaring consumers to think that we do not have a good food safety system.

We do have a good food safety system. If the member understood the situation we are dealing with right now in Brooks, if he understood the situation with XL Foods, he would know that there is only one player in this whole situation that we need to blame and that really needs to be held to account, and that is XL itself.

There are 46 food inspectors in that plant, 46 inspectors doing the research and ensuring that XL was trying to find problems going right back to September 4. They found the problem. They asked for correctional measures to be taken.

We are not hearing anything about that aspect. That side wants to play political games. Those members want to blame the government and CFIA, but they never once say that we should look at the culprit in all of this, the company—

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

7:50 p.m.

NDP

The Deputy Speaker NDP Joe Comartin

Order, please. The hon. member for Toronto Centre.

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

7:50 p.m.

Liberal

Bob Rae Liberal Toronto Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, if he cares to look at the blues and my speech, one of the first things I said in French and in English was that this was a problem which affected everybody. I said it affected producers and ranchers. I will say it again because I do not think the member listened to what I said. This is a devastating issue for everyone involved in the food industry in our country and that includes ranchers and producers across the country. We understand that.

He also says that he has reached the conclusion that the company is uniquely responsible for what happened. The company obviously bears a responsibility. We are not a court here. We are not going to determine which is liable. The only people we can ask questions of are the people who are here and are answering questions.

If the member honestly thinks that any of us take particular joy in the fact that this issue is now effecting the largest meat recall in the history of the country, then he is sadly mistaken. I hope he will listen to what is being said and understand that perhaps we have a lot more in common than he realizes.

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

7:50 p.m.

NDP

Alexandre Boulerice NDP Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for his remarks about this major crisis shaking Canada and Quebec.

I would like to put the crisis into perhaps a broader context, as part of the accomplishments of, or the mess made by, the Conservative government.

When we were told that $4 billion was going to be cut from the public service and that 19,000 people were going to be laid off, but that it was not going to affect services to the public, that it was going to have no effect and that we were going to save $4 billion in administrative and photocopying costs, they treated us like fools, they laughed right in our faces. Today, we see the effect: we have no means of ensuring public safety and no means of providing real services directly to the public.

I would like to hear how the distinguished member feels about the Conservatives blindly cutting services to Canadians and compromising their safety.

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

7:50 p.m.

Liberal

Bob Rae Liberal Toronto Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, the hon. member is perfectly right. Naturally the cuts have had an effect. That is bound to happen. There is a good study that I would like to recommend to him. He should read the report by Justice O'Connor on the events that took place in Walkerton. It is a very important report, and a long one, in two volumes.

In his report, Justice O'Connor shows that there is a link between budget cuts and problems with regulations. Opposite us, we have the same group that was responsible for the cuts in Ontario between 1990 and 2000, and we are in the same situation. Naturally, we will need an inquiry to tell us the extent to which the lack of regulations and the lack of human resources available to deal with the problem are responsible for it. That is what remains to be done.

The government is now concealing the effect of the cuts. It is ready to say that cuts were made, but the Parliamentary Budget Officer tells us that he does not know exactly where the problems are.

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

7:50 p.m.

Glengarry—Prescott—Russell Ontario

Conservative

Pierre Lemieux ConservativeParliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture

Mr. Speaker, I would like to address the House on the ongoing matter of the beef recall that has been much in the news today. I welcome the opportunity to talk about this issue and to clarify the situation. Let me reiterate that the health and safety of Canadians, particularly when it comes to food safety, is the top priority for this government.

Please allow me to list some of the facts for the record. First, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency acted to contain contaminated products beginning on September 4 and it has been acting ever since. Second, the XL plant will not be allowed to reopen until the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has certified that it is safe. Third, our Conservative government has hired over 700 additional net new inspectors since 2006, including 170 meat inspectors and, I might add, with no help from the opposition, which has voted against this and other valuable initiatives to fortify our food safety system.

Fourth, our government has implemented all 57 recommendations from the Weatherill report. Fifth, we have increased CFIA's budget by $156 million, which is a 20% increase and once again, the opposition voted against this. Sixth, we have tabled legislation in the other place, Bill S-11, known as the safe food for Canadians act, to strengthen the authorities under which CFIA acts.

The bill will be coming to the House for debate and voting. If the opposition believes that the powers of the agency are not sufficient, then it should support our government's legislation to make sure that the CFIA has greater authorities. The opposition needs to change the way that it has been voting on food safety issues.

Now that we know the basic facts, let me put it into context. As many are already well aware, XL Foods, which operates an Alberta-based meat processing facility, is implicated in a very substantial recall of beef products. The recall is a result of E. coli 0157:H7 having been found present in products that originate from this facility.

E. coli cases in Canada have dropped 50% since 2006. There is a great deal of information about how to avoid food-borne illness. In the case of E. coli, washing hands, keeping food preparation services clean and cooking food to proper temperature is usually all that is ever needed to avoid getting sick. The fact that this particular producer provides a large amount of beef product to further processors and retailers across Canada and for export to the United States adds to the complexity of this particular situation.

That being said, despite the efforts of the CFIA to provide disclosure and transparency about the events surrounding this issue, there persists a perception, a narrative, if one will, that is at odds with the facts. Last Friday, CFIA experts in food safety and public health held a press conference where they delivered detailed information and informative statements and took many questions from the media. All questions were fully answered.

Furthermore, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's website contains detailed information about what happened, where and when. The full chronology is there for all to see. People will also see information such as what the issue is, when it was first discovered, likely factors and actions taken. All of that is available to the media and to the general public.

I appreciate that much of the information being delivered leans to the technical side in terms of detail, so I will try to bring some clarity to the issue. For the record, allow me to share some of the misconceptions that still persist and must be set straight. There is the idea that American inspectors discovered the problem, while the CFIA did not, and that Canada was alerted to the problem solely due to American inspection efforts. This is not true. It was found in Calgary by the CFIA and the CFIA and Americans were communicating with each other about their test results on the same day.

It has been said that cuts to CFIA's inspection capacity, specifically the number of inspectors, has contributed to the XL problem and that this food safety issue is a direct result of the agency being under-resourced in this facility. This is false. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, our government has hired more than 700 net new inspectors since 2006, and we have consistently increased funding for food safety multiple times since 2006, including by $52 million in our last budget alone.

It has been alluded to that our government is shying away from making any positive link between E. coli and beef and certain people who have become sick with E. coli. There has been no such evasion. Five cases have been connected by the Alberta public health authority. As a government, we feel for these people and understand how difficult this situation is.

Going back to the beginning when problems were first discovered, it needs to be understood that the CFIA discovered E. coli in a beef product on September 4. This product, discovered in one establishment, had originated from the XL Foods establishment in Alberta. On that very same day, the CFIA was informed that inspectors working for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, or the FSIS, had discovered E. coli in a sample of beef trimmings that had originated from the same XL Foods plant in Alberta.

The CFIA was alerted by the FSIS about the discovery on September 4 and the meat products were destroyed. The CFIA, through a trace out investigation, was able to determine that the meat products found to be positive in the U.S. were not distributed anywhere in Canada. The CFIA immediately launched an investigation into the causes of the problem on September 4. There was no delay.

Canadian and American inspectors had discovered the problem in parallel and that information was shared. The source of Canada's information was our own inspection service turning up positive samples for E. coli in Alberta and the American find served to confirm it. This information can be verified simply by looking at the statements made on both the CFIA and FSIS websites. The idea that had the Americans not found a positive sample, our own inspection service would have missed the E. coli is false, as the problem was uncovered by the CFIA through routine testing.

Throughout the course of the CFIA investigation, inspectors stepped up their oversight of operations within the plant. By September 18, the CFIA determined that there was no single cause that it could link to E. coli-positive meat at the plant. However, there were a number of issues uncovered having to do with some protocols not being strictly followed. These are the sorts of issues that the CFIA discovers from time to time.

XL Foods was informed of these deficiencies and was ordered to correct them before a firm deadline. Based on the in-depth investigation conducted by the CFIA from September 4 through to September 16, it was decided health hazard alerts should be issued to the public. During that time period there was not a single day that the CFIA was not actively investigating the issue on an urgent basis.

By September 16, XL Foods had begun recalling beef trimmings from three days of production from its clients. We must understand that beef trimmings coming out of one facility can go out to many different clients who further process these trimmings into other food products. Some of it might end up as ground beef. Some of it might be turned into fresh or frozen hamburger patties. Some of it could end up in sausages, frozen lasagna, meatballs or soup, and all under different brand names. The food supply system in this particular case is vast.

What we have is the CFIA actively tracing products into the supply chain based on a limited number of specific production dates. The agency tracked down the various companies, food processors, destinations and further processing points that the meat could have gone out to as quickly as possible and then food recalls for those food products were announced. As soon as a product was discovered to have had its origins in a high-risk run of production, it was recalled. As a result, what looked like recall after recall was really just one recall, with the group of affected products expanding as the different companies, processors, product lines and products were identified.

This is the tracing out process. It can take some time to go through various company records in multiple locations with information presented in vastly different formats. When a food recall gets under way the CFIA works literally around the clock to get the products off the shelf as fast and as comprehensively as it can. In fact it is considered to be the best in the world at food recalls.

Through further investigation it was decided, based on data that the CFIA collected, that production runs from two other days showed a higher than usual risk for E. coli and so products originating from these batches of trim were also added to the recall list. On September 27, the establishment's licence was suspended. The suspension resulted from the company being unable to fully implement the corrective actions requested by the CFIA. The suspension followed established agency protocol for when a food producer is unable or unwilling to comply with corrective actions requested by the agency.

Let me be clear. The XL plant will not reopen until the CFIA has certified that it is safe.

The CFIA acted swiftly to address the problem once it was discovered. It was discovered by CFIA inspectors during routine testing. Although it looked like a staggered recall to outsiders because the recall got wider and wider as more information on products became available, it really was a single recall of products produced on five production dates at the facility.

I will now address the budget issue. As we are all aware, our government, in its efforts to reduce the deficit, asked officials to make proposals that could find savings for budget 2012. Did budget 2012 expose Canadians to more food safety risk? Absolutely not, and for the opposition to say otherwise is just wrong. In budget 2012, as I mentioned earlier in my comments, we put forward more than an additional $50 million for food safety. That is what is in budget 2012. That is in addition to $100 million that was in budget 2011. Our government remains committed to ensuring that the food Canadians and their families eat is safe.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has not made any changes that would in any way risk the health and safety of Canadians. Contrary to what some have asserted, we have made significant investments in food safety. Recognizing the challenges and opportunities of the current environment, our government's budget last year committed over $100 million over five years for the CFIA to modernize its food inspection system. This included new resources on inspection delivery, training for inspection staff, scientific capacity on food laboratories, and information management and technology. Once again, the opposition voted against all of this.

In the case of this particular XL Foods facility, CFIA inspection staffing levels have actually gone up over the last six years, not down. There are 40 inspectors and six veterinarians assigned full time to the XL facility. That is six more inspectors and two more veterinarians than were assigned there in 2006. In this case in particular, and as a general rule across all of the agency's inspection services, there has been no cut in food safety service delivery. Budget 2012 is not relevant to this food recall and, as I mentioned, there have been additional resources allocated to CFIA through budget 2012.

I will now deal with the issue of illness. The agency has been very transparent about providing to the public all of the information it has around links to recalled food and human illness. At the press conference last Friday, a knowledgeable spokesman from the Public Health Agency of Canada addressed this issue. The PHAC website is being continually updated when information about cases of food-borne illnesses linked to the XL Food recalls becomes known. Further tests are required and it must be firmly established that people who actually ate products originating from this XL facility have been affected. This requires interviews about what people consumed in the recent past and the testing of any food that they may still have in their homes to establish a clear link. This work is done collaboratively by provincial public health agencies, the CFIA and the PHAC. It is a high scientific and evidentiary standard that must be adhered to. Anything less would be speculation and our government is not in the business of speculating on the health of Canadians. We need accurate information to make informed decisions.

We have a strong food safety regime here in Canada and we aim to make it even better with the proposed safe food for Canadians act. This government is committed to making these instances even rarer and to having a robust and efficient recall system when situations like this occur.

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

8:05 p.m.

NDP

Jack Harris NDP St. John's East, NL

Mr. Speaker, I just heard the member say that the government is not in the business of speculating on the health of Canadians. I was just at an event at a very significant hotel here in Ottawa tonight and it was serving beef. I guess if the Minister of Agriculture were there and were asked whether it was inspected or not, he would say, “I don't know and I don't care”.

Is that the standard by which the government determines how the health of Canadians is looked after by food inspection?

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

8:05 p.m.

Conservative

Pierre Lemieux Conservative Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Mr. Speaker, I will explain for this member that our government takes the health and safety of Canadians very seriously, particularly when it comes to food safety. It is a top priority for our government. He is asking what standards we have brought to bear. In my comments I mentioned specific things that we have done in the House where we sought opposition support for increasing the number of food inspectors for the CFIA, for increasing funding for the CFIA and now we have a bill at the Senate to give the CFIA more authority to act.

Up to this point, the opposition members, particularly the New Democrats, have voted against all of these measures. Bill S-11 is not in this place yet but they have already stated their intention to oppose it. That is shameful and they need to answer to Canadians for that.

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

8:10 p.m.

Liberal

Bob Rae Liberal Toronto Centre, ON

Mr. Speaker, the parliamentary secretary will know that the one date he left out of his chronology was September 13, the day the American border was closed to XL products. I cannot understand why, given his interest in U.S.-Canada trade, he would have omitted that particular date. Then he mentioned that on September 16 the recalls started when the CFIA must have realized that the contamination spread beyond the product that was contained in the first issue of September 3 and 4.

Why was there a delay of 72 hours? Would the parliamentary secretary not admit that after September 16 the CFIA in fact broadened its concerns to go beyond what was taking place on the line on August 24, to look at what was taking place in the days after that, so that in fact the problem was one that was growing larger and more serious as the CFIA continued its investigation?

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

8:10 p.m.

Conservative

Pierre Lemieux Conservative Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, ON

Mr. Speaker, to respond to the first part of my colleague's question, our government is very focused on the health and safety of Canadians. All of our efforts have been focused on the health and safety of Canadians, particularly when it comes to food safety.

When it comes to the dates, on September 4, there were preliminary E. coli test results. The batch that those test results came from was quarantined and destroyed. What happened after that I explained, and actually the member in his own speech explained, the very complex supply chain that exists when there is a major slaughterhouse that deals with 4,000 head of cattle a day and produces hundreds of millions of pounds of beef product every year. Imagine the supply chain. I listed a number of different products that can be produced from the meat or meat trimmings coming from XL. The amount of effort that is needed to pursue that supply chain, to uncover what products are affected, takes time.

The important thing, and what Canadians need to know, is that the CFIA was engaged on this on September 4 when the preliminary E. coli results were presented. The CFIA has been engaged ever since and has been working around the clock to protect the health and safety of Canadians.

Food SafetyEmergency Debate

8:10 p.m.

NDP

Marc-André Morin NDP Laurentides—Labelle, QC

Mr. Speaker, what we notice is that reading talking points in the House, saying whatever they want and blaming the opposition is behaviour the members opposite reserve for dealing with people they dislike, like the opposition, or people they choose to ignore, like Canadians.

There are people who are very interested in this issue, such as the beef producer I met in June. He was concerned about the opposition's support for a free trade agreement with Japan. I told him he should not worry about that and that he should instead worry about the health standards that his government was implementing because that is a greater threat to his livelihood than any position the opposition might have on free trade.

It is easy to lay blame, say whatever you want and read talking points, but I think that the people who became ill with E. coli see things differently. It is time to start telling them the truth.