Mr. Speaker, I rise today in very strong support of the bill as reported back by the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, which I chair.
I rise today in fervent opposition to the amendments brought forward by the member for Edmonton Centre. When the member for Edmonton Centre put forward these amendments, he stated that they had not been considered by the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, which is true. They had not been considered because they would have been non-receivable at committee.
One does not move at committee to strike a clause. One votes against the clause when it is before the committee. Members of the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, and the NDP on the committee heard the evidence and all of them decided to vote in favour of those clauses, thus rejecting the proposed amendments being put forward by the member for Edmonton Centre. I can only say that I hope the House considers the hard work done by the committee and the testimony of the witnesses who appeared before committee who told us how important this legislation is.
Do members know that 12% of Canadian women will one day be diagnosed with breast cancer? That sounds horrible, but if a woman has the BRCA1 mutation, she has a 65% chance of developing breast cancer by the age of 70. If a woman has the BRCA2 mutation, she has a 45% chance of developing breast cancer by the age of 70. There is also more than a 30% increase in the chance of ovarian cancer. These are dangerous things.
Imagine, if we can, that a 35-year-old woman's 40-year-old sister was just diagnosed with breast cancer and told that she has the BRCA1 gene. There is a history in their family of breast cancer. Their grandmother died of it, and so did their aunt. They are of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, which means they have a one in 40 chance of having this mutation, as opposed to a one in 800 chance in the general population.
There is a test available, easily accessible, to determine whether a woman has the BRCA mutation. It would stand to reason, would it not, that a woman would have this test done. After all, if she found out she was negative, she would breathe a huge sigh of relief, and if she found out she was positive, she could take preventive action. She could get enhanced screening. She could go on the birth control pill, which reduces the chance of developing breast cancer. Alternatively, she could have a radical mastectomy, which drastically reduces a woman's risk of getting breast cancer. There are other types of surgery as well.
It would stand to reason that it would be an easy decision, but in Canada, the decision is not so easy. The Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights and the Senate committee before it heard testimony from people in this situation who chose not to have the screening. Among the reasons was that if a woman was looking for a job, she was afraid that a future employer would not hire her if she disclosed the result of this genetic test. A woman may have young children and be worried she would not get life insurance, disability or long-term care insurance or the insurers would charge her prohibitive rates which she could not pay. Women would worry knowing they have this gene merely because of discrimination, not only for them but close family members, perhaps their children.
Canadians should never have to worry about a decision that could save their lives. Medical professionals who testified before the justice committee said that a significant number of people in this situation refuse to be tested, like the 35-year-old woman I just described in getting a job, getting insurance, and then dying of breast cancer at age 40 because she was not screened for the gene and did not take preventive measures.
People should not die in Canada because they are afraid to take a genetic test. This does not happen in other countries. Laws exist to prohibit genetic discrimination in most of the western world. Criminal sanctions exist to prevent this in France, Austria, Germany, Norway, and Israel, among other countries.
The law before us seeks to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canada Labour Code, and to attach criminal penalties to require someone to submit to a genetic test or disclose results of a genetic test. The goal here needs to be to protect people across the country. The amendments to the Canadian Human Rights Act that the government supports are very nice, but they only apply to federal matters. This would leave the vast majority of Canadians unprotected. We need to be able to reassure Canadians from coast to coast to coast that they should not be afraid to get genetic testing for diagnostic or predictive reasons.
In order to prevent the social evil of genetic discrimination, we need to make use of Parliament's criminal law powers. Protecting people here is not an insignificant issue. As of November 2014, there were over 24,000 tests for over 5,000 conditions, and these are increasing exponentially.
Genetic tests will allow Canadians to live longer and healthier lives. Of all the witnesses that came before our committee, the vast majority were in favour of the law: medical associations, genetic associations, the Privacy Commissioner, and the Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The only ones who disapproved were the insurance industry and the actuaries. Yet they have known about this concern for years and have done nothing to help resolve it.
Those who vote to defeat the amendments and support the law as drafted will be doing the right thing when it comes to policy.
Of course, the government has raised a separate issue that I want to deal with. It argues that the law is unconstitutional, as it seeks to regulate contracts and insurance companies, which fall under provincial jurisdiction. This position has been refuted by the majority of experts who testified before both the Senate and House committees, which included such luminaries as Bruce Ryder, Pierre Thibault, and Canada's foremost constitutional expert, Peter Hogg, who has been cited in over 1,000 court decisions.
Federal criminal law power falls under section 91(27) of the Constitution Act of 1867. The leading case to define the criminal law power was the Margarine reference of 1949. In that case, Justice Rand, of the Supreme Court of Canada, said that a law passed using Parliament's criminal law powers has to have as its dominant characteristic the putting in place of prohibitions coupled with penalties for a criminal public purpose, such as preserving peace, order, or security, or promoting health or morality. The court, importantly, recognized that social evils change over time and that Parliament has to be able to deal with them under the criminal law power.
In fact, over the last several decades, the court has emphasized that this is the broadest and most flexible of Parliament's powers, and we have used it in such varied areas as the Food and Drugs Act, the Tobacco Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, and securities legislation. In the Assisted Human Reproduction Act reference several years ago, the court upheld very similar provisions criminalizing cloning or payment to surrogates.
I want to say that I saw the letter from the Province of Quebec, which cites only this one case to say that it may be unconstitutional, when in fact, that very reference came to exactly the opposite conclusion where the criminal law powers were upheld.
It is clear to me that the pith and substance of this law is to prevent the evils of genetic discrimination and not to regulate the insurance industry, which is not even referenced in the bill.
I want to cite Peter Hogg's brief, where he states:
A valid criminal law involves three elements: (1) a prohibition, (2) a penalty, and (3) a typically criminal purpose. In the proposed Genetic Non-Discrimination Act, all three ingredients are present. There is a prohibition of genetic discrimination, a penalty for breach of the provision, and the only purpose is to prohibit and prevent the evil of genetic discrimination.
Mr. Hogg concludes: “I agree completely...that the proposed law would be a valid exercise of Parliament's criminal-law power”.
When there is a dispute or debate about constitutionality related to criminal law in Canada, I would prefer to cite Peter Hogg over anyone else.
In conclusion, I strongly support the bill. I think it is right when it comes to policy. I think it is right when it comes to the question of federal-provincial relationships. Someone needs to take the lead in this country to prevent genetic discrimination. Let it be this Parliament.