Madam Speaker, genetic testing can quite literally save lives. It allows Canadians who suspect that they might be at a higher risk for certain genetic diseases to take early preventive action. Unfortunately, under our current regime, Canadians often refuse to undergo a genetic test, even based on a recommendation from a doctor, because of the fear of genetic discrimination. This fear is not unfounded, as a recent Canadian study found that 40% of individuals with Huntington's disease experience some form of discrimination based on their genetic test results. That discrimination can come in the form of unfair insurance practices, being passed over for a promotion, and even being fired. Unfortunately, there are a number of documented cases of genetic discrimination in Canada, and that number will only continue to grow until we, as parliamentarians, fill that legislative void.
This is not only an issue of discrimination but is a legitimate public health issue. If Canadians continue to fear genetic tests because of the lack of legal protection from discrimination, they will be unable to access the best possible health care options available.
It is also important to note that a number of developed countries around the world have a regulatory system in place to protect their citizens from genetic discrimination. Many of our counterparts around the world, such as France, Germany, and Spain, all have legislative frameworks to protect the genetic privacy of their citizens and to guard against genetic discrimination. The U.K. and the U.S. also have some systems in place, whether it is a moratorium placed on the use of genetic information by insurance companies or a prohibition against genetic discrimination in health insurance and employment.
Unfortunately, Canada lags behind these countries on this important issue, and our laws have not kept pace with science when it comes to genetic testing. With the passing of this legislation without amendment, we would be able to provide support and protections for our citizens, as some of our international counterparts do.
I would be remiss in my remarks if I did not mention the insurance industry claims that premiums will rise if this important piece of legislation passes. That concern has been addressed, because this bill does not even contain the word "insurance". Although it is true that previous versions of the bill did contain insurance-specific provisions, they have been removed to address concerns about adverse selection and the constitutional issues that would arise because of it.
It is also important to note that in countries where similar legislation has been passed, the insurance industry has not been adversely affected or as severely damaged as feared. Research would also suggest that this would apply here in Canada as well. In fact, that assertion was confirmed by the Privacy Commissioner in July 2014, when he stated at a Senate committee that “the impact of a ban on the use of genetic test results by the life and health insurance industry would not have a significant impact on insurers or the efficient operation of insurance markets”.
Peter Hogg, a pre-eminent constitutional law expert, spoke in front of the justice committee on Bill S-201 and has also written on this topic in his book Constitutional Law of Canada. In it he states that “The authority to enact legislation of this kind is distributed between the federal Parliament and the provincial legislatures according to which has jurisdiction over the employment, accommodation, restaurants and other businesses or activities, in which discrimination is forbidden. Most of the field is accordingly provincial under property and civil rights in the province. However, there is little doubt that the federal Parliament could if it chose exercise its criminal law power...to outlaw discriminatory practices generally.”
Any debate on this issue must, of course, recognize the important role the provinces play. In Mr. Hogg's testimony to the Standing Committee on Justice, he pointed out that the double aspect doctrine was relevant, because there are other precedents where the criminal law power has been exercised. Mr. Hogg used the example of the Highway Traffic Act, where the federal government enacted criminal law while the provinces enact prohibitions related to property and civil rights.
He further clarified that this legislation would “simply be making it an offence to discriminate on the basis of genetic characteristics”. This is something I agree with wholeheartedly, and I feel Canadians want a national standard not to be discriminated against because of their genetic makeup. This is something I agree with and I hope that the House will, as I said earlier, fill that void.
It is also important to note that this legislation has the support of organizations like the ALS Society of Canada, the Alzheimer Society of Canada, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the Canadian Human Rights Commission, Parkinson Canada, and the Huntington Society of Canada, along with many of my own constituents.
As I mentioned earlier, patients with Huntington's disease are among the most likely to experience degenerative discrimination. It is crucial that we as parliamentarians do all we can to protect Canadians from genetic discrimination and modernize our existing laws to ensure we keep pace with developed countries around the world. I am honoured to have the opportunity to speak on Bill S-201 here tonight and proud to lend it my full support.