Madam Speaker, on behalf of my colleagues, I am honoured to speak to this motion as health critic for Canada's New Democrats.
I think there is broad agreement in the House that since early 2020, COVID has clearly been the number one public health issue facing the country. It is the most serious pandemic our world has faced in the last 100 years. It has profoundly affected the health of our population, costing some 10,000 Canadians their lives so far. It has profoundly affected the way our society operates and, of course, has caused unbelievable damage to our economy and the financial well-being of millions of Canadians. It has caused incredible dislocation and emotional, physical and social damage. It has also exposed pre-existing and serious deficiencies in our health care system.
In March, in the last session, the health committee started studying the COVID pandemic and the government's response to it, in broad terms. We were tasked with looking into any issue that related to COVID-19. We met twice per week, almost every week, until mid-July. We heard from many experts and stakeholders, some 170 witnesses: epidemiologists, infectious disease experts, public health officials, health professionals from every discipline, unions, emergency room specialists, researchers and international officials. What follows are some of the deficiencies the evidence revealed.
Canadians were horrified to see the appalling conditions in which many of our seniors in care lived. We witnessed a terrible spectre: 80% of the COVID-19 deaths in Canada were in Canada's long-term care homes. This is the highest percentage of deaths in long-term care of any nation in the OECD. This crisis was so severe that the army had to be called in to Ontario and Quebec. They detailed hundreds of examples of outrageously poor treatment of our seniors, ranging from poor nutrition to forced feeding to outright neglect. Seniors were left alone for hours, crying in pain, soaked in their own excrement, crammed four to a room with no proper infection control, being administered expired medication and dying alone without access to their families.
This exposed the absolute precariousness, inefficiency and inequity of job-based health benefits. Millions of Canadians have seen their coverage for prescription medicine, dental services and ancillary health services of all kinds disappear. They join the tens of millions of Canadians who have never had coverage for the medicine their doctors prescribe and the dental care they desperately need. The government and all governments before it at the federal level have allowed this to develop.
The evidence also exposed a decade of inadequate planning by successive Conservative and Liberal governments to properly prepare Canada for a major health emergency. Indeed, Canadians were shocked to see our health professionals, our nurses, our care aides, our hospital staff and first responders have to go without basic personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and gowns because there was a national shortage as a result of poor public health planning.
We witnessed the government have to throw out over 2.5 million pieces of personal protective equipment because they were left to expire in a warehouse, the casualty of successive federal Conservative and Liberal governments that neglected to set up a proper inventory control management system for Canada's emergency stockpile of equipment. We faced the spectre of being caught without a sufficient number of ventilators, and narrowly dodged forcing our intensive care doctors to make the terrible choice that some countries had to make as to who did and who did not get access to life-saving intubation.
The evidence showed the negative effects of decades of neo-liberal trade policy that left Canada vulnerable and dependent on countries like China and Donald Trump's United States for basic medical supplies and equipment, made offshore by the cheapest manufacturers with no regard for the health threats this caused Canadian patients in their time of need. It revealed that the Liberal government inexplicably and irresponsibly dismantled Canada's excellent emergency early warning health system, the global public health intelligence network, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in Canada, costing us precious time, preparation and, in fact, the very lives of Canadians. It highlighted the totally misguided and poor public policy choice, first made by the Harper Conservative government, to limit federal health transfers to the provinces to 3% when actual health care costs in Canada rise by an average of 5.2% every year, causing a chronic and ever-worsening funding problem in our provincial health systems. This policy was adopted by the Liberal government, which had promised to do better but simply continued this damaging and dangerous health care underfunding.
Why is this motion before the House? Before adjourning in the summer, the health committee was preparing a report summarizing evidence and preparing recommendations to the government based on the excellent information we received. The government then prorogued Parliament in mid-August. This eliminated the health committee, along with all other committees, and wiped out all the evidence we had accumulated.
Upon returning to Parliament this September, we had to start from square one. We had a brand new throne speech. We had to reconstitute the committees. We had to re-elect the chairs and vice-chairs. We had to re-adopt the rules of the committees. We had to determine our new order of business.
I want to pause for a moment and mention the positive impact that the New Democrats have had on the throne speech from a health point of view. Through working with the government and using our leverage for Canadians, not our party interests, we successfully enlarged the Liberal plan to award paid sick days only to those with COVID-19 or awaiting diagnosis, giving them to all Canadians who have an underlying condition that may make them vulnerable to COVID-19. This brought the amount of Canadians receiving paid sick days from the thousands, the amount the Liberal plan would have helped, to millions, because of NDP work. This pleases me, particularly as health critic, because ensuring that Canadians can stay home from work when it is necessary for their health is a critically important health measure, and one that is especially important when we are dealing with an infectious disease.
Because of the Liberal prorogation delay, since July and to this date, October 22, the health committee has met twice. For the record, as health critic for the NDP, I want to register my deep objection to the unnecessary and politically motivated prorogation, which was done transparently to cut off committee examination into various political scandals of the Liberal government, including the WE matter. I say this because in a global pandemic, every day, week and month matters. Canadians deserve and expect their political representatives to be focusing their attention on their health and economic needs, not on the partisan interests of the Prime Minister, the Liberal Party or his family. We have lost valuable time to do our important job as the House of Commons health committee not only to hold the government accountable for its decisions, but also to develop positive recommendations that can help it improve its delivery of health services to Canadians.
What happened at HESA in the last two meetings? The Liberals came to committee suggesting we study singular aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. One was the impact purely on long-term care and the other was the impact purely on mental health, each as a separate study and limited to those issues. They did not deal whatsoever with the evidence that had been given so far this year, presumably leaving that evidence to wither on the vine. The Liberals also had no suggestions for the production of any documents that may aid the committee in its work.
On behalf of the NDP, I served notice of three motions, proposing a study of the following, in this order. First I proposed to continue our study of COVID-19, adopting all of the evidence we heard in 2020, so that we did not lose this vital and valuable information. I proposed that we continue on with our COVID-19 study, unlimited in scope, and focus on any and all issues of concern now.
I also proposed that we did not need to go over already well-tilled areas, and that instead we should focus on the most important and productive things for preserving and protecting Canadians' health now. These are things such as the following: Where are we with vaccine development and access for Canadians? What is the distribution protocol for vaccines going to be? What is the status of potential treatment therapies for those with COVID-19? This is especially important in case we do not soon develop a vaccine. Why was the GPHIN dismantled by the Liberals, and more importantly, what is the status of this vital early warning system now? What considerations and resources are needed to deal with the second wave, which is clearly upon us, and maybe a third wave in the new year?
What is the status of testing and contact tracing? We have heard repeatedly that both are essential components of any successful battle plan against transmission of the virus. How can we develop safe protocols to help reunite families that have been cruelly separated for many months? How can we best utilize the best science and evidence-based advice, whether it is from global health organizations, other countries or within Canada? I propose this as the first order of business for the health committee as the COVID crisis is without doubt the most important health issue gripping our country.
Incidentally, I also served notice of two other important areas that I believe we need to study after we complete our COVID examination, whenever that may be. The first is universal dental care as an insured service for every Canadian, because some 12 million Canadians do not have any dental coverage whatsoever. Many more have substandard coverage for an aspect of our health that has been ignored and treated as a private matter for the wealthy or those who can afford it for far too long.
I also proposed we study indigenous health because indigenous people rank among the lowest in virtually every major metric of health. This is a statistic that ought to cause all parliamentarians to hang our heads in shame.
Procedurally, I tendered two motions to request the production of documents to the committee. These concerned necessary documents to help us understand the very secretive activities of the Liberal-appointed vaccine task force, a body that is filled with a mixture of industry and corporate representatives who have not disclosed their conflicts of interest, even as they make recommendations to the government for specific vaccine investments. The other motion concerned details about the government's plan on how it intends to roll out vaccines for Canadians, if and when they become available.
I will also note my disappointment that the health minister has refused to answer my question in this House on whether vaccines will be made available at no cost to Canadians. The NDP believes this ought to be the case on the grounds of social justice and public health. The Conservatives tabled a motion very similar to that in the House today.
What happened at committee? The Liberals stalled consideration of this motion, arguing, in turn, that it is too broad or not inclusive enough. They have not made up their minds. They adamantly refused to consider any production of documents of any kind to the committee whatsoever, arguing mainly that their government and public servants are much too busy to be bothered to gather this information for Parliament.
They used the valuable time of the health committee during a pandemic to filibuster debate by talking out the clock to avoid any vote on this motion, which they knew a majority of committee members and parties, namely, the Conservatives, the Bloc and the NDP, supported. Therefore, nothing was done at either of the first two health committee meetings in any substantive manner because the Liberals refused to respect the will of the majority of the committee.
I will point out at this point some important facts. First, we are in a minority Parliament. In 2019, Canadians, in their wisdom, saw fit to give no party a majority claim on power. This means that it is the Canadian people's democratic determination and expectation that we work together and seek a majority across party lines. No one party can have a veto in this Parliament.
Second, this Parliament requires co-operation among the parties and parliamentarians. Canadians want us to make this Parliament work. They expect us to put down our partisan guards, at least to some extent, and make the necessary compromises that reason and fairness dictate. Therefore, I and my NDP colleagues intend to support this motion because it represents the will of the majority of members of the health committee.
We support it because it places COVID where it should be, which is as the health committee's number one priority. I support it because it would allow the committee to focus our attention in any area we deem most helpful and important, just like we did in the first session. It would provide each party with an equal number of witnesses at every meeting, ensuring that balanced and diverse viewpoints are heard and every committee member could call witnesses in the area they want to delve into. It would also allow each party to provide witnesses in the area they want highlighted, whether it is rapid testing, mental health, long-term care or vaccine development. All of these are priorities identified by each of the parties at committee, including the Liberals.
The motion would give the committee access to documents that are reasonable and necessary to hold the government to account in a responsible manner. On this latter point of disclosure of documents, the current Prime Minister pledged to Canadians, upon being elected in 2015, his government would be “open by default”. He said that he would unmuzzle scientists and civil servants. The Prime Minister promised that his government would be transparent and would not utilize the tools of secrecy and redaction that had become the hallmark of the Harper government that came before him.
How times change. We have seen far too many examples of this pledge being broken by the Liberal government, which now routinely refuses to produce documents, heavily redacts them and violates instructions to have redactions performed by parliamentary counsel instead of ministry officials. This must stop.
Committees have the powerful duty and right to order production of documents in unredacted or properly redacted form. This is a long-standing and crucial power of committees in a responsible and democratic government. It is essential to hold the government accountable. When a government refuses to disclose documents or heavily redacts them, as has unfortunately become routine practice by the Liberal government to avoid political embarrassment, it does much more than damage its own reputation. It tarnishes the authority of Parliament itself.
Contrary to what the Liberals have argued and will likely claim today, disclosure of documents to Parliament is not a burden or an inconvenience for public officials that is provided only when convenient or in times of insignificance. It is a core, important and full-time duty that applies at all times to all responsible and honest governments.
I note this motion would permit redaction for proper grounds such as national security, personal privacy, and in the case of the vaccine task force, to protect the integrity of contractual and other negotiations that may have taken place. I believe we are prepared to entertain further amendments if the Liberals propose reasonable ones in this regard. These document disclosures constitute reasonable and responsible requests that are targeted and rational for the health committee to review.
In summary, my NDP colleagues and I will proudly support this motion while being somewhat regretful that this matter had to be elevated to the House. I would like to thank my hon. colleague from Calgary Nose Hill for her initiative in moving this motion today.
I look forward to working with her and all my colleagues on the health committee for the benefit of all Canadians. We do so because the health of Canadians is our paramount concern, and the integrity of Parliament, underpinned by the values of transparency, accountability, democracy and good governments, demands it.