Mr. Speaker, today it is my privilege to speak to Bill C-5, an act respecting the establishment of the Public Health Agency of Canada.
I take very seriously the responsibilities the member of Parliament for Prince George—Peace River and chief government whip gave me when he appointed me as a member of the Standing Committee on Health. This is the first of many issues relating to health that I plan to address.
I am very pleased to speak about such an important service that benefits all Canadians, the Public Health Agency of Canada. I would like to address the reasons this agency was created, the reasons this agency is needed, and the reasons we need a Chief Public Health Officer. Finally I will address what the legislation will do.
The overarching theme of this legislation is the protection and promotion of the health of Canadians. The establishment of the Public Health Agency of Canada was in fact a response to the need to establish a federal focal point to address public health issues following the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, popularly known as SARS.
SARS was a blow to our health care system. Some experts have stated that only the heroic efforts of Ontario's front line health workers kept the deadly SARS outbreak from exacting a far heavier toll. The province's public health system was called into question. Internationally, the health of Canadians was also called into question for months after the outbreak when they travelled overseas. Even Canadians living abroad were sometimes questioned. Canadians demanded action.
Dr. David Naylor and Senator Michael Kirby each consulted with the health community and reported specific recommendations, including the establishment of a Canadian public health agency and the appointment of a chief public health officer for Canada.
As members are probably aware, our right hon. Prime Minister has great respect for provincial jurisdiction. That is why our government is committed to federal, provincial and territorial collaboration, especially in such an important project as the Public Health Agency of Canada. One way this cooperation is done is through the Pan-Canadian Public Health Network which was established in April 2005. Informal discussions with provincial and territorial public health authorities have indicated that they would like a federal public health focal point with the authority and capacity for effective collaboration, especially during emergencies. God forbid an emergency like SARS should ever resurface, but we will be prepared.
Consequently, the Minister of Health has made it clear that the legislation does not expand on the existing federal role in public health. Instead, the legislation simply provides the agency with its mandate to assist the Minister of Health in exercising his powers, duties and functions in public health. Nothing that the federal government is currently doing in public health has changed.
Although the Public Health Agency of Canada was created by order in council in September 2004, it lacked parliamentary recognition. As the House is quite aware, my party is about accountability. This legislation will give parliamentary recognition to the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Chief Public Health Officer. In other words, this is largely a machinery bill that will give the agency a sound legislative footing to support the Minister of Health in addressing public health issues.
For me, this is an area of grave importance. In my former role as mayor and warden, I served for many years on the local board of public health, including six years as chair of that board. I know first-hand the value of having a Chief Public Health Officer at the federal level which, in the time of a widespread emergency or pandemic, can coordinate an appropriate response in coordination with the provinces and territories.
A federal focal point to address public health issues will benefit the constituents of Sarnia—Lambton in many ways. As a riding with so many international border crossings to the state of Michigan, including the twin Blue Water Bridges, an international health emergency would be better contained and managed through a federal focal point, including a Chief Public Health Officer.
In the chemical valley, by which my riding of Sarnia—Lambton is popularly known, the main CN line carries many hazardous goods. In my hometown municipality of Plympton-Wyoming, we see an average of one train every 20 minutes carrying hazardous freight. The comfort of knowing there will be a coordinated effort with a federal focal point should an accident happen is important to me and my constituents. The Chief Public Health Officer will provide that comfort by way of leadership.
The legislation will establish a unique dual role for the Chief Public Health Officer. Why, some would ask, is there a dual role? The legislation recognizes the Chief Public Health Officer's unique status as the Government of Canada's lead public health professional as well as the deputy head of the agency. Let me explain. As deputy head of the agency, the Chief Public Health Officer is accountable to the Minister of Health and informs the minister on policy development. Additionally, the Chief Public Health Officer is Canada's lead public health professional with authority to communicate with Canadians and publish reports on any public health issue.
Not only does the legislation clarify the rules and responsibilities of the Chief Public Health Officer, but it also responds to both Naylor's and Kirby's recommendations that the Chief Public Health Officer have a degree of independence to speak out and issue reports on public health matters.
Threats to the health of Canadians will allow the Chief Public Health Officer to engage other federal departments to mobilize health resources of the agency. The Chief Public Health Officer must submit to the Minister of Health for tabling in Parliament an annual report on the state of public health in Canada, aiding the Minister of Health in his decision making as to what are the best measures to promote better health care for Canadians, and subsequently, improve patient wait time guarantees which is a priority of the government.
Therefore, as an impartial, credible voice on public health able to communicate directly with the public, the Chief Public Health Officer will be accountable to all Canadians while respecting the Privacy Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
A federal focal point will provide assurances to provinces and territories that they can lawfully share information with the federal government in light of a possible health emergency such as an influenza pandemic. Systematic monitoring and surveillance would be needed to anticipate, prepare for and respond to such an emergency in a timely manner.
The agency already maintains a national emergency stockpile system that contains everything from pharmaceuticals to beds and blankets for use in an emergency.
Additionally, the Chief Public Health Officer uses the public health network to get information from his provincial and territorial colleagues and with his authorities would be able to communicate and provide the best public health advice to Canadians in key areas such as pandemic preparedness and antiviral stockpiling. SARS has taught us all a valuable lesson in dealing with public health threats.
My several years of training through Emergency Measures Ontario have certainly taught me the value of having this national emergency stockpile system in place. It will be imperative in a pandemic situation that resources be available on a national level. In fact, the Public Health Agency of Canada has already strengthened the Canadian pandemic influenza plan by increasing its national antiviral stockpile and signing an agreement to develop a prototype H5N1 or avian flu vaccine.
Having a separate agency within the health portfolio is needed to deal with public health issues. Coherence on a national scale is what the legislation ensures when the health of Canadians is in jeopardy.
I support Bill C-5 and so will my colleagues. We want to bring greater visibility to public health issues. We made a commitment on this side of the House to improve our public health system. The legislation fulfills these objectives.