In our busy lives, it can be hard to keep track of lesser-known issues in the Parliament of Canada, so I am pleased to have this opportunity to provide you with an update regarding proposed legislation to prohibit genetic discrimination.
We in the NDP now have a new House Leader, Murray Rankin of Victoria, after Peter Julian stepped down from his post to consider a run in the leadership race that will take place in October 2017.
Due to this vacancy, I have been asked to take over Murray’s work on the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights for the foreseeable future.
The Justice Committee has been doing some very interesting work in recent weeks. We are working on Bill S-201, an Act to prohibit and prevent genetic discrimination, which was brought forward by Sen. James Cowan.
This bill aims to prevent discrimination based on genetic characteristics. Many Canadians have attested that they fear having potentially lifesaving tests for predispositions to genetic diseases, over the possibility that potential employers or insurance companies may discriminate against them. These scenarios can be detrimental to public health, especially given the important role genetic tests will play in the future of personalized health care.
Canada is the only country in the G7 without a national law combating genetic discrimination and it is time we change that. Bill S-201 creates comprehensive defences against the possibility of genetic discrimination. The bill has been described as a three-legged stool where each leg represents strong protection from discrimination. But it will not stand up if one part is removed.
We will be making amendments to the Canada Labour Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act. It is important that we have protections for employment and that genetic discrimination is considered grounds for protection under the Human Rights Act.
Importantly, we will be also creating a Genetic Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit all forms of genetic discrimination based on DNA or RNA tests. As the bill is written now, this would provide for strong criminal penalties for any company, insurance or otherwise, to discriminate based on genetic characteristics.
Despite the bill passing unanimously in the Senate, the committee has received correspondence from the Minister of Justice concerning government fears that the bill may be considered unconstitutional due to its supposed overreach into the provincial sphere.
However, no province has provided any concerns with Bill S-201. We have also heard wide-ranging and compelling testimony, including that of noted constitutional scholar Peter Hogg, that as the bill prohibits and punishes the public evil of genetic discrimination, it is a valid use of the federal criminal law power.
The Liberal majority on the committee, in contrast to the Liberal government, appears to be holding back on making any fundamental amendments that would gut the bill. I hope that we keep that spirit when it comes to the amendment stage.
If we on the Justice Committee can get this bill to pass without changing its fundamentals, then we can join the other G7 countries in providing protection against the reprehensible practice of genetic discrimination.
Canadians will finally have the peace of mind to go and get tested for genetic predispositions and possibly save their lives, without fear that they will be discriminated against when trying to find a job or applying for health and life insurance.
Alistair MacGregor is the Member of Parliament for Cowichan-Malahat-Langford.