PARLIAMENT HILLâThe Senate private memberâs bill S-201, which seeksÂ to introduce the first-everÂ nationwide penalties againstÂ genetic discrimination and which has pittedÂ some Liberal backbenchersÂ against its ownÂ government as Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has pushed hard for amendmentsâpassed third reading, without the governmentâs desired changes.
The report stage and third reading vote on the proposed changes, whichÂ were criticizedÂ for essentially gutting the bill, happened on Wednesday evening in the Commons, and with the will of backbench Liberal MPs and the opposition caucuses, the bill passed by a vote of 222 to 60.
Speaking to The Hill Times after the vote,Â Liberal MP Rob Oliphant (Don Valley West, Ont.), the House sponsor of the legislation, called it a victory for Parliament, and for the relevance of the Senate. He said he was concerned after the government’s strong and “emotional” plea for support earlier on Wednesday.
The government, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) said on March 8 that the bill was unconstitutional, an argument that apparently held little weight with the dissenting Liberal backbenchers and opposition benches.
At numerous stages of study and debate before the Commons, the government, through Ms.Â Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) and various parliamentary secretaries, tried to claw back two of the three main pillars of the bill, and ultimately presented the amendments at report stage that were defeated today.
The bill, originally sponsored by now-retired Senator Jim Cowan, seeks to introduce the first-everÂ nationwide penalties againstÂ genetic discrimination by banning unsanctioned access to view or disclose personal genetic test results or require a person take a genetic test, including employers and insurance companies by referencing the proposedÂ genetic non-discrimination act.
Violating the new actÂ would result in large financial penalties or jail time. The legislation allows for exceptions, includingÂ medical, scientific, or pharmaceutical purposes. The bill would also amend the Canada Labour Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act to protect against the disclosure of genetic tests and it wouldÂ prohibit discrimination on the grounds of genetics.Â
Mr. Cowan, who retired from the Senate on Jan. 21, was in the House Chamber for the vote. He had tried to get similar bills passed twice before: once in 2013, and again in 2015. Both times, the bills died on the Order Paper. When the first bill was brought forward, there were about 2,000 different genetic tests available, and now thereâs just under 40,000.
Last week, Ms. Wilson-Raybould sent letters to the Council of the Federation and to all provincial and territorial justice ministers, requesting that all provinces and territories weigh in on the constitutionality ofÂ Bill S-201, while defending her position to significantly change the proposed legislation.
Canadaâs 13 provincial and territorial premiers are members of the Council of the Federation, which promotes interprovincial-territorial cooperation. Ms. Wilson-Raybould has said that the governments ofÂ Quebec, Manitoba, and British Columbia had communicated with her office, voicing concerns overÂ the legislation and its implications for provincial jurisdiction over discrimination.
Ultimately, the council did not respond to Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s letter, and no further arguments were made by the government to bolster its issues with the billÂ during the last hour of debate on Tuesday evening.
In defending her desire for the bill to be gutted, Ms. Wilson-Raybould told reporters in the foyer of the House on Wednesday: âI have and our government maintains concerns about the constitutionality with respect to the first part of the bill.” She went on to say that the government already has “overwhelming support” to ensure that the government can “address genetic discrimination in a comprehensive way, and that we do it in terms of the federation that we haveâand the relationships that we have with the provinces and territories. But, it’s a fundamentally important issue, and S-201 has elevated it to a national discussion and that’s important.â
Her argument against the bill was that it impedes on theÂ provinces’ and territories’ ability to decide for themselves what regime works best for addressing genetic discrimination, and was worried about the potential of aÂ court challenge would come from the insurance industry if the bill passed.
Critics, primarily in the insurance industry, argue that withholding genetic information would increase the cost of life insurance premium rates and would hike the cost of critical illness insurance. Those in favour of the bill argue that itâs necessary to protect Canadians from being disadvantaged as a result of a genetic predisposition.
Throughout the study process, Liberal supporters of the bill pointed to top constitutional experts’ testimony defending the bill and saidÂ they had yet to hear a compelling argument against it.
âHaving listened to the top constitutional scholars in the country at committee, I respectfully disagree with the government. I have heard from the medical community and the fear of genetic discrimination (the use of genetic test results to discriminate against you) is real in Canada. People are ignoring medical advice, not getting genetic tests and not participating in drug trials (which usually require a genetic test). Canadians’ health is being risked and I believe we must take action,â wroteÂ Liberal MP Chris Bittle (St. Catharines, Ont.) in a Facebook post directed to constituents, explaining why heâd be votingÂ against the government on March 8.
TheÂ bill will still have to be sent back to the Senate sinceÂ during its study the House Justice and Human Rights Committee voted to add a co-ordinating amendment that aimed at protecting the intent of both Bill S-201 and Bill C-16, the governmentâs Trans Rights Bill.
Mr. Oliphant said he hopes the strong vote of support for the bill will send a message to the Senate, and that they will consider the amendment butÂ send the bill off to receive royal assent without getting into debate. He said this will be the last leg of work required toÂ see this bill through.
The two bills propose to amend the same section of the Canadian Human Rights Act. This amendment would ensure that both genetic discrimination and gender identity would be listed as prohibited grounds for discrimination, and not one or the other, depending which bill passed first.
Update: According to the The Hill Times‘ analysis of theÂ final vote tally, 100 Liberal MPs voted against the government to defeat the proposed amendments, and 104 Liberal MPs voted to support it passing at third reading. Among the MPs whoÂ pushed back on the party line were a dozen Liberal parliamentary secretaries, who had a free vote for the bill. The Conservative and New Democrat caucuses voted in support of the bill, while Bloc QuĂ©bĂ©cois sided with the government.
The Hill TimesÂ