Genetic Non-Discrimination Bill—Message from Commons—Amendment from Commons

Honourable senators, I am pleased to rise and speak on the motion I’ve just placed. It concerns a technical amendment, which I’ll explain in a moment, to a bill that I think all of us in this chamber can rightly be very proud of.

Bill S-201 is a Senate bill, a private member’s bill, proposed by our former colleague Senator Jim Cowan, which will prohibit and prevent genetic discrimination, ensuring that individuals have control over their personal genetic information.

This bill was studied at great length, first here in our chamber where, because of a prorogation and the 2015 election, it was studied not only once but twice by our Human Rights Committee. Then it was studied again in the other place, where the House of Commons Justice and Human Rights Committee considered the bill over some five meetings, hearing from 28 witnesses.

The bill received overwhelming support in both houses. On April 14, 2016, almost a year ago, this chamber passed the bill unanimously in a voice vote.

The bill then moved to the other place, where it passed second reading with a rare unanimous standing vote. MPs from all parties in the other place rose to support the bill, as did the Prime Minister and all members of his cabinet who were in attendance.

The members of the House of Commons Justice and Human Rights Committee were similarly impressed. They too passed the bill unanimously, simply adding the technical amendment that is before us today.

On March 8, the bill passed at third reading in the House of Commons and again it was an overwhelming endorsement, the final vote being 222 to 60. This is a real accomplishment, honourable senators, and it reflects so very well on what we can do as individual senators, and collectively as the Senate of Canada.

Of course, I would be pleased to answer any questions honourable senators may have about the bill, and explain the critical needs that it fills, which is why it has been so enthusiastically supported by parliamentarians in both houses and Canadians from coast to coast to coast. But in fact, the only issue before us today is the technical amendment contained in the message from the House of Commons. The bill has been adopted by both houses. It’s ready for Royal Assent. It’s just this technical amendment that needs to be dealt with. All the provisions of the bill have been passed. All that is before us is this additional provision, which the House of Commons would like us to add to Bill S-201.

The amendment is what is called a coordinating amendment. It is required because of the unusual circumstances that right now, Parliament has two bills before it that both amend the same provisions of the same statute, namely, the Canadian Human Rights Act. Bill S-201 adds “genetic characteristics” as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the act, and Bill C- 16, which is also before us, would add “gender identity or expression” to the same provisions of the act.

If you read the two bills, Bill S-201 and Bill C-16, you will see that each of them sets out the relevant sections of the Canadian Human Rights Act. They spell out all of the current measures under which discrimination is prohibited, race, colour, religion, et cetera, and each of them puts in the provision relevant to the respective bill.

The coordinating amendment before us now ensures that in the event Parliament passes both bills, then both amendments can take effect. Without this amendment, if Bill S-201 passed first, it would see its amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act concerning genetic discrimination inadvertently wiped out by Bill C-16, if that bill is also passed.

Honourable senators, I want to stress that nothing in this amendment requires or presumes what we will decide to do with Bill C-16. It is neutral on that. If Bill C-16 never passes, this new provision will never have any effect on impact. But if Bill C-16 does pass, it will not inadvertently remove the protections we give Canadians against genetic discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act.

In that regard, you will see that the amendment begins with the following clause:

11 (1) Subsections (2) and (3) apply if Bill C-16, introduced in the 1st session of the 42nd Parliament and entitled An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (in this section referred to as the “other Act”), receives royal assent.

Colleagues, this is not a controversial amendment. It was adopted unanimously by the Justice and Human Rights Committee in the other place, and it has the full support of both former Senator Cowan and the sponsor of the bill in the House of Commons, MP Rob Oliphant.

It’s as technical an amendment that we will ever see in this chamber, and I submit it can be adopted by the Senate quickly.

Before I conclude, I would like to pause and let the members of this chamber know the kind of response this bill has evoked among Canadians. It can be easy to get caught up in our work and perhaps miss the impact that is our privilege to have on the lives of Canadians. This bill, which is absolutely the work of this chamber, it being a Senate private member’s bill, has been cheered by many Canadians across the country. Let me read a few excerpts from emails sent to Senator Cowan in his office after the bill passed third reading in the House of Commons earlier this month.

This is from an email sent by a senior geneticist at CHEO, the Children’s Hospital for Eastern Ontario:

It’s enough to make you believe that anything is possible. I’m jumping for joy. Can’t wait to be able to reassure my patients. This is huge! . . . you’ve all made a significant difference today.

Here is a brief excerpt from an email sent on behalf of ALS Canada:

What amazing news for all our patients and their families.

From The Foundation Fighting Blindness:

Tonight was the realization of a 10-year dream to end genetic discrimination. . . . I am so very, very happy for our communities and proud of all those who have been so courageous to speak out. It takes a village. What a remarkable legacy you have all created. We have made history! I can barely talk, I am so happy.

There were literally celebrations at many hospitals. At SickKids in Toronto, an email went out the morning after the vote with a subject line that read, “Last night was genetics history.” Here’s part of what was said:

Last night, Bill S-201 passed intact. This is very important to all Canadians and notably for our research. There will be pizza and drinks —

I don’t know about this food content here, given the report we did on obesity, but anyway.

There will be pizza and drinks from 12:00-12:30ish (food ordered for about 100 people). Feel free to bring your own lunch. We really just want people to mix and acknowledge the vote. . . . Democracy worked.

That is just a sampling of email that Senator Cowan’s office received.

It’s nice to receive some good news about what goes on here in the Senate. You know we don’t always get it.

This bill means a great deal to many Canadians, colleagues. It’s an example of the Senate at its best. Senator Cowan saw a need and set out to address it. Nothing about this is partisan; it was an issue about the health of Canadians. Reflecting that, the bill received overwhelming support from parliamentarians of all parties in both chambers.

It’s a great legacy for a truly honourable senator as he left this chamber. It’s one I am so proud to have joined in studying in committee and in this chamber, and in supporting. Now that law is poised to come into force.

I hope you will join me so that we can quickly send a message back to the House of Commons declaring that we have concurred in their amendment so this much-needed bill can proceed to Royal Assent and become the law of the country.