As the NDP’s critic on Justice and Attorney General, my role has been to hold the government to account on criminal justice reform, marijuana legalization, and most recently, protections against genetic discrimination.
The work on protecting Canadians against genetic discrimination came about when the Justice Committee studied Bill S-201, an act to prohibit and prevent genetic discrimination, which was brought forward by Senator James Cowan.
This bill aims to prevent discrimination based on genetic characteristics. Many Canadians have attested that they fear going for possible life-saving genetic tests due to the very real possibility that potential employers or insurance companies may use the results to discriminate against them.
This reality is detrimental to public health, especially in light of the promise that genetic testing holds for medicine.
Canada is the only country in the G7 without a national law combatting genetic discrimination. Bill S-201 creates comprehensive defences against the possibility of genetic discrimination.
The bill makes 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 a ground for protection under human rights.
The bill will also create a standalone 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 passing unanimously in the Senate, the Justice Committee received correspondence from the Minister of Justice concerning the government’s fears that the bill is unconstitutional due to its supposed overreach into provincial jurisdiction.
However, no province provided any such concerns to the committee, and the minister’s arguments were refuted by noted constitutional scholars, including Professor Peter Hogg. The vast majority of witnesses agreed that the bill is a valid use of the federal criminal legal power to protect against a “public health evil.”
The Liberal majority on the committee, in contrast to the Liberal government’s wishes, listened to the evidence and held back on making any fundamental amendments that would gut the bill. Liberal backbenchers also joined with the NDP and Conservatives in voting down government amendments to gut the bill at Report Stage, and the House of Commons ultimately voted to pass the bill with all its protections intact.
The Minister of Justice, in a very disappointing move, has now publicly stated that she will refer this legislation to the Supreme Court to check its constitutionality, which could leave these much needed protections in legal limbo for two or more years.
My colleagues and I in the NDP will continue to work so that Canadians can finally have the peace of mind to get tested for any predispositions to genetic diseases without fear of discrimination.