Justice minister seeks input from premiers on genetic discrimination bill
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould answers a question in the House of Commons on Monday, Feb. 6, 2017. (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Joanna Smith, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, March 1, 2017 1:20PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, March 1, 2017 2:03PM EST
OTTAWA -- Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould wants to know whether Canada's premiers think barring insurance providers from asking clients to disclose the results of genetic testing would stray too far into provincial jurisdiction.
In a letter to Yukon Premier Sandy Silver, current chair of the group known as the Council of the Federation, Wilson-Raybould says a number of provinces have a constitutional problem with parts of Bill S-201, which would add genetic characteristics as prohibited grounds of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act.
"Given the important constitutional issues in play, we call on the Council of the Federation to communicate its views on the constitutionality of Bill S-201's proposal to regulate all contracts, agreements, and goods and services to prohibit genetic discrimination," Wilson-Raybould wrote in the letter sent Wednesday.
The insurance industry has strongly opposed that aspect of the proposed legislation, which would make it illegal for anyone to require a person to undergo genetic testing, or disclose the results of previous tests, as a condition for signing or continuing an insurance policy or any other good, service, contract or agreement.
It would also prohibit anyone from sharing the results of someone's genetic testing without their written consent, although there are exceptions for physicians and researchers.
Breaking the law could mean a fine of up to $1 million, or five years behind bars.
The unusual step of seeking formal input from the provinces and territories comes after the Liberal government brought forward amendments last month to remove those parts of the bill, arguing that MPs had a duty to respect the constitutional division of powers.
That move caught the opposition off guard, prompting both the Conservatives and the NDP to note that witnesses who appeared before the House of Commons justice committee studying the bill largely agreed it was constitutional.
It also surprised Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, who has shepherded the Senate bill through the House of Commons, who said at the time the changes "would essentially gut this bill."
"If they are passed, they would rob it of its ability to help all Canadians and limit its effect to very few," Oliphant said Feb. 14 in the Commons.
The Conservatives and the NDP are generally supportive of the bill and Oliphant said he also has support from many of his Liberal caucus colleagues.
Wilson-Raybould said she received letters of dissent from Quebec, Manitoba and B.C., but suggested there are still other opponents.
"In direct communications with me and my office, other provinces have raised doubts about this legislation but have declined to take a public position," she wrote.
She said she wants the premiers to share their views by the time debate on the bill resumes in the House of Commons next week. A final vote on the bill could come as early as March 8.
In her letter, Wilson-Raybould expressed strong support for the part of the bill that would bring genetic discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act.
"The knowledge obtained by a diagnostic test could lead to early medical decisions that reduce risk to Canadians' health," Wilson-Raybould wrote.
"These important advantages are liable to being frustrated if Canadians avoid such tests due to fear of genetic discrimination.... It is imperative that we, as a country, take proactive measures to address this emerging human rights issue."
Wilson-Raybould also urged the premiers to tackle the issue within their own jurisdictions.
"I am confident that we can add the prohibition of genetic discrimination to that proud human rights heritage."