The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) lauded the House of Commons’ March 8 passage of a private member’s bill to prevent genetic discrimination, which survived a last-minute push by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to oppose it on jurisdictional grounds.
Bill S-201, which was put to a free vote, passed 220-60, with dozens of Liberals joining the Conservatives, NDP and Green Party in support of the legislation. It now goes to the Senate for technical amendments and is expected to become law by the spring.
The bill was introduced by former senator James Cowan and spearheaded through the House by Liberal MP Rob Oliphant. It is designed to prevent insurance companies and employers from denying coverage and employment to people who have a genetic predisposition to various illnesses. It also prohibits any person from requiring an individual to undergo a genetic test or to disclose the results of a genetic test as a condition of providing goods or services or entering into or continuing a contract. The enactment amends the Canada Labour Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act.
The Canadian Coalition for Genetic Fairness (CCGF), which had been lobbying for a change to the law for six years, applauded its passage. “It’s a good day because of the vote. It’s been a long time coming,” said Bev Heim-Myers, chair of the 18-member CCGF and chief executive officer of the Huntington Society of Canada.
People have been denied rental accommodations, insurance coverage and have been let go from jobs because of concerns they might one day contract serious diseases. “Many people are refusing to get a genetic test for fear of discrimination,” but the benefits of testing can be substantial, leading to early diagnosis, prevention in some cases and early, targeted treatment, she said.
CIJA, a member of CCGF, also applauded the vote. The bill’s passage is “a milestone in protecting the health and well-being of all Canadians,” said CIJA chair David Cape. “Everyone should feel comfortable to take potentially lifesaving genetic tests without fear of punitive consequences.
“As this is an issue of overlapping federal-provincial responsibility, we encourage the provinces to bring forward complementary legislation to provide full protection against genetic discrimination for all Canadians,” he added.
Trudeau opposed the bill on constitutional grounds, arguing that, by regulating insurance companies, the bill was intruding into areas that come under provincial jurisdiction.
Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault introduced motions to remove several of the bill’s sections that arguably were areas of interest to the provinces, but those amendments were rejected. Prior to the vote, he told the House that the federal government had received letters from the governments of Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia voicing concern that the bill infringed on provincial jurisdiction on regulating contracts and on the provision of goods and services. However, a House committee that studied the bill heard from constitutional lawyers who said it did not intrude on provincial jurisdiction.
Noah Shack, CIJA’s director of policy, said the Jewish community in particular should benefit from the new law. Once enacted, “It’s something that will save lives,” he said.
Ashkenazi Jewish women have a greater chance of carrying a mutated BRCA gene than women in the general population, giving them an increased risk of developing breast cancer or cervical cancer; men carrying the gene have an increased risk of developing prostate cancer. Because of concerns they might be turned down for insurance, people refrain from getting tested for the mutation, increasing the chances they won’t take preventive measures to address the disease, Shack said. “It creates a disincentive for getting tested in the first place.”
Heim-Myers said that, after the bill passes, CCGF’s efforts will turn to the provinces, which will be urged to amend their human rights laws to prevent genetic discrimination.
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