Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould is inviting provincial and territorial premiers to weigh in on whether they feel a proposed law aimed at prohibiting genetic discrimination infringes on their jurisdiction to regulate the insurance industry.

The letter, sent Wednesday, is addressed to the Council of the Federation. It says that while the government has heard Manitoba, Quebec and British Columbia express reservations about the bill, it wants the views of all provinces and territories.

Bill S-201 is a private member's bill introduced last year by former Liberal senator James Cowan. It would prevent insurance companies and employers from obtaining Canadians' test results for genetic diseases or conditions. 

"Every month there are several times when parents turn down a genetic test that a practitioner wants to undertake for fear that their child will have some future discrimination with no protection," said Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, who is sponsoring the bill in the House of Commons. 

"This is limiting the doctors in their abilities to rule out certain conditions or illnesses or diseases, and limits their ability to get the best possible medical care for a child," said Oliphant. "That's no decision a parent should have to make."

The proposed legislation passed the Senate last spring and has also been unanimously approved by the House of Commons justice committee.

Amendments proposed

But in mid-February, the government introduced a motion to make major amendments to the bill.

Oliphant told CBC News that if the proposed amendments were made, it would gut the bill. Instead of putting a law on the books that would safeguard everyone, only one in 10 people would be protected, he said. 

The amended bill would only result in changes to the Canadian Human Rights Act — which only affects those working in or with federally regulated agencies — about 10 per cent of the population. 

Liberal MP Randy Boissonault, arguing on behalf of the government, said that if the bill was to pass without the sweeping amendments, the law would "intrude into provincial jurisdiction over contracts and the provision of goods and services."

No one else in the House of Commons rose to speak in favour of the government's motion.

Bill back before House March 7

Oliphant thinks he's built enough support to get the unaltered bill through Parliament.

"As of today, I'm cautiously optimistic that it might narrowly pass," he said.

"I would welcome complementary legislation in every province and territory. Absolutely. I'm not saying don't do this. Change every provincial and territorial Human Rights Act, make sure we include it there as well. But in the meantime we do have federal government authority to act on this," Oliphant argued.

In her letter to the Council of the Federation, Wilson-Raybould hints that the provinces and territories should follow suit.

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Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould wants the bill amended before it passes. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"With an interlocking scheme of federal-provincial-territorial legislation, our country has achieved comprehensive human rights measures … I am confident that we can add the prohibition of genetic discrimination to that proud human rights heritage," she wrote. 

Wilson-Raybould added that Bill S-201 is scheduled to come back before MPs in the House of Commons on March 7 and 8. She asked the council to respond before then, yet a spokesperson for the council said it doesn't intend to respond, as it does not speak for all of the provinces and territories on this issue.

Oliphant said he's perplexed by the minister's correspondence with the council, as provinces and territories have already been given three opportunities to submit comments, and to date most said they didn't have much to add to the conversation.


  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly included Ontario as one of three provinces with reservations about the bill, when, in fact, British Columbia is the third province that has taken that position.
    Mar 02, 2017 1:39 PM ET