MPs reject Liberal government's attempt to gut genetic discrimination bill

An attempt by the Liberal government to gut the genetic discrimination bill was defeated by a coalition of MPs from across party lines Tuesday evening, despite constitutional concerns raised by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Insurance lobby could be linked to cabinet opposition to genetic discrimination bill, senator says

Bill S-201 aims to prevent genetic discrimination, but the federal Justice Department has expressed reservations the proposed legislation infringes on provincial jurisdiction to regulate the insurance industry. (Pixabay CC)

An attempt by the Liberal government to gut the genetic discrimination bill was defeated by a coalition of MPs from across party lines Tuesday evening, despite constitutional concerns raised by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Alberta Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault had introduced a motion in the House to remove key sections of the legislation, including those relating to penalties for genetic discrimination and language forbidding employers from subjecting job applicants to a genetic test. His efforts to dramatically reduce the bill's scope were defeated in a voice vote.

A number of Liberal backbenchers, including Toronto-area MPs Jennifer O'Connell and Pam Damoff, spoke in favour of Bill S-201 — An Act to Prohibit and Prevent Genetic Discrimination — as originally drafted by recently retired Liberal senator Jim Cowan.

Conservative and NDP MPs also offered their support and chided the cabinet for accepting the "scaremongering" rhetoric of the insurance industry.

Now, at the request of the government, there will be a recorded vote (also referred to as a standing vote) on Boissonault's amendments Wednesday evening.

Liberals supported protections last election

Cowan said in an interview with CBC News Tuesday that the Trudeau cabinet's opposition to the bill is "curious" given the party's vocal embrace of such legislation during the last election campaign and raised the possibility that aggressive lobbying efforts by the insurance industry soured support.

Anna Gainey, the president of the federal Liberals, wrote to the Canadian Coalition for Genetic Fairness in October 2015 promising a Liberal government would "introduce measures, including possible legislative change, to prevent this [genetic] discrimination."

"Today, even people without symptoms can be denied life, mortgage and disability insurance and even rejected for employment based on genetic testing that shows risk of future illness. Many other countries have passed legislation on this problem. Canada is an outlier," she said in the letter addressed to the chair of the coalition, Bev Heim-Myers, and obtained by the CBC News.

Public lobbying records show there have been a number of meetings between the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association and Manulife Financial and senior members of Wilson-Raybould's office over the last year where Bill S-201 was the subject of conversation.

Liberal P.E.I. MP Sean Casey, who was, until recently, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, was also lobbied by the insurance association six times in the last year.

Lobbyists 'very, very active'

Cowan, who introduced the legislation in the Red Chamber more than a year ago, pointed to the lobbying efforts as a potential explanation for the cabinet's skittishness.

"All I can say is look at the number of lobbyists from the insurance industry; they have been very, very active at the federal and provincial levels, and they've been lobbying [the government] very heavily, and lobbying MPs and senators. Now, is that the reason [the cabinet] is opposed to this bill? Some would say yes. But, as they say, I couldn't possibly comment."

After a strong commitment for the bill from the party in the last election, "it makes no sense to me," said Cowan.

Records are vague as to what was discussed during these lobbyist meetings, but the industry has not hidden its opposition to Cowan's private member's bill, a piece of legislation easily passed the Senate last April, and the House of Commons justice committee in December.

Insurers say bill would increase costs for everybody

Bill S-201 would add genetic characteristics as a protected ground under the Canadian Human Rights Act, introduce penalties for discrimination, and forbid employers from subjecting job applicants to a genetic test.

Recently retired Liberal senator James Cowan says aggressive lobbying by the insurance industry could be the reason the Trudeau cabinet is now opposed to his genetic discrimination bill. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The bill would also allow people to refuse to disclose the results of a genetic test to anybody. Medical experts have said the legislation is necessary to counter the fears associated with potentially lifesaving genetic testing, which could produce results that would help doctors better tailor health treatments.

The insurance industry recently committed to never asking an applicant to undergo a genetic test, but said it will ask for — and retain the right to potentially use — genetic testing information for life insurance applications for coverage over $250,000.

"The $250,000 limit helps ensure that individuals with knowledge of significant health risks through genetic testing information, cannot apply for unusually large life insurance policies without disclosing this information. Otherwise, the cost of insurance would increase for everyone and fewer Canadians would be able to afford coverage," the group said in a statement.

Cowan said there is no proof of widespread fraud in any other jurisdiction that has protections against genetic discrimination, including in the U.S., Great Britain, France and Israel.

"Their initial point was this will ruin the insurance industry as we know it. What's happened in all other countries that have protections like this? As far as we know the insurance industry is doing just fine," he said.

Legislation steps on provincial jurisdiction: minister

Wilson-Raybould has said she is opposed to the legislation because she believes it treads on provincial jurisdiction over the insurance industry. (The bill does not specifically mention the insurance industry by name.)

She recently wrote a letter to the Council of the Federation, the group that represents the provinces and territories, asking for its opinion on the legislation. Three provinces, B.C., Manitoba, and Quebec, have raised some issues with the bill as written.

NDP MP Don Davies said during the House debate on Tuesday that the government's claims of constitutional problems are "a smokescreen and no more."

Cowan added constitutional experts have been widely consulted on the bill, and have testified before the Senate and House committees that Parliament is well within its rights to legislate in this area.

He said he wrote letters to the provinces when drafting this legislation and not one responded to his inquiries with any concerns about the bill.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.