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Lauren Vogel | CMAJ | Mar. 14, 2017

Parliamentarians passed new protections against genetic discrimination, and debated labelling of genetically modified food and a framework for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in recent sittings of the House of Commons.

Genetic discrimination

More than 100 Liberal backbenchers joined Conservatives and New Democrats to pass the Genetic Non-Discrimination Act, defying attempts by the government to gut the bill.

Bill S-201 makes it illegal to require a person to undergo or disclose the results of genetics testing as a condition of a contract or providing goods and services. The bill will also amend the Canadian Labour Code and Human Rights Act to include protections against genetic discrimination.

Liberal cabinet ministers and most parliamentary secretaries voted against the bill, backing the government’s stance that it infringes on provincial oversight of insurance companies. Proponents of the bill dismissed these concerns, citing support from constitutional lawyers.

Without legal protection from discrimination, Canadians are often fearful to undergo genetic testing, even when it’s recommended by their doctors. “Unfortunately, there are a number of documented cases of genetic discrimination in Canada, and that number will only continue to grow until we, as parliamentarians, fill that legislative void,” said Jennifer O’Connell, Liberal member for Pickering-Uxbridge. She added that the insurance industry “has not been adversely affected” in countries that passed similar legislation.

The Liberal government will now seek the advice of the Supreme Court, putting it in the unusual position of preparing a constitutional challenge to a bill backed by its own MPs.

PTSD framework

A bill to develop a federal framework for PTSD passed second read with strong support across party lines. As part of the framework, Bill C-211 calls on the government to establish a national surveillance program for PTSD, as well as national guidelines for diagnosis and treatment, and educational materials for public health providers.

The framework is “necessary and needed” to speed up diagnosis and treatment for PTSD, said David Sweet, Conservative member for Flamborough-Glanbrook.

However, some MPs doubted whether improved surveillance, guidelines and awareness would be enough to achieve that goal. “There is nothing here to actually increase services for PTSD,” said Irene Mathyssen, NDP member for London-Fanshawe.

Others contended that discussions about PTSD are focused too narrowly on first responders, with one MP noting the high burden of trauma among nurses. “We know very little about the impact of their jobs on their mental health,” said Pam Damoff, Liberal Member for Oakville North-Burlington.

The bill is now before the Standing Committee on Health.

Genetically modified foods

Parliamentarians were divided over a private member’s bill that would require labelling of genetically modified food. “Polls have repeatedly and consistently showed that between 80% and 90% of Canadians support this initiative,” said Pierre-Luc Dusseault, NDP member for Sherbrooke, who introduced the bill.

Liberal and Conservative members contended that it’s not necessary to issue warnings about safe food. “Going ahead with this and it will help perpetuate the myth that genetically modified foods are unhealthy, which is false,” said Francis Drouin, Liberal member for Glengarry-Prescott-Russel. Nearly 70% of processed foods in Canada contain genetically modified ingredients, Drouin added. “There would be less food if we relied solely on non-GMOs. There could also be harmful consequences for the environment because of the increased use of pesticides and herbicides to protect traditional crops.”

Similar bills have been defeated in the past, most recently in 2008.

Women’s health

New Democrat MPs advocated for action on women’s health issues on International Women’s Day.

Irene Mathyssen of London-Fanshawe sought support for a motion to make birth control free for all women in Canada, arguing that increased access to contraceptives “reduces unintended pregnancy, abortion, is cost saving, and a corner stone of women’s human rights.” Health Minister Dr. Jane Philpott said the government would make sure the medication is “affordable, accessible, and appropriately prescribed.”

Sheila Malcolmson of Nanaimo-Ladysmith questioned why a federal strategy to end violence against women will only apply to federal institutions. “The absence of a national action plan is making responses largely fragmented, often inaccessible, and inconsistent across our country,” she said.

Terry Duguid, parliamentary secretary for the Minister of Status of Women, explained that the strategy is being developed based on consultations with “service providers, researchers, academics, and survivors from across the country.” Duguid also cited the government’s inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women as an example of its commitment to “bold action to address all forms of gender-based violence.”

However, Georgina Jolibois, NDP member for Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, questioned why the families of missing and murdered indigenous women were being shut out from the federal inquiry. “They are being left in the dark when in fact they should be properly informed and involved in every step,” she said. Yvonne Jones, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, said that an independent commission is carrying out the inquiry.

Lyme disease framework

New Democrat and Green Party members questioned whether the government would overhaul its draft framework on Lyme disease, after more than 36 000 Canadians petitioned for the plan to be scrapped. The petitioners argued that the draft framework “fails to take real action, has no funding, and fails to protect Canadians from Lyme.” Instead, the plan focuses on building national surveillance and reporting about Lyme disease, improving guidelines for prevention and treatment, and raising public awareness.

“We are going to consider all input on the final draft version, and that will be posted in May of 2017,” said Health Minister Philpott.



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