Hon. Bob Rae (Toronto Centre, Lib.)
|| That, in the opinion of the House, the government, and specifically the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the President of the Treasury Board, has failed to learn the painful lessons from Walkerton which proved that cuts to essential government services protecting the health and safety of Canadians are reckless and can cause Canadians to lose their lives; and further, that the House condemn the government for introducing a budget that will repeat the mistakes of the past and put Canadians in danger by reducing food inspection, search and rescue operations, and slashing environmental protections, and call on the government to reverse these positions.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I will be sharing my time with the member for Wascana.
It is well known that the Conservative movement around the world bases its policy prescriptions on several key ideas, one of which is deregulation and the other of which is less government spending. I think it is fair to say that this government has been captured by this idea, as was the Harris government in Ontario.
It is important for the House to take the opportunity to understand, in the aftermath of the budget, the risks involved in following this ideology in a very stubborn way, such as we are seeing from the government.
It is ironic and nevertheless appropriate for this debate for us to point out that three of the senior ministers in the government were also senior ministers in the Harris government. It was during the time of that government in the year 2000 that there was an E. coli outbreak in the water supply of the community of Walkerton in the province, which led to the death of seven people, to 2,300 people falling ill and to the fact that even to this day some people are feeling the continuing effects of the E. coli outbreak.
As a result of that terrible series of events, the government of Ontario established a royal commission that was led by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor. Mr. Justice O'Connor found that, although one could point to individuals who had clearly failed to do their job, and subsequent charges were laid against those people, nevertheless there were broader responsibilities that needed to be established and spoken about.
In particular, Mr. Justice O'Connor found, and I am quoting from page 27 of his report where he said:
|| I am satisfied that a properly structured and administered inspections program would have discovered, before the May 2000 outbreak, both the vulnerability of Well 5...
which was the well in question that was contaminated
||...and the PUC's unacceptable chlorination and monitoring practices. Had these problems been uncovered, steps could have been taken to address them, and thus to either prevent the outbreak or substantially reduce its scope.
He also concluded on page 30 of the report:
|| I am satisfied that if the MOE had adequately fulfilled its regulatory and over-sight role, the tragedy in Walkerton would have been prevented (by the installation of continuous monitors) or at least significantly reduced in scope.
In the course of his inquiry, Mr. Justice O'Connor pointed out the extent to which dramatic cuts were made in the Ministry of the Environment in the years after 1995, cuts that followed a period of restraint, admittedly, between 1990 and 1995, but were nevertheless a shift in philosophy.
There was a decision in 1996 to privatize the laboratory system, which would assess the quality of water, and continuing refusal of the government to implement a regulation that was suggested over and over again by several, including the Environment Commissioner of Ontario in 1996, that at the very least the private laboratories had the obligation to inform and to provide notice to the public health officer whenever there was a problem.
As it stood at that time, the only requirement was that the laboratories had to tell the very officials who were sending them the information.
What is interesting as well is that at the hearing, during the inquiry, the premier of the day, Mr. Harris, testified. He said:
|| I'm in a position to say, that at no time was any action taken by our government that I believe either jeopardized the health or safety of the people of this province or of Walkerton. I am in a position to say that.
He went on to say:
|| At...no time would we have approved or would I have approved, and I...don't believe our government would have approved, I don't know anybody that would, any reductions that would have jeopardized either the environment or public safety.
That is precisely what one would expect the premier to have said. If I may say so, it is precisely what we hear from ministers opposite when we challenge them with respect to the regulation of the food system and when we challenge them with respect to the changes in the search and rescue operations that are being shifted away from those areas that are closest to and best able to provide immediate response, to more centralized operations in Halifax and Trenton. Similarly, we hear from the Department of the Environment that the changes it is making are in fact going to improve the quality of the environment.
Perhaps we can be forgiven for taking with more than a grain of salt, but perhaps with several canisters, the comments we hear from members opposite when they say they can make these changes and they will have no deleterious effects, no negative impact on the health and safety of Canadians.
We do not have to go to other countries to find out what happens when deregulation goes too far. We do not have to go to other countries to find out what happens when the cuts in public expenditure, or when the reduction in the number of inspectors, or when the cuts in the numbers of people who are involved in an oversight and regulatory role, in fact, lead to loss of life. We do not have to go to the terrible examples around the world where regulatory failure has resulted in loss of life. We only have to go to Canada. We only have to go to the province of Ontario.
We do not have to look elsewhere to see negative outcomes and even loss of life. People have gotten sick not for a certain period of time, but for their whole lives because the regulatory system failed and cuts had a direct impact on their health. Of course, every time governments make those kinds of cuts, they will tell us that there will be no impact. They will keep saying that there will be no impact on the health and safety of Canadians.
We on this side are not simply skeptical. We are saying to at least let us learn the lessons of our own history. Let us at least understand that the kind of ideology that is rooted in this government is the same ideology that was rooted in the government of Ontario in the years 1995 to 2003 and that the consequence of that ideology had a significant impact on what really happened. People lost their lives. People died. People got very sick.
It is no exaggeration for us to say this: Let no one in Canada say that this Parliament did not warn the Government of Canada that the path it is taking us down on food inspection, on environmental protection and on search and rescue is a path that will have a direct impact on the real safety and security of Canadians, which is after all the fundamental purpose and objective of every government, regardless of its ideology.
Hon. Ralph Goodale (Wascana, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, I am happy to have the opportunity to continue this debate on an important subject matter in terms of what governments can and should properly do to protect the public health and safety of Canadians. As the member for Toronto Centre has just said, that is the fundamental obligation of every government, regardless of ideology.
The problem we see with the particular government at the federal level in Canada today is that it simply presumes too much about its mandate. It exaggerates and overreaches. Yes, the government happens to have a majority of seats in the House of Commons, but it does not have a majority of support among Canadians. The Conservative government received 40% of the vote from 60% of those who voted. That means its mandate amounts to 24% of the eligible voters who cast votes in the last election. That is a very modest mandate.
In fact, that kind of a mandate, a minority of overall support, is not uncommon in Canada. However, what it says to the government that wins is that it must be a little modest in interpreting the mandate it has been given. It must not exaggerate, overreach, engage in false bravado or engage in triumphalism because that leads to bad governance. It leads to an attitude of impunity and that leads to the kinds of problems that we see with the cuts to public health and safety that the government is imposing in this latest budget.
The government's attitude of impunity, of overreaching and exaggerating its mandate leads to excessive and obsessive behaviour. We have seen that with the Minister of International Cooperation, the Minister of Industry and the Minister of National Defence. We see that in the way the Conservatives are treating the whole issue around the robocalls and the election scandal that the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada is now investigating. The government simply dismisses this as irrelevant and trivial.
We see the consequences of this attitude of impunity in the abuses of parliamentary procedure and process where the Conservatives never answer questions in question period. They take the important business of parliamentary committees and move it behind closed doors in secret sessions. They have used closure to ram through their legislation more times in four or five months than most majority governments used in four or five years.
We see it in the omnibus legislation and the very budget bill that is before Parliament right now. It is legislation that lumps so many matters together that Parliament cannot possibly debate, discuss and consider those matters in any serious way that Canadians would expect.
We see that attitude of impunity in the way the Conservatives deal with an issue like the F-35s and the keeping of two sets of books, as has been revealed by the Auditor General. We see it in their failure to be candid with Canadians and tell the truth about the real cost of that particular transaction.
Most problematic, we see this attitude of impunity reflected in the government's unbridled application of its ideology. Rather than taking into account the varied and diverse views of Canadians and allowing everyone to have their say to ensure those views are properly respected and reflected, we have this rigid application of ideology that simply drives the government's minority position down the throats of Canadians. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the cuts that the Conservatives have chosen to make in this budget.
We can talk about the cuts to health care, old age security and in so many other areas, but most particularly I want to focus on the cuts to search and rescue, environmental science and protection, and food inspection. The government seems to think that those things are less important than its pet projects where it lavishes spending on, for example, the acquisition of the F-35, without any kind of competitive tendering process, and the downloading of expenses for jails onto the provincial levels of government. Jets and jails are the government's pet projects. The Conservatives seem to think that things like the environment, food inspection and search and rescue are expendable.
The Conservatives are cutting $56.1 million from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's budget. They say that all of it will come from the back office and that we will not notice any front line difference. In fact, these so-called savings will be coming from the firing of at least 344 personnel from the already understaffed CFIA food inspection branches across the country, the very jobs that exist to protect Canadians from unsafe food products.
The government is also planning to implement a new policy with respect to food labelling. We might call it eat at our own risk. This policy will rely on the self-policing of food safety by industry and by individual Canadians rather than trained public servants. It is like saying that if people think they have an E. coli problem they should look it up on the Internet and maybe they can find help there. Those cuts will put the health and well-being of certain Canadians at particular risk, including those who can suffer potentially fatal allergies and serious health conditions like Crohn's disease, celiac disorder or diabetes, individuals who rely on the CFIA to ensure the accuracy of food labels to protect their health.
Those are not the only cuts that the government is making with respect to the CFIA. Last year, it took $33.5 million from its budget, including $17.5 million from increased inspections and inspectors. This is a dangerous policy. The purpose of our motion today is to point out that danger so that the government can reflect on these issues and change its mind before it is too late.
We have mentioned the environment. The government is chopping $88.2 million from the environment portfolio while making the empty promise, which the member for Toronto Centre mentioned, that it will maintain “the highest possible standards for protecting the environment”. In fact, these cuts are being made by the firing of government scientists who oversee environmental assessments and monitoring, as well as cutting some 30 staff from the environmental emergencies program.
The government is also gutting environmental legislation and weakening several environmental laws. It is silencing dissent from environmental non-governmental organizations and continues to muzzle government scientists working in the field of the environment, at least those who still have their jobs. It has also cancelled the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.
Food inspection is one area, environmental science and environmental protection is another where the government is being penny wise and pound poor as it cuts away at those things that protect the quality of life and the safety of Canadians in this country.
The government has also decided to close the St. John's and Quebec City maritime search and rescue coordination centres. These cuts are a direct attack on the safety and security of everyone who makes their living at sea. Despite the government's blandishments to the contrary, it is highly unlikely that the centres in Halifax and Trenton will be able to make up the difference and handle the increased workload caused by the St. John's and Quebec City closures.
If the Conservatives can spend over $30 million on a commemorative program for the War of 1812, then surely they can keep vital centres like the search and rescue coordination centres open to serve Canadians and to protect Canadians' lives in and around places like St. John's and Quebec City.
The cuts that we are facing with the government today, as the member for Toronto Centre so graphically illustrated, mimic directly the kind of behaviour that we saw in the Ontario provincial government leading up to 2000 when that government decided to make a collection of decisions cutting back on environmental protection and on water safety in the province of Ontario. That decision by the Harris government led directly to the tragedy in Walkerton in 2000. That is not simply a political statement. That is the explicit legal finding by Mr. Justice Dennis O'Connor when he investigated that matter in a public environment. We need to ensure that kind of thing does not happen again.
Mr. Pierre Lemieux (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture, CPC):
Mr. Speaker, I am very disappointed with the motion that the opposition has decided to debate in the House today. Suggesting that the minister responsible for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, CFIA, would do something that would endanger the health and safety of Canadians lacks credibility and reflects poorly on the opposition itself. Spreading fear among Canadians by suggesting that budget 2012 will make their food unsafe is irresponsible. I find it most regrettable that the opposition is attempting to achieve political gain by undermining the confidence of Canadians in the safety of their food. I believe it shows very poor judgment on the part of its members.
Protecting the health and safety of Canadians has been and remains one of our government's most important priorities. Canadians know this. They know that their food is safe and they have confidence in our food safety system. Therefore, it is with great pleasure that I take this opportunity to set the record straight, focusing specifically on the impact of the budget on the work of the CFIA and food safety within Canada.
The recent budget will not reduce Canada's investment in food safety or diminish the role of the CFIA. Our government believes that it is possible to find savings, find efficiencies and cut red tape within the CFIA without putting the health and safety of Canadians at risk. Both before and after our most recent budget, all food products produced or sold in Canada must meet our high safety standards. Before elaborating further, allow me to provide some context for food safety in Canada.
Our food safety regime is a partnership among governments, industry and consumers. At the federal level, Health Canada works with stakeholders to establish policies, regulations and standards relating to the safety and nutritional quality of all food sold in Canada. Once Health Canada sets these policies and standards, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency enforces them.
In addition, the CFIA is responsible for protection of the animal and plant resources base in Canada on which the production of safe food depends. As members may recall, the previous four federal budgets invested significantly in our food safety system, enabling the agency to hire additional inspection staff. In fact, not only did our previous budgets sustain funding for our food safety programs, they increased funding.
For example, budget 2011 provided an additional $100 million in funding for the agency to build science capacity and enhance training and inspection tools for inspectors. Unfortunately, the opposition members voted against these changes. They profess to be concerned about food safety in Canada, but every time we put forward a positive initiative and increase funding for food safety they vote against it. These are significant investments in our food safety capacity. It just does not make sense that after having made such significant investments the government would then set about to undermine the progress that has been made.
In fact, the exact opposite is true. Budget 2012 provides an additional $51 million over two years to the CFIA, the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada for continuing key food safety activities. In other words, the recent budget is strengthening, not weakening, this government's commitment to the health and safety of Canadians.
The opposition members call for more money and food safety. We have put more money into Canada's food safety system and, against all logic, they have voted against the very initiatives that they asked for. They do this every time. The opposition members voted against the $100 million increase in budget 2011. They voted against the $51 million increase in budget 2012. I believe that when it comes to food safety Canadians do not understand what the opposition is doing or trying to accomplish. The very actions of the opposition members betray them.
Like all federal departments and agencies, the CFIA is contributing to the government's deficit reduction action plan. However, the CFIA has not and will not reduce staff or cut programs that would put the health and safety of Canadians at risk. Indeed, budget 2012 is supporting the CFIA's drive toward modernization and will allow the agency to focus its key resources where they are most needed.
For some reason, the opposition does not want to acknowledge that Canada's food safety system was recognized as superior in a food safety report on OECD countries. I will happily quote again from that report for my colleagues.
|| The nation's food safety is ranked as superior based on factors such as the rate of food-borne illness, inspections, education programs, use of agricultural chemicals and strategies on bioterrorism, risk management and food recalls.
For some reason this independent, third-party report is not credible in the eyes of the opposition, which is why I am here to speak to this motion today.
The changes to the CFIA following the budget reflect four key principles. First, the CFIA will focus on programs that are important to Canadians. Second, it will modify programs to reflect current scientific knowledge. Third, it will improve service capacity and cut red tape for industry. Fourth, it will increase efficiency.
Let me explain how the agency will apply those principles.
Canada has one of the world's best food safety systems. We must not only maintain and improve that system, but also preserve the confidence of Canadians and our trading partners in our ability to protect consumers. How will we do that? We will focus on what is really important.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency will focus on its core mandate: safeguarding Canada's food supply, plant and animal resources and consumers. As such, the agency must take a close look at all activities that do not fall within that mandate and that should be turned over to other qualified individuals or organizations.
For example, Canada has always worked with the provinces on meat inspection. That partnership will not change. All meats produced in Canada, in both federal and provincial institutions, must comply with the health requirements set out in the Food and Drugs Act.
In accordance with its mandate under the Act, the CFIA inspects federally regulated facilities. In principle, the provinces are responsible for inspecting facilities that they regulate. On the ground, however, the division of labour is not quite that clear.
While most provinces fulfill their own meat inspection responsibilities, the CFIA has been handling these activities in British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan on a contract basis. This has been going on for a number of years now on a limited cost recovery basis. This inspection activity has been focused on verifying compliance with provincial standards in these provinces. However, as announced last August, the CFIA is returning meat inspection responsibilities to these three provinces.
I want to emphasize that CFIA is not abandoning its responsibilities, but rather returning certain tasks to their rightful owner. When Canadians buy meat at the local grocery store, they may look at the brand, the price, the best-before date and the nutrition label. I do not believe for a moment they wonder whether the meat plant was inspected by a provincial or federal authority. What is important is only that the product was inspected by a qualified inspector and that it was deemed safe.
The CFIA has no legislated obligation to inspect provincially regulated meat plants, and the agency has judged the time right to focus on its primary role of federal inspection activities. During the transition, of course, the CFIA will continue to work closely with its provincial counterparts as they put in place their own inspection services, and the food safety system will continue to protect Canadians.
The integrity of the food safety system will certainly not be compromised by returning provincial meat inspection duties to where they belong. Indeed, budget 2012 positions the CFIA to focus on its core responsibilities, and that is what is most important to Canadians.
The second principle guiding implementation of the budget is a focus on the latest science. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is Canada's foremost science-based regulator. It uses science when making program decisions. Due to its very nature, however, science is constantly evolving, and the agency must keep pace.
To that end, the CFIA is adjusting some programs so that its activities, equipment and facilities reflect the most current scientific knowledge. It is also consolidating its scientific expertise in better equipped facilities. This will support collaboration and make more effective use of laboratory resources.
Let me provide some concrete examples of what this means in practice. On the west coast, the CFIA will move some of its activities at the Centre for Plant Health in Sidney to the research station in Summerland, run by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Combining expertise at one facility in British Columbia will enhance capacity to serve the grapevine and tree fruit industries. Moreover, it will ensure the agency's vital work takes place in a better equipped facility with a larger pool of scientists. Together, the team will take the greatest care to conduct its work effectively. That includes working in an appropriately secure environment that reflects the associated pest risks.
In Atlantic Canada, the CFIA is consolidating some services within its own network of laboratories. Specifically, the agency will transfer testing and diagnostic activities in St. John's to laboratories in Charlottetown and Dartmouth, and for good reason. The facilities in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia are more modern and better equipped to handle the complex food and plant testing required by the industry.
As someone who has studied science, I know many people still entertain romantic notions of innovation. These often revolve around a professor working alone in a lab who has a eureka moment that changes history. This is not reality. Science usually moves forward in increments and more often than not demands close collaboration for success. That is why the consolidation of the agency's laboratories in Atlantic Canada hold so much potential. The move will create enhanced pools of expertise in two geographic areas instead of three. This will allow scientists and diagnosticians to work together more closely and promote greater effectiveness.
As its third principle guiding implementation of budget 2012, the CFIA is determined to improve service and to cut unnecessary administrative costs for industry. To do that, the agency is harnessing new technologies that will provide another tool to help industry create compliant labels. These changes will have no impact on food safety, but they will reduce costs for both government and industry alike.
Unlike the opposition, our government knows that money can be saved without affecting food safety and, in addition, that Canadians expect us to use their tax dollars prudently.
This tool, called the self-assessment labelling tool, will give producers, manufacturers and retailers the information they need to apply federal regulations correctly. In the process, it will reduce the amount of time needed for agency staff to answer routine questions. As an added benefit, if they so wish, consumers can also use the tool to learn more about labelling and rules that companies are required to follow.
Let me be as clear as possible. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency will continue to verify and enforce all food safety and consumer protection labelling requirements, including those related to ingredients, allergens, nutrition, compositional standards and mandatory labelling. It will simply do so more efficiently and effectively.
It is possible to save taxpayer dollars and improve service. I know this is difficult for the opposition to grasp, but this is exactly what we are doing.
In addition, a mandatory pre-market registration of labels is currently required for processed food. This practice, however, duplicates routine oversight activities that the agency already carries out in the marketplace. I want to stress that these changes do not effect food safety. Indeed, all this requirement has ever done is slow down the entry of new products into the marketplace.
These savings are definitely good for taxpayers and our food safety system and they do not effect food safety.
I repeat: CFIA inspectors will continue to verify labels, take samples and conduct analyses to ensure that no allergens are present and that the list of ingredients indicated on the label is complete. They will also continue to investigate public complaints.
The agency will also repeal the regulations that limit the size of food containers. Thus, the industry will be able to profit from new formats and new packaging technologies and will be able to import new products from abroad. When all is said and done, these measures will provide consumers and the industry with greater choice.
Increased efficiency is the final principle that will guide the implementation of budget 2012. Thus, I am pleased to announce that the agency will work more intelligently without sacrificing its commitment to food safety.
The CFIA carefully examined all activities that were not directly associated with food safety or animal or plant health and made some smart adjustments. For instance, the agency will now spend less time on grading and quality assurance activities that have no impact on food safety, such as for seeds and fertilizer. Accordingly, the CFIA will work with the private sector, industry and other stakeholders to develop other delivery mechanisms when it makes sense to do so.
It is important to remember that, since 2006, our government has invested significantly in order to improve our food safety system. In particular, budget 2011 allocated $100 million. Building on those commitments, budget 2012 allocates $51 million to primary food safety activities, including the activities managed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Yes, like all federal departments and agencies, the CFIA will contribute to the government's deficit reduction efforts. I can assure the House, however, that these budget reductions will not affect food safety. On the contrary, the changes brought about by the budget will only strengthen the agency's work.
Budget 2012 will allow the CFIA to realign its efforts and resources in accordance with its basic mandate and the programs that are truly important to Canadians. It will also allow the agency to make better use of its scientific expertise, to launch new initiatives that will improve services and reduce red tape for the industry, and to streamline its integrated operations so that it can work more intelligently. In short, we should be congratulating the CFIA on having transformed challenges into new opportunities.
This government is proud that Canada has one of the best food safety systems in the world. Be assured that we will not tarnish our reputation globally or undermine the trust and confidence of Canadians in the food they eat. Let me repeat. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has not, and will not, reduce staff or cut programs that would, in any way, put the health and safety of Canadians at risk.
For all these reasons, the government does not agree with the spirit or the letter of the opposition motion. Indeed, the motion recklessly attempts to undermine the confidence of Canadians in our world-class food safety regime and it does so for the attempted gain of the opposition.
I urge all members in the House to join me in opposing this opposition motion.
Ms. Peggy Nash (Parkdale—High Park, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with the hon. member for Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques.
I am pleased to speak to this motion today which draws a line between the cuts to regulations and funding developed for the public good and cuts to public oversight that affect the well-being of Canadians. There have been comments today, and referred to in this motion, about the terrible situation in Walkerton, Ontario where people lost their lives because of lack of public oversight, due to cuts to public infrastructure funding that should have ensured that the public was protected with respect to water safety.
I trace this back to the federal budget of 1995 where the Liberal government of the day made massive cuts to funds that it would transfer to the provinces, and at the time bragged that with these massive cuts relative to the size of the economy, public spending in 1996 and 1997 would be lower than at any time in our country's history since 1951. Of course, that was prior to medicare and prior to many other programs which we subsequently brought into place. So it gives us a sense of the massive extent of the cuts that were made by the federal government, and the off-loading of debt that went, in essence, to the provinces and then was off-loaded to cities and the people of Canada. We saw the impact directly in Ontario. We certainly saw it in my community in Toronto where there was greater homelessness and greater poverty, and people were placed more at risk.
Now in its budget, the government is going down a similar path. It is cutting on the pretense of streamlining. We heard the member opposite a few minutes ago talking about getting greater efficiencies, streamlining, trying to reassure Canadians that all that is happening is basically good economic housekeeping and that there is nothing here that will jeopardize any protection or safety for Canadians. I remind Canadians that it is the government that was not particularly frugal or efficient in its spending of $1 billion when the G20 came to Toronto or when the G8 was in Muskoka and the minister was able to find great ways to squander money in his own riding. We have noticed a lack of efficiency and accountability for the dollars that Canadians send to Ottawa when we see the various budget estimates around the F-35s and multi-millions of dollars' difference when the Conservatives are talking about their pet projects. We can see how cavalier they are in public spending when they pass a crime bill that will off-load billions of dollars to the provinces when crime is declining across the country. So the Conservatives seem to want to be frugal when it comes to protecting the public but, as we have seen with $16 glasses of orange juice for cabinet ministers, not necessarily frugal when it comes to their friends or their own personal spending.
Getting to the matter at hand, Canadians ought to be very concerned about the content of these changes, but also the way they are being brought in. It is a government that seems ideologically bound to off-load what it does not take an interest in, to privatize what it can turn over to its friends and to abandon the notion of accountability when its preference is to centralize power and leave decision making to ministers or to groups behind closed doors.
I think there is a real concern with the lack of accountability and the way so many changes are bound into the budget implementation act of more than 400 pages, a third of which deals with changes to environmental protection. There is a real concern about undermining democracy. I say that because there are changes the bill seeks to make that ought to be in a separate bill to be properly examined and debated by the environment critics and the environment committee. That is the proper way to make those kinds of changes as well as other changes that the budget implementation act proposes.
For example, the previous speaker reassured us on the issue of food safety. On the contrary, what the government is putting forward is an erosion of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. To be specific, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is facing overall cuts of $56 million. As we already have outbreaks of listeriosis, it seems to me that food inspection is an area where we would want to invest more money, not cut $56 million. We need food safety oversight today more than ever.
In fact, the government is taking away the oversight of the Auditor General from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. The Conservatives are making the CFIA exempt from a mandatory review by the Auditor General. This is what I mean by a lack of accountability. It is very troubling for Canadians that we do not have the rigour of oversight of the Auditor General for our food inspection agency.
This paves the way for private contractors to do the work of food inspection. Therefore, the fox is in the chicken coop. I think that Canadians ought to be very troubled by the privatization of our food inspection. I prefer to have someone acting in the public interest rather than private profit to be responsible for food inspection. That seems obvious to me. The fact that the Conservatives want to make this change to privatize food inspection should set alarm bells ringing throughout the country.
The Canadian Medical Association Journal has long pointed out key failings in our food safety system. It warned Canadians in an editorial on April 12 of last year to eat at their own risk. It said, even prior to this budget, that it was very concerned about the lack of oversight.
The Food and Drugs Act would see a streamlining where the Minister of Health would be able to exempt products from the regulatory process. That seems a bit troubling. The minister would have the power to issue marketing authorization to exempt a food, or advertisement with respect to a food, from certain provisions of the act. Again, this is about concentrating more power in the hands of the minister without proper regulatory oversight.
As well, the bill would provide for Health Canada to adopt any industry regulations as law without proper parliamentary oversight. I believe this would be very problematic if there were no policy to go with this change to prevent conflict of interest. There is tremendous potential for us to get into trouble with this.
There are many areas, such as: the cuts to search and rescue; the slashing of environmental protections; and the gutting of environmental assessments to speed up major projects, namely pipelines. There are sweeping changes. Canada is already an international pariah when it comes to the environment, but the Conservatives are making massive changes, of which I know my colleagues will put forward more detail. The Conservative government is missing opportunities not only to protect Canadians but to green our economy and invest in new opportunities with renewable energy and energy efficiency. We are lagging behind many other countries in doing this.
I believe that this budget implementation act should be of great concern to Canadians and I think that the motion raises important points in terms of protecting public safety.
Mr. Guy Caron (Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques, NDP):
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to the subject of this motion, because I think it goes straight to the heart of the government's way of operating.
When we talk about government services or government structures, members on both sides of the House agree that procedures, services and structures should be constantly reviewed so that they can be made to respond more efficiently and more effectively to the situations they were created to deal with. A regular review of these procedures, services and structures is essential. I believe members on both sides of the House agree completely on that.
Nevertheless, the government's vision, as it has demonstrated since 2006, is just the opposite of what it should be. One way to study the efficiency and effectiveness of services, and even find savings, is to perform a regular review of these services.
The government, however, is doing things backwards. It wants to make budget cuts—$5.2 billion this time. Then, every government service will feel the impact of these cuts. Thus, the government's intention to make cuts is detrimental to all services, whether they are inefficient—as sometimes happens—or very efficient, and even essential. In this way, the government's actions and reaction are causing great damage.
I would like to talk about two particular situations addressed in the opposition motion. First, I will discuss the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Second, I will talk about search and rescue, in particular the issue of the Quebec City centre, which serves my riding.
The government's flippant attitude toward important and fundamental questions relating to the health of Canadians has never been clearer than during the listeriosis crisis of August 2008. The response by the Minister of Agriculture at the time was quite telling. I remind the House that the agriculture minister, speaking during a conference call, made the following comment about the crisis:
“This is like a death by a thousand cuts. Or should I say cold cuts”.
Later on during that same call, someone mentioned that a Prince Edward Islander had died of listeriosis. Once again, his response to the situation was flippant:
|| “Please tell me it's the member for Malpeque”.
In fact, that member was from Prince Edward Island. The minister apologized for his comments when they were made public, but he suffered no consequences for his behaviour.
That shows the extent to which the Minister of Agriculture and this government in general fail to take the health of Canadians seriously. Obviously, nobody wants to jeopardize the safety of Canadians deliberately, particularly when it comes to food inspection, but measures such as those the government is planning to implement will endanger Canadians whether or not that is the intent.
A government that seeks to govern well should take history into account, should keep the listeriosis outbreak and Walkerton in mind when making decisions in this area.
I mentioned the 2008 listeriosis outbreak. Clearly, that was not benign. Fifty-seven people across Canada got sick and 22 of them died. The outbreak highlighted the inadequacy of inspection measures. The Weatherill report by the commission that inquired into the listeriosis outbreak mentioned a number of disturbing facts about the situation.
I would like to quote four of the report's findings.
|| The Canadian Food Inspection Agency failed to do mandatory safety audits of the Maple Leaf Foods plant which produced the tainted cold cuts for years prior to the outbreak.
|| A new inspection system—the compliance verification system or CVS—implemented just before the outbreak was flawed and in need of “critical improvements related to its design, planning and implementation”.
|| The CVS was “implemented without a detailed assessment of the resources available to take on these new CVS tasks”.
Finally, there is a fourth point.
There was already a shortage of inspectors prior to the outbreak. Let us talk about the period before the outbreak—the number, capabilities and training of the inspectors assigned to the Maple Leaf processing plant on Bartor Road, the plant that produced the contaminated cold cuts. Apparently, the inspectors were feeling stressed about their responsibilities at other plants, the complexity of the Bartor Road plant—particularly concerning its size and hours of operation—and the adjustments needed because of the new compliance verification system.
The Weatherill report was scathing. It pointed out that the system put in place by the government right before the listeria outbreak was deficient. It wanted to go even further regarding this deficient system. This relates to the question I asked the parliamentary secretary about the Canadian Food Inspection Agency employee who discovered a government directive concerning the agency that reduced its funding by 5%—and this was in 2008. So, it was a matter of a 5% cut and directives whereby essential food inspection procedures, which should have been conducted independently, would be transferred to the industry in the name of self-regulation and voluntary regulation.
“Voluntary regulation” is a lovely expression, but very little regulation is actually involved. The responsibility for this regulation is being given to those who stand to gain in the process. That is the very definition of conflict of interest. As far as food inspection is concerned, Canadians and Quebeckers want to have independent procedures to ensure that there will be a clear and accurate evaluation that is outside any other interest and that simply seeks to protect the safety of our citizens.
Do you want to know what happened to that employee, by the way? Easy: he made the document public and the Conservative government responded by dismissing him. He blew the whistle on an initiative that could have been hazardous to the health of Canadians. The Minister of Agriculture even denied the employee's status as a whistleblower saying that he was not the one who blew the whistle on the government's initiative that was going to hinder food inspection, but rather he was the one who blew the whistle on the whistleblower.
Again, this shows the government's flippant attitude and indifference toward the real problems raised by the commissioner responsible for the commission that followed the listeriosis outbreak.
My colleague here talked about the findings in the journal of the Canadian Medical Association, namely that the process itself is inadequate. The commission did a good job with the guidelines it was given by the government. However, the guidelines did not focus on casting doubt on the process, the way in which the agency operates, but instead focused, within the framework of the process, on seeing how we can assure the most accountability and best identify the people who are responsible. There are fundamental problems with the processes that were uncovered in this article by the Canadian Medical Association, and that is worth mentioning.
I heard my colleague, the Minister of Agriculture, talk about all the money that has been invested by the government in the past few years when it comes to the Food Inspection Agency. The problem is that if the money goes to the wrong place or if the processes are not improved, then the money is no good. What the listeriosis case and the crisis in Walkerton, Ontario, uncovered is the issue of the process, the way to proceed, and that is not being reviewed by the government.
I would like to have more time—as I know I am running out of time—to speak about the Quebec City search and rescue centre, and the Quebec City office in particular, which will affect my riding. I hope to have the opportunity to say a few words about this when answering questions.
The crux of the problem is really the Conservative government's approach to the budget cuts imposed on all departments and on agencies in critical situations, such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Instead of verifying whether services are effective and meet their objectives, general cuts are made and all services suffer, including essential services. That is our concern with the budget implementation bill. That is why we will support the motion.
Mr. Frank Valeriote (Guelph, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, it has been famously said that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
The motion before the House today is concerned with exactly that. Not only is the government repeating history by making reckless cuts to essential government services that protect the health and safety of Canadians, but it is doing it knowing full well what tragic consequences can arise.
I will be sharing my time with the member for Etobicoke North.
Sitting on the front benches of the government are ministers who, while senior members of the Mike Harris government in Ontario, were at the wheel when essential government services were cut, leading to the deaths of seven people and the serious illness of thousands of residents of Walkerton. In this day and age, it is unthinkable that Canadians should have to question the quality or safety of their food or water, yet it was a Conservative government in Ontario that created a health and safety vacuum when it cut water monitoring, among other essential government services, to create efficiencies in the late 1990s. Justice O'Connor, in his subsequent investigation into the Walkerton tragedy, cited the pursuit of these efficiencies as key among the reasons the whole water quality monitoring system broke down.
As if that were not enough, we are barely four years removed from the outbreak of listeria at Maple Leaf Foods, which tragically killed 22 and left many other Canadians seriously ill. In the wake of the listeria contamination outbreak, the Weatherill report recommended not only increased funding for more inspectors but also a significant government investment in the necessary infrastructure to ensure that the Canadian public is never again at risk from food we would never expect to be dangerous.
These illnesses target the most vulnerable in our society: children and seniors, those who need and deserve our protection the most. It is entirely reckless to go ahead and tell Canadians, children, seniors, and men and women with dietary restrictions and allergies that in the wake of such tragedies, they are now responsible to eat at their own risk.
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada experienced the most severe cuts of all the departments in the most recent Conservative budget. Among those cuts is a cut of $56.1 million to the budget of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Now, my colleagues opposite will have us know, as soon as I am done speaking, that they have invested a considerable sum of money in the CFIA this year as well; of course, it is still significantly less than they are cutting, leaving a funding deficit of approximately $5 million.
Conservatives would also have us believe that these cuts will be found from internal efficiencies and that there will be no front-line changes that would place the health and safety of Canadians at risk. Unfortunately, they neglected to inform senior management, who told CFIA staff quite the opposite, saying:
|| I don't know how you take 10% of your budget and not deal with the front line.
Front-line staff are not “efficiencies”. They are not a reduction in the paper budget or a readjustment of administration or management, and they are certainly not a reduction in an excessive advertising budget.
There were approximately 1,200 food inspectors in Canada before the listeriosis outbreak in 2008. In the last two years, the CFIA has added 70 meat inspectors to respond to the outbreak and another 100 in order to comply with the higher inspection standards of the United States. Members opposite will argue that there were some 700 net new inspectors since 2006; however, a majority of these additional staff members have nothing to do with food inspection. They are not front-line staff; it is just that everyone was given the title “inspector”.
This is particularly important when we consider that only about 2% of imported food is inspected as it enters Canada. Right now when meat is imported into Canada, it is cleared separately, because it is a higher-risk product; however, in the same town hall where senior managers at CFIA informed staff that there was no way they could avoid affecting front-line services, they also announced that as part of cuts to food inspection, they will be eliminating the program to pre-clear and track imported meat shipments.
Considering that meat inspectors clear and track 50,000 shipments a year, axing this program means less scrutiny and less information about high-risk imports.
Cuts to food inspection will also affect interprovincial imports and exports, with cuts to jobs at the ferry terminal in Port aux Basques where inspectors spray down soil-contaminated vehicles to prevent the spread of potato cyst nematode. If the nematodes are allowed to get into P.E.I. or other maritime soil, the result would be near destruction of the potato industry as the disease spreads across the area.
Unfortunately this new, less thorough, approach to inspecting imports is coupled with what CFIA senior management calls a radical re-engineering of the inspection process. CFIA executives informed staff that they would be transitioned largely from food inspectors to systems inspectors only. The difference is fundamental: they will no longer be food safety inspectors, but instead paper-pushers who will oversee industry self-policing. In large part, this environment existed before the listeriosis crisis, yet the Conservative government has ignored all of the valuable lessons most Canadians learned in the wake of that tragedy.
Industry cannot solely be relied upon for food safety regulation and verification, which is why we do not rely on any industry or body to police itself, especially when the results could be as dire as they were in Walkerton or at Maple Leaf Foods; however, the government, which is ideologically opposed to regulation, is letting ideology and politics interfere with safety.
Consumer protection inspectors verify the accuracy of product nutrition claims, which is critical safety information for diabetes sufferers or Canadians living with heart disease, high blood pressure or other life-threatening allergies. On top of cutting the verification of product labels, CFIA has also cut its verification of restaurant menu claims as well as product net weight claims.
Now more than ever, Canadians are more conscious about the food they are eating in terms of salt intake, fat content, and wheat or peanut content, and rightly so. Postmedia showed in an article on April 20 that some of the country's biggest food brands, in some cases, drastically understated the quantities of harmful nutrients while inversely overstating the presence of healthy nutrients.
According to these CFIA tests, of the 600 products tested, more than half were inconsistent with the information on the packaging, with information in some cases off by nearly 90%. That significant a variation is a terrifying proposition for a mother with a child suffering from celiac disease, for a middle-aged man who needs to regulate his sodium intake in order to regulate his blood pressure or for a diabetic whose day-to-day health is contingent on a very rigorous diet. Canadians with serious dietary restrictions will have to look at every food product as though it is labelled “use at your own risk”.
More astonishingly, the only remedy left by the government in the wake of the vacuum it has now created is an online portal where consumers can contact companies directly with their complaint. Perhaps Conservative members can answer me this: what good is a web inquiry to a mom whose child is in the hospital?
In the Conservative war on experts and information, the health and food safety professionals are no longer the first line of defence, but it certainly appears now that everyday Canadians are the last. My deepest fear is that it could be too late by the time anyone needs to report an inaccurate label.
This is no less than the second wave of cuts. Not even six months ago, the Conservatives slashed the CFIA budget by $33.5 million, including $17.4 million dedicated specifically toward increased inspectors and inspections. The Conservative government argued these funds already had an expiration date, yet instead of implementing a permanent infrastructure to protect Canadians against food-borne illness, it followed these early cuts with more and deeper cuts in this budget.
In the 2008 election, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food made an inappropriate joke at the expense of the victims of the listeriosis outbreak. He was rightly criticized for it at the time. I would like to think that he had learned his lesson and no longer saw food safety as a joke.
I am certain there is no member in the House who wishes to see another food tragedy. I am certain that should another befall Canadians, the Conservative government will wring its hands and be quite contrite. We can, however, avoid that to the extent possible by continuing to support the regulations now in place, the regulations that came about and were informed by Walkerton and by the listeriosis outbreak.
We have come too far to make the same fatal, costly mistakes. It is not too late for all members of the House to support reversing these cuts and restore peace of mind to the Canadian public that its food is not only the best but also the safest.
Ms. Kirsty Duncan (Etobicoke North, Lib.):
Mr. Speaker, in May 2000, 2,300 people fell ill after E. coli bacteria contaminated the water supply of Walkerton, Ontario. Sweeping Conservative cutbacks to the Ontario Ministry of Environment contributed to the tragedy, the most serious case of water contamination in Canadian history.
For a first example of the impact of the cutbacks, the Conservative government discontinued laboratory testing services for municipalities in 1996 and failed to put in place a regulation making the reporting of contamination mandatory. Had the government done this, hundreds of illnesses would have been prevented.
For a second example, Conservative cuts to the Ministry of the Environment made the ministry less capable of identifying and dealing with problems at Walkerton's water utility. The ministry's inspections program should have detected the improper treatment and monitoring practices and ensured that those practices were corrected.
In January 2002, Premier Mike Harris accepted responsibility for the shortcomings of the Conservative government. He said:
|| I am truly sorry for the pain and suffering you have experienced.
|| I, as premier, must ultimately accept responsibility for any shortcomings of the Government of Ontario.
|| I deeply regret any factors leading to the events of May 2000 that were the responsibility of the Government of Ontario....
History teaches hard lessons, reminding us that prevention is the best line of defence and that worst-case scenarios do happen.
In examining past disasters such as when the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound in 1989 and when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, causing the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, we see that key decisions were frequently made without assessing the risks, and sufficient prevention measures were not always taken. When extreme cases did occur, responses were often delayed and opportunities to reduce damage were lost. Most recently, the lesson to prepare for worst-case scenarios was repeated with the double disaster of the east Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
It has been said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Unfortunately, economic action plan 2012, or the inaction plan for the environment, and Bill C-38, the budget implementation bill, show a complete failure to learn from the past, namely that past cuts to the environment have resulted in dire consequences and that worst-case scenarios do occur.
Instead, the budget implementation bill continues the Conservative government's war on the environment. An astonishing 150 pages of the 400-plus-page budget are focused on streamlining or gutting environmental oversight. The government is absolutely trying to avoid public scrutiny by jamming such major changes into Bill C-38, thereby avoiding specific study of the changes at individual parliamentary committees. Critics have called it an affront to democracy. As a result, on Friday I called upon the government to hive off changes to environmental protection and then send them to the relevant committee for a thorough clause-by-clause study.
Bill C-38 is an attack on our best means of defence, namely environmental protection monitoring and emergency response. The budget severely cuts Environment Canada, reduces our number of scientists, eliminates the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, the independent think tank with a direct mandate from Parliament, silences the government's critics and guts environmental legislation.
Environment Canada will lose 200 positions. Last summer, the government announced cuts of 700 positions and a 43% cut to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. Key research and monitoring initiatives, which sample air pollution, industrial emissions, water quality, waste water et cetera, and partnerships for a greener economy will be cut $7.5 million.
It is important that parliamentarians have the opportunity to do due diligence and to identify all areas of scientific research and partnerships to be cut and to see how each identified cut is projected to impact decision-making and the development of public policy.
Critics of the government are being silenced through changes to the Canada Revenue Agency and attempts to seize control of the university research agenda. Critics are also being silenced through exclusion of concerned groups and citizens from the environmental review process for pipelines.
Bill C-38 effectively dismantles Canada's environmental laws as we know them, by the repeal of the Kyoto Implementation Act and the wholesale repeal of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and its replacement with a new law that allows the federal government to avoid environmental reviews of many potentially harmful projects and to do less-comprehensive reviews where they still occur. What are the impacts of the repeal of CEAA on regulatory decision-making and the risk of project-specific and cumulative environmental impacts? What is the adequacy of the environmental assessment process in each province and territory and the impacts of industrial projects that cross provincial borders? The weakening of several environmental laws including species at risk in water and near elimination of fish habitat protection in the Fisheries Act puts species from coast to coast to coast at increased risk of habitat loss and population decline. The authority of the federal cabinet to approve new pipeline projects is now above the National Energy Board.
Astoundingly, as the government guts environmental legislation to fast-track development of major projects such as the Northern Gateway Pipeline and to allow oil tankers in northern British Columbia waters, it is cutting $3.8 million from emergency disaster response and consolidating the unit that responds to oil spill emergencies in central Canada, namely Gatineau and Montreal. Key questions regarding the government's preparation for and ability to respond to environmental emergencies should include how many positions in the unit will be slashed; how consolidating the unit in Quebec will impact operations and the predicted response time to travel from the new location to the oil spill; whether the unit will have the financial and technical resources necessary to respond to oil spill emergencies, including those emergencies involving diluted bitumen on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and along the proposed route of the Northern Gateway Pipeline project; and what action the government has undertaken regarding risk assessment and worst-case scenarios related to the navigation of oil tankers and potential diluted bitumen oil spills.
With independent science squashed, environmental legislation gutted and critics silenced, what stands in the way of environmental disaster? The government must stop its war on the environment, science and indeed anyone who threatens to stand in its way of fast-tracking development. Canada needs robust environmental legislation to protect ecosystems, the health and safety of Canadians, the communities in which we live, the economy and our livelihoods.
I will finish by saying that I spent years of my career undertaking disaster prevention, response and recovery, helping organizations across North America prepare for extreme events resulting from climate change and preparing for pandemics, as well as designing the full disaster preparedness program for the university. The United Nations development program has recently asked me to be on the steering committee for international parliamentarians regarding disaster reduction.
Finally, in the wake of disasters, people often wonder whether there was a way to protect both people and property from such devastating losses. The answer is a resounding “yes, by taking action to prevent future damage before a problem occurs”. In order to prevent another tragedy, the government must ensure that Environment Canada's programs and scientists are fully funded to support scientific excellence in prevention, monitoring and emergency response and hive off the environmental protection sections from Bill C-38 and allow public scrutiny of the bill through clause-by-clause study at the appropriate committee.