Anti-genetic discrimination bill’s passage gives Quebec cancer survivor ‘peace of mind’

Bill S-201 has Parliament’s blessing, but may still face a challenge before obtaining royal assent

Anti-genetic discrimination bill’s passage gives Quebec cancer survivor ‘peace of mind’

Despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recommendation against passing Bill S-201 due to concerns regarding its constitutionality, Liberal backbenchers have voted for the measure banning genetic discrimination by employers and insurers. This came as welcome news to Vidalia Botelho, a cancer survivor living in Quebec.

Botelho will celebrate her second year of being cancer-free next month, according to CBC News. But she has spent most of that time worrying over a possible defect in her DNA which, if revealed via a genetic test, would have to be disclosed to her insurance company. Should that happen, the result would be considered part of her family history and could affect insurance rates for her children.

While Bill S-201 still needs royal assent before it formally becomes law, Botelho is now able to breathe easier. “When I get tested or my children get tested, if there is ever something that shows up or if we're clear, it's just that peace of mind,” she told CBC News. “Not only that you are cleared of a certain illness, but also having all the information to be proactive ... and not wait until the end to go through chemotherapy or radiotherapy.”

The bill received overwhelming support from Parliament, which voted for it 222-60. “I thought the vote would be closer,” said Senator James Cowan, who championed the bill for years. “I didn't expect that kind of overwhelming vote.”

However, the bill isn’t in the clear yet. “We are contemplating and wanting to move forward with putting a reference forward on the constitutionality of the genetic non-discrimination act,” said Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould. Echoing Trudeau’s concerns, she said she wanted to refer the legislation to the Supreme Court.

“The Liberal government seems more inclined to represent the interests of insurance companies than the interests of Canadians who are at risk of losing insurance coverage,” said NDP justice critic Alistair MacGregor.

For its part, the CLHIA said it was disappointed at the bill’s passage. “The industry agrees with the federal government's position as expressed by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice, as well as a number of provinces, that an important element of the Bill is unconstitutional,” it said in a statement.

The insurance association has made some concessions and said it is reviewing the bill’s potential impact on consumers and considering its options. But Cowan is still expecting further opposition.

“I don't know what mechanism it will be, but it would have to get before a court,” he said.

A province could also challenge the bill, but Cowan said most provinces he has contacted were already reviewing their human rights and labour codes to check if they need to be adjusted.

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