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Liberal backbenchers vote against Trudeau, pass law banning genetic discrimination

Over the objection of their own government, dozens of Liberal backbenchers voted Wednesday night in favour of a bill banning genetic discrimination.

In voting for what is known as Bill S-201, the backbench Liberals, along with all Conservative, NDP and Green Party MPs made it a crime for, among other things, insurance companies to demand potential customers provide a DNA test in order to get a policy. Additionally, no company will be able to deny someone a job if they fail to have their genes tested.

Protection from discrimination because of an individual’s genetic makeup will now be written into the Canadian Labour Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act.

S-201 had been opposed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who, on Wednesday morning, called it “unconstitutional” on the grounds that in regulating insurance companies the bill was wading into an area subject to provincial jurisdiction.

But a parliamentary committee that studied the bill heard from four constitutional lawyers, three of whom said the bill was sound from a constitutional point of view, that it did not target any particular commercial sector and, therefore, did not infringe on provincial powers.

Trudeau was not in the House of Commons for the vote Wednesday night — he was in Toronto meeting the board of directors of New York-based investment behemoth Blackrock Inc. — but he had ordered all his cabinet ministers to vote against the bill. Those that were in the House of Commons did just that.

But support for Trudeau’s position among the Liberal backbench was thin and S-201 cleared its last legislative hurdle by a vote of 222-60.

Insurance company representatives had testified that, if S-201 passed and became law — as it will before the end of spring — premiums for some kinds of insurance, including life insurance could skyrocket.

An actuary working for the insurance committee testifed last fall at the Commons justice committee that premiums for men would jump 30 per cent and would jump 50 per cent for women.

But MPs refused to buy that spin and instead, based their vote on the testimony of many healthcare providers, charities and others who were more concerned about protecting privacy rights while helping people benefit from emerging gene therapies.

A physician testified at a commons committee in November of several instances when he counselled patients to have a genetic test to better understand or better treat a potential medical condition. Those patients, nervous that the results of those DNA tests would disqualify them for life insurance or a job, declined the tests.

“Without genetic testing, individuals cannot act upon certain knowledge and put measures into place that will provide protection or help to avoid a life-limiting or a life-threatening disorder,” said Dr. Ronald Cohn, pediatrician-in-chief at Toronto’s Hospital For Sick Children.

S-201’s success is also a rare example a private members’ bill from the Senate making it into law.

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