Trevor Hancock: Senate needs to protect our health and environment

In recent weeks, we have seen large Canadian industries pressuring the Senate to favour their special interests over the wider health and environmental interests of Canadians.

In the process, this unelected chamber is being asked to subvert the will of the elected House of Commons by delaying and effectively killing two bills.

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First, we have seen a concerted effort by Canada’s fast-food and junk-food industry to derail Bill S-228, which is intended to protect children from predatory marketing. The Heart and Stroke Foundation, which supports the legislation, has referred to the industry’s approach as “bullying” that is “putting business before children’s health.”

Ironically, this bill actually began in the Senate, from where it went to the House of Commons. It was passed in September 2018, and awaits the final vote in the Senate. But it has been stuck there ever since. Senator Nancy Greene Raine, now retired, but who introduced it in the Senate, has stated: “Industry has been lobbying hard to try to kill the bill and it is obviously being successful.”

Independent Senator Tony Dean, a former professor at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance, wrote in iPolitics on March 15: “In recent months, we have seen a growing strategy by some of our more partisan colleagues to delay Senate approval of … bills, presumably to ensure they die on the Order Paper when Parliament is dissolved later this year.” He described Bill S-228 as “a perfect example of this,” and expressed “considerable concern it will not proceed to a vote before the pre-election break,”

Don’t think for one second that this industry is doing this in the interests of the public. It is pushing back hard because it fears the bill would reduce the companies’ profits, at a time when the new Canada Food Guide has again pointed out that a healthy diet does not include most of their products. But as Raine says: “It is time to put our kids’ health before profits.”

Even more recently, we have seen Canada’s resource industries — the oil and gas, nuclear, uranium and hydroelectric industries, along with the Alberta government — combining to bully the Senate over Bill C-69, which concerns a more comprehensive approach to assessing the health and environmental impacts of their activities. As the Sierra Club notes: “The oil and gas industry wants to kill fixes to environmental laws and continue to operate with minimal oversight.”

The bill was passed in the Commons in June 2018, but the Senate committee studying it has decided to go across Canada seeking input, which is seen by the bill’s supporters as simply a delaying tactic. John Tasker, on CBC News on March 17, noted this “may compromise Parliament’s ability to pass the … law ahead of the October 2019 general election” — at which point it dies.

Of course, these industries dress it up as being all about jobs and workers, but make no mistake: It’s all about profits. If these industries were really interested in the well-being of their workers and the communities where they operate, they would encourage and support unionization and would welcome the highest health and environmental standards in the world.

So who do you trust to protect our health and the environment for future generations? The junk-food industry, with its unhealthy products, the resource industry, with its long record of pollution and harm to the health of workers and communities, or groups such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Sierra Club and other health and environmental organizations that work in the public interest and support these bills? I know whose side I am on.

Sober second thought is all very well, but this is not what is happening here. What is happening is that large industries are using their economic and political muscle to delay and kill legislation that would protect Canadians from their actions. Senators need to be reminded that they are not there to do industry’s bidding, but to work in the best interests of Canadians. It’s time the Senate passed Bills S-228 and C-69.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

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