Committee Report for Bill S-211, An Act respecting World Autism Awareness Day

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to my bill dealing with World Autism Awareness Day, and I rise with mixed emotions. I first want to say that I want this bill passed, but I have a few comments before it moves along in report stage to third reading. I believe these comments deserve to be put on the public record.

I have been at this for a number of years now, and I have looked at autism through the voices of the autistic community, voices that are crying out for much more to be done.

I thought from the beginning this was a bill that was simple in its format but powerful in recognizing what we must do collectively as a nation in rising to one of the great health challenges of the century.

To put this in context, this bill has already been before the Senate. It was passed in the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology on May 14, 2009. The next day, it had third reading. At that point last year, it went on to the House of Commons. The bill had first and second reading, and it was about to go before a House of Commons committee.

In the House of Commons at that time, members such as André Bellavance, Peter Stoffer, Sukh Dhaliwal, Lois Brown, Andrew Saxton, Gerard Kennedy, Scott Reid, Luc Malo, Glenn Thibeault, Kirsty Duncan, Mike Lake and Cathy McLeod spoke in favour of that bill. In the Senate, I received great support from former Senator Trenholme Counsell, Senator Oliver and, of course, Senator Keon.

I do not like to put it this way, but I guess something like politics got in the way. Prorogation. That is life. Therefore, I am back again with this same bill, but this time amended. In fact, there are four amendments.

For new senators here, it is important to recognize that when a bill is amended, it goes back to the beginning. In other words, when it goes back to the House of Commons, the bill will be at first reading.

With respect to the four amendments that were put to the bill, I think some were a little picky. For example, in my “whereas” clauses — “whereas autism spectrum disorders affect at least one in 165 families,” which was a 2007 census figure — the word is taken out and replaced with “significant.” I look at life in context; whether one is building a court case or building a news story, I think context is very important.

“Whereas the number of Canadians diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders has grown by 150 per cent in the last six years,” — I have sourced all of this with some very good people in the autistic community. That is gone.

“Whereas autism affects more children worldwide than pediatric cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined,” — that is gone.

I can understand those, but the toughest one for me, and I was sincerely looking for a collaborative effort all the way through on this, was: “Whereas Canada has no national strategy to address autism spectrum disorders.” In our report, Pay Now or Pay Later, with Senator Keon in my corner, Senator Eggleton as the chair, and with senators of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, we all agreed with what the autistic community told us, that “whereas there is no national autism spectrum disorder strategy.” It is simple.

The federal government has put some programs together, in the sense of paying for some programs, if I can put it that way. However, I find it passing strange that these amendments were put into the bill. I asked the question: What has changed? I do not know the answer to that question, but I wish to make my case again: There is no national autism strategy. Every autistic group in the country will tell us that. The same Senate committee told us that. The autistic people who came before us told us that, and we used it as the title of our report, Pay Now or Pay Later. They said: “You are on the right track.” I have attended many meetings and at each meeting the message is the same; just keep pushing.

I know the other side plays politics in a big way, but this is a collaborative chamber, and I just felt that for this one bill, in a simple bill, that we had an opportunity to do something that would add value to what we do as senators.

If you look across this country — and I will say it again; and I know that Senator Keon felt the same, and I certainly miss him — provincial governments are lacking in what they do, and as a result, inadequate patchwork programs are happening. It is just not working. The lineups are getting longer for diagnosis. I have said before that it is a crime. It is cruel that families have to go to Alberta not for oil but for better treatment. To me, that is not right.

In closing, when I was a reporter — and I am sure other former reporters in this chamber think the same way — context is important before writing anything. I was told these numbers do not matter because the numbers change. When time moves on, these numbers will matter even more because it will show that at a certain time in the history of this country those were the benchmarks of what was happening and then it got worse. They will see the numbers and see what we did and did not do.

To the members of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology and on the Conservative side, I know that you are generous in your spirit and I know that you really understand and care about this issue.

I feel, just for the record, that it was unnecessary to put these amendments. I do have other instances where I used the word “whereas” in my summation. This bill, from my perspective, represented a true opportunity to demonstrate generosity, and a generosity particularly for the good of the autistic community.

Hon. Jane Cordy: Would Senator Munson take a question?

Senator Munson: Yes.

Senator Cordy: I am a member of the Social Affairs Committee, and, like the honourable senator, I was disappointed that Conservatives brought these amendments to this bill and then voted unanimously in favour of them.

The honourable senator mentioned some of the amendments. I suppose senators can determine whether or not these amendments made the bill better or whether they were made to put the bill on the bottom of the pile in the House of Commons side rather than where the bill would have been if no amendments were made to it.

I am not certain if the honourable senator mentioned that all of the amendments were made strictly to the preamble. No amendments whatsoever were made to the body of the bill; is that correct?

Senator Munson: Yes, the amendments were made to the preamble only, the “whereas” items that were added to the bill. For the moment, I really would still like to have this bill. I fear what may happen in the fall; I do not know what to expect.

One of the reasons I am pushing for this bill is that this is not about a celebration or about recognizing the autistic community. It is about taking something and empowering a nation, ministers, health ministers, and the social affairs ministers in the provinces and territories to sit down and think outside the box. It is empowering them to walk into the room and say: Okay, let us see how we can go about finding a solution to this problem.

There is an idea behind this bill and other things we have been doing here. While I appreciate the ministerial declaration — it did show some awareness — I will quote, honourable senators, a note from the Library of Parliament:

“The highest form of designation for a calendar year remains a law passed by Parliament to mark the event or occasion. A designation in the form of a law passed by Parliament, once in force, remains in force until such time it is repealed. In case of a ministerial declaration, unless authorized by legal statute, a declaration made by a Canadian cabinet minister has no official authority and is not legally competent or enforceable.”

At the end of the day, I sincerely hope even with or without these amendments that we can move forward in the fall, and perhaps Parliament, in its wisdom, will pass this bill.

Hon. Pierrette Ringuette: I have a question for the honourable senator.

Senator Munson: Yes.

Senator Ringuette: I am very disappointed with the results from the committee. However, with regard to process and proper rethinking of issues and bills, is it possible at third reading that an amendment from this Senate could reverse the bill back to the original form adopted in the House of Commons and that the sober second thought that maybe was not necessarily exercised —

Senator Johnson: Question.

Senator Cowan: It is comments and questions.

Senator Ringuette: Is it possible for sober second thought with regard to this critical issue facing Canadian families to have this bill revert back to its original form and be adopted in its original form at third reading in this Senate?

Senator Munson: In six and a half years in the Senate, I recognize that everything is possible. I would think that would be up to the other side to consider. At this particular point, and this late in our sitting, I would prefer to have this bill passed out of the Senate and to the other side.