Election 2015: Bill C-398 and access to medicines — Canada’s major federal parties respond

This is the second in a series of blog posts being published by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network ahead of Election Day on October 19, 2015.

Recently, we sent a questionnaire to the five major federal parties, asking their position on key questions related to HIV and human rights. Four out of five parties responded. Their responses are shared here, along with our comments. See www.aidslaw.ca/election2015 for more information.

October 6, 2015

Too many people in developing countries are dying because medicines are not available at prices they can afford and health agencies have limited budgets to pay high prices for brand-name drugs. Unnecessarily restrictive rules on patents and other aspects of intellectual property, including those embedded in international trade agreements, are a significant part of the problem affecting access to medicines for HIV and other health needs.

In 2004, Parliament unanimously enacted Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR), a law that was supposed to make it easier to manufacture and export lower-cost, generic versions of medicines to address public health problems faced by many developing countries. But the regime was (and is) flawed, delivering but a single licence to supply one HIV medicine to one country. The last Parliament had before it a key remedy: Bill C-398 that would have streamlined CAMR. Despite overwhelming support from civil society, religious and community leaders, scientists and other medical professionals, and widespread support in Parliament, including from MPs belonging to all federal parties, Bill C-398 was staunchly opposed by the government and defeated by a small handful of votes in the House of Commons in 2012. (Click here for a record of MPs’ final votes on the bill.)

To make matters worse, yesterday Canada and other Pacific Rim countries announced the conclusion of long and secret negotiations for a new trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The US government and multinational pharmaceutical companies had pushed for even more stringent rules on intellectual property — which remained one of the sticking points right until the end of negotiations in Atlanta last week. Leaked text of several chapters confirm the fears of health advocates that the TPP will pose a major new threat to access to medicines, both in developing countries and in participating high-income countries such as Canada. Indeed, international humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières has described the TPP as “the worst trade agreement for access to medicines in developing countries” in history to date.

We asked major parties in Canada whether their party would

  1. support the reforms to fix CAMR that were previously before Parliament in Bill C-398; and
  2. with respect to the TPP, refuse to sign and ratify any agreement that includes intellectual property standards exceeding those already adopted at the World Trade Organization.

All the parties that responded were behind the proposed reforms to CAMR and supported Bill C-398.

  • The New Democratic Party recalled that NDP MPs sponsored the initiative in successive parliaments. 
  • The Green Party said it voted in favour of the bill. 
  • The Liberal Party recalled that it supported Bill C-398 in Parliament and would continue to do so. 
  • The Bloc Québécois said it “supports, and intends to continue to support, the bill concerning Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR).” 

There was general agreement on getting low-cost medicines to those in need. In particular, the Liberal Party “believes that the government should commit itself to the procurement of quality medicines wherever they are available to help those countries most in need roll back the advance of devastating diseases like HIV/AIDs, malaria, and tuberculosis,” while the NDP promised to “remove bureaucratic red tape and enable Canadian pharmaceutical companies to export generic versions of life-saving medicine for people suffering from HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria and other diseases in the developing world.”

On the issue of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the responses were more varied:

  • The Green Party explicitly stood opposed to the TPP, calling it a “poorly negotiated agreement,” and pointing out that it is the only federal party in Canada standing against the agreement. The Greens concluded their response by stating their position on such issues in general: “The Green Party does not support deals like the TPP, which are negotiated in secret and allow corporations to sue governments over laws that reduce their profits such as environmental, labour and consumer regulations. Greens will refuse to sign and ratify any agreement that elevates corporate interest over public interest, and establishes intellectual property standards that deny the poor access to lifesaving medications.” 
  • Though the New Democratic Party identified the TPP as an opportunity “to build stronger, sustainable trade linkages with Asia and with Asian-Pacific countries,” the party was concerned about the secrecy and absence of “meaningful public consultations,” and affirmed that “[a]n NDP government will closely scrutinize the text of any proposed trade deal.” 
  • The Liberal Party supported the TPP “in principle.” It went on to say: “The TPP stands to remove trade barriers, widely expand free trade for Canada, and increase opportunities for our middle class. This is why Canada must be at the negotiating table. However, the federal government must also keep its word and defend Canadian interests, including supply management, during these negotiations.” 
  • The Bloc Québécois made no comment on the TPP.

The Conservative Party of Canada did not respond to the questionnaire.

For more information: