Chance to get life-saving drugs to Africa–but will it pass?

Last year many Canadians were saddened when Private Members Bill C-393, which had passed in the House, died in the Senate when the spring 2011 election was called. The bill is an attempt to fix what was supposed to be a workable system to provide generic (and cheaper) versions of life-saving drugs to the poorest of the poor. The costs of anti-viral and AIDS drugs are prohibitive in the countries where they are most needed.

Under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Parliament passed Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR). The goal of the legislation was to ensure access to affordable generic drugs for illnesses such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Unfortunately, since it was passed in 2004, it has been used only once. The whole CAMR was so complex and snarled in red tape that it has been proven to be completely ineffective.

Now, under the leadership of NDP MP Hélène Laverdière (Laurier–Sainte-Marie), the bill is back with the new number C-398. It will come up for a vote on Wednesday, November 28 — the week in which this edition of Island Tides circulates.

The need for the bill is clear. Less than half of HIV-positive mothers receive the drugs that can prevent the transmission of HIV from mother to child. Similarly, of babies with HIV-positive mothers who themselves are born HIV-free, less than half receive treatment to prevent transmission from their mother.

The changes to the CAMR included in this new bill will not create any new costs for Canada. They are consistent with the WTO’s decision to exempt life-saving drugs to the developing world from the patent-protection rules of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. And it does not seem that the Canadian pharmaceutical industry will publicly object to the bill. One would hope its passage is assured.

Private members bills are supposed to be free of ‘party discipline,’ that seemingly benign concept which I believe is the enemy of democracy. Quite a lot of Conservatives in the House voted for C-393 when it passed. Now it seems some are losing their commitment to its passage. In one conversation, a Conservative who had previously voted for passage told me, ‘I have three pharmaceutical companies in my riding. What happens if a generic drug is sold leading to the stealing of patents?’

We are in a tough fight–I am talking to MPs in all parties; the Grandmothers to Grandmothers groups and other organizations—from Stephen Lewis Foundation to UNICEF—are working hard. I will do my best to get this much needed bill passed.

Saanich-Gulf Islands News Alert

I had meant to add more to this column and talk about the bill, but this evening, after votes, something amazing happened. I went to the reception of Parliamentarians hosted by Macleans magazine and the annual vote for MPawards. All of us get to vote. There are no suggested winners. I had an inkling something was up when Macleanssent a photographer to take pictures of me in the riding during the Remembrance Day week. There are a lot of categories—Hardest Working MP, Best Constituency MP, Most Collegial MP, most knowledgeable MP, and so on. I had thought I might be in the running for ‘hardest working.’

So here’s the shocker: in a prize based on how MPs voted, I was chosen for the top award—‘Parliamentarian of the Year’! I am the first woman to receive the award, the first British Columbia MP to have this honour, and certainly the first Green MP to win.

I am still a bit shocked, and it is hard to absorb that I am actually ‘Parliamentarian of the Year.’ Winning this proves what I have always said—that my friends and peers in the House of Commons do appreciate a respectful and non-partisan approach. Thank you, constituents of Saanich-Gulf Islands, for taking the chance of electing a Green MP. I want to share this honour with all citizens; Saanich-Gulf Islands is the constituency of the year.

Thank you!