Appearance before the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology on Bill C-36, the Canada Consumer Product Safety Act

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November 25, 2010
Ottawa, Ontario

Opening Statement by Jennifer Stoddart
Privacy Commissioner of Canada

(Check against delivery)


Thank you for inviting me to appear before you today.  I am accompanied by our General Counsel, Patricia Kosseim, and our Manager of Strategic Research, Melanie Millar-Chapman.

Assistant Commissioner Bernier appeared before you on this Bill’s predecessor, Bill C-6, just over a year ago, and we are pleased to be here again today to discuss the privacy implications of the proposed Bill C-36.

I very much appreciate and applaud your Committee’s concern for privacy, which is a cornerstone of our democracy and a fundamental value for Canadians.

Bill C-36 is an important initiative that aims to strengthen protections for consumers who are using a range of products. Clearly, any legislative proposal that would make Canadian families safer is one we would endorse without reservation.

We are also generally satisfied with the privacy safeguards built into the bill, although we see further areas for improvement. I will focus on those specific enhancements in my remarks today.

One of the provisions in Bill C-36 that has received the most attention since we last appeared before you deals with the disclosure of personal information by the Minister of Health to other governments and individuals.

This clause 15 allows personal information to be disclosed without the consent of the individual concerned, provided that the disclosure is necessary to identify or address a serious danger to human health or safety.

Obviously, whenever there is any disclosure of personal information,
particularly if the information is sensitive, our Office wants to make sure that the necessary privacy precautions are in place.

Health Canada undertakings

In that context, it is important to note that Health Canada has made a series of promises – in parliamentary testimony as well as in undertakings to our Office – to address such concerns.

For example, the Department has pledged that the proposed law would lead only to a minimal collection of personal information, and that this information would only rarely need to be disclosed.   

The department also stated that disclosures of personal information would be under the supervision of its Access to Information and Privacy Coordinator, who exercises the Minister’s powers under the Privacy Act.

Both Assistant Commissioner Bernier and I are confident that these undertakings will be respected as promised.

However, we also advised Health Canada that, following the passage of this bill, we would want all outstanding implementation issues to be addressed through the Privacy Impact Assessment process.

At the same time, we welcome any other legislative proposals to further enhance the protection of privacy.

Further privacy enhancements

We would, for example, support a requirement for the use of confidentiality agreements with respect to personal information. These agreements would set out the nature of the information that the government would share under the legislation, and the circumstances under which it could be disclosed.

In particular, we would endorse a limitation on the purposes for which personal information disclosed in this manner could be used by the receiving parties. This is especially important in that the incident-reporting mechanisms envisaged under clause 14 are of a relatively open nature. 

We would generally also favour an amendment that would require the notification of individuals in advance of disclosure, or as soon as practicable thereafter.  However, at the same time, we acknowledge the Department’s concerns that complying with such a requirement would necessitate the collection of additional contact information that would otherwise not be collected.

This is, indeed, a legitimate objection. Therefore, if such an amendment were to be proposed again, we would suggest it be restricted to cases where contact information is already available, and where contact would be reasonably practicable.

The current proposed amendment, to create clause 15(2), states that “nothing in this section affects the provisions in the Privacy Act.” This express reference serves as a useful reminder that the Privacy Act, as quasi-constitutional legislation, would apply to this regime.

And finally, I would urge you to build into Bill C-36 the authority for the Governor in Council to make regulations respecting the collection, use and disclosure of personal information by the Minister.

Such regulations should be included among those that would have to be brought before both Houses for approval. This would strengthen accountability with respect to the protection of personal information under the new Canada Consumer Product Safety Act.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has appreciated this Committee’s attention to privacy protection in Bill C-36 and we look forward to Health Canada’s continued cooperation upon the adoption and implementation of this important legislation.   

I would be pleased to take your questions.

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