Men on a mission: how two Conservative MPs changed Canada’s laws the hard way, twice

This article appeared in the Hill Times on Monday, July 12, 2021. The original version can be found here.

Two Conservative MPs from Alberta were among the few who accomplished a rare feat in June: seeing their private members’ bills passed into law.

For Conservative MP Len Webber (Calgary Confederation, Alta.), it started with a promise to his wife Heather in the final days of her life. She had been a regular blood donor before falling ill with breast cancer. The disease that would take her life in 2010 at the age of 47 also made her ineligible to donate any of her organs or other tissues when she died. That upset her.

“We had that conversation, it was quite an emotional conversation, and I said that I would do whatever I could in order to help the cause of organ and tissue donation procurement in the country here,” said Mr. Webber  in an interview on The Hill Times’ Hot Room. “That resonated with me. That stayed with me for a long time.”

Mr. Webber was an MLA in the Alberta legislature at the time. Three years after Heather’s death, he sponsored a private member’s bill in the legislature to create an organ and tissue donor registry in the province. It was adopted as a government bill, and passed into law in November of 2013.

Mr. Webber ran for a seat in Canada’s House of Commons in 2015, and won. He drafted a private member’s bill that would give the Canada Revenue Agency legal authority to ask Canadians whether they wish to be organ donors on their annual tax forms, and then share that information with provincially-run organ and tissue donor registries.

Roughly 4,400 Canadians are in line for an organ or tissue transplant, according to Canadian Blood Services. Mr. Webber’s bill was an attempt to close a gap between the number of Canadians who say they support organ donation—90 per cent—and the number that actually register as organ donors—32 per cent.

That bill died in the Senate when the 2019 election was called. Mr. Webber was re-elected, and reintroduced his bill. Despite a pandemic, a suspension, and later a prorogation of Parliament, and legislative game-playing between the parties in a minority Parliament, the bill was passed into law in June.

Altogether, six MPs’ private members’ bills passed into law in June before MPs broke for the summer, including Mr. Webber’s. Many private members’ bills are introduced in each Parliament, but only a fraction of them makes it through both Chambers and pass into law.

Government bills take precedence in the House of Commons and Senate, and there is rarely enough time devoted in either Chamber for more than a few private members’ bills to advance; even if they do, they are often sidelined at committee, or voted down by Parliamentarians.

In the nearly four years of the last Parliament, 10 private members’ bill passed into law, while 46 were defeated, another nine were “not preceded with,” and another 22 died in the House and Senate when Parliament was dissolved for an election.

Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux (Edmonton Riverbend, Alta.) was another of the six MPs who had their bills passed last month. Like Mr. Webber, he is a former Alberta MLA, and his bill was similar to another that he was able to pass through the Alberta legislature in 2013.

As a young man, Mr. Jeneroux was faced with a choice: work long hours at his new job, or spend time with his dying grandmother. He chose the former, and has regretted it ever since, he told The Hill Times.

As an MLA, Mr. Jeneroux sponsored a successful bill that created an unpaid eight week compassionate care leave in the province, which employees can take to care for a loved one without fear of losing their job.

Canada already has a compassionate care leave for federally-regulated employees, but until now that leave came to an end shortly after an employee’s loved one died.

Mr. Jeneroux’s bill initially attempted to change the rules for compassionate care leave, but it was amended by a House of Commons committee to instead change the rules for bereavement leave. The bill that passed into law will allow more federally-regulated workers to access bereavement leave—until now, only those caring for immediate family members could get it—and allow those who do take it to get 10 days off, instead of five.

Advocacy groups helped to spread the word about his bill, he said, and personal letters came “pouring in” from people who believed that a better leave program would have helped them after their family member died, said Mr. Jeneroux.

The Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association, the Canadian Cancer Society, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, and the Canadian Association of Social Workers lobbied MPs and Senators to pass the bill.

Getting the bill passed was made more difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic, however, which forced Parliament to operate under “hybrid” rules that required most MPs to participate virtually, he said.

When the House is operating normally, MPs often “lay down their swords” after Question Period and cross the aisle to have one-on-one conversations about their private member’s bills or other issues, he said.

“But now you’re cold calling ministers, you’re cold calling MPs, and you know, trying to set up a Zoom meeting with certain people,” he said. “It was certainly … a lot more difficult to have those one-on-one conversations.”

Other MPs who sponsored successful private members’ bills include Liberal MP Sonia Sidhu (Brampton South, Ont.), whose bill will require the federal government to create a national framework for fighting diabetes; Conservative MP Richard Bragdon (Tobique-Mactaquac, N.B.), whose bill will require the government to create a framework for reducing criminal recidivism; Conservative MP Kevin Waugh (Saskatoon-Grasswood, Sask.), whose bill legalized gambling on single sporting events; and Conservative MP Larry Maguire (Brandon-Souris, Man.), who changed the tax rules for transferring farm properties between family members.