Statements & Speeches

Pan-Canadian Health Data Strategy (Question Period)

June 23, 2021

Honourable senators, my question is for the government leader in the Senate.

An expert advisory group was established in the fall of 2020 to provide advice and guidance on the development of a Pan-Canadian Health Data Strategy. Last week, the expert advisory group released its first report that found that Canada’s highly fragmented health data ecosystem is due in large part to a weak foundation for data collection, sharing and use.

The flaws in the system severely impacted Canada’s ability to effectively respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, there were challenges in timely collection and use of testing, case and vaccination data. It was also difficult to share genomic data for the management of variants.

Senator Gold, given this information and the urgency of making data-informed decisions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, can you tell us what steps the federal government has taken to address the serious gaps in Canada’s current health data ecosystem?

Hon. Marc Gold (Government Representative in the Senate): Thank you, senator, for your question and for raising this very serious and vexing problem. I’ve addressed this problem, perhaps indirectly, in a number of my responses over the course of this past year.

The problem you point to is a real one, and is a structural one. It flows from the divided jurisdiction in many areas, notably the exclusive provincial jurisdiction over health and the gathering of information, which is exacerbated — perhaps that’s not quite the right word — by the legitimate concerns of privacy, both at the federal level, legislatively, and at the provincial level.

On these and many other issues that have been brought to light by COVID, but which pre-existed it to be sure, the government is in regular communication with its counterparts, provincial and territorial, in an attempt, while respecting the Constitution, to find a better way to gather, share and disseminate that necessary health information to which you referred.

Senator Seidman: A pan-Canadian Health Data Strategy is long overdue. Over the last 60 years, numerous reports have identified the gaps in Canada’s health data ecosystem, many of which persist today. For example, the 2003 National Advisory Committee on SARS and Public Health, which we discussed in earlier this Question Period, by the way, reported on these systemic deficiencies and warned about the dangers of not having protocols for data- and information-sharing among levels of government. That was from 2003.

Senator Gold, how can we be certain the federal government will implement the recommendations of the expert advisory group on the development of a pan-Canadian Health Data Strategy this time?

Senator Gold: Thank you for your question, senator.

I cannot comment with confidence about how confident Canadians will be, because I need to make some inquiries to find out exactly what the status is of the consultations, collaborations and discussions between all provincial, territorial and federal actors and the like. I certainly will do so and try to report back when I get an answer.