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THE STANDING SENATE COMMITTEE ON SOCIAL AFFAIRS, SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

EVIDENCE


OTTAWA, Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology met by videoconference this day at 11:30 a.m. [ET] to study the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senator Chantal Petitclerc (Chair) in the chair.

[English]

The Chair: Honourable senators, before we officially begin, I would like to remind you of a few items.

First, senators are asked to have their microphones muted at all times, unless recognized by name by the chair, and will be responsible for turning their microphones on and off during the meeting. Before speaking, please wait until you are recognized by name. Once you have been recognized, please pause for a few seconds to let the audio signal catch up to you. When speaking, please speak slowly and have the microphone close to your mouth. If you have chosen an interpretation channel, I would ask that members speak only in the language of the channels that they chose.

Should any technical challenges arise, particularly in relation to interpretation, please signal this to the chair and the technical team will work to resolve the issue. If you experience other technical challenges, please contact the committee clerk at the technical assistance number provided.

Finally, if the committee goes in camera, the use of online platforms does not guarantee speech privacy or that eavesdropping will not be conducted. All participants should be aware of such limitations and restrict the possible disclosure of sensitive, private and privileged Senate information.

[Translation]

We are ready to begin, Mr. Clerk.

[English]

Good morning. Welcome to the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.

[Translation]

My name is Chantal Petitclerc, a senator from Quebec. It is a great pleasure for me to preside over this virtual meeting.

[English]

Before we give the floor to our witnesses, I would like to introduce the senators who are here with us today: Senator Pate, Senator Omidvar, Senator Martin, Senator LaBoucane-Benson, Senator Forest-Niesing, Senator Griffin, Senator Poirier, Senator Moodie, Senator Lankin, Senator Dasko, Senator Kutcher, Senator Seidman, Senator Mégie and Senator Campbell.

[Translation]

I believe this concludes the list of senators joining us today. We thank them for their presence. Welcome.

[English]

Today, we begin the committee’s study on the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

[Translation]

I would like to introduce to you our first panel of witnesses for today’s meeting. We have the pleasure and privilege to have with us, from the Public Health Agency of Canada, Dr. Howard Njoo, Deputy Chief Public Health Officer, Cindy Evans, Acting Vice-President, Emergency Management. From Health Canada, we are hearing from Kendal Weber, Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategic Policy Branch, and Pierre Sabourin, Assistant Deputy Minister, Health Products and Food Branch. From Public Services and Procurement Canada, we are welcoming Michael Mills, Associate Assistant Deputy Minister, Real Property Services, and Lorenzo Ieraci, Director General, Office of Small and Medium Enterprises.

I would now like to ask our witnesses to make their presentation.

[English]

We will begin with Dr. Njoo, followed by Ms. Weber and then Mr. Mills.

Dr. Howard Njoo, Deputy Chief Public Health Officer, Public Health Agency of Canada: Good day, everyone. I would like to thank the chair of this committee and the committee members for inviting the Public Health Agency of Canada to speak today.

[Translation]

Thank you for inviting Ms. Evans and me to join you today to provide an overview of the Government of Canada’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

[English]

I would like to begin by assuring members of the committee that our top priority is the health and safety of Canadians. COVID-19 continues to be a serious global health threat, and the situation is evolving daily. The risk varies amongst communities in Canada, but given the number of cases in Canada and the presence of community transmission in some regions, the risk to Canadians is considered high.

There are now over 71,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including over 5,100 deaths, and Canada has completed more than 1.1 million tests for COVID-19. Our efforts today have flattened the curve. We continue to focus on minimizing overall illness and death from COVID-19 by reducing transmission through public health measures as well as the social impacts of this rapidly evolving and unprecedented global public health issue.

[Translation]

We are making clear progress to slow the spread and bring the epidemic under control. The rate of growth of new cases has slowed down considerably over the last two months. However, we must remain vigilant. We continue to evolve our response as we learn more about this virus, prepare for possible future waves, and plan for the recovery phase. I would like to take a moment to outline some of the key public health actions the Government of Canada has taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

[English]

Timely intelligence gathered in collaboration with domestic and international partners allowed for early and coordinated action by the Government of Canada and provinces and territories in advance of its first presumptive case of COVID-19 on January 25. We moved quickly to mobilize Canada’s public health emergency response infrastructure as new information became available and the risk to the health and safety of Canadians became clearer. This included the activation of the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Public Health Response Plan for biological events and the formation of the FPT Special Advisory Committee on COVID-19.

[Translation]

Beginning in early February, we implemented a series of emergency orders under the Quarantine Act to strengthen border measures and restrict entry into Canada from abroad, including the United States. These emergency orders were continually revised as new information on COVID-19 became available. For instance, owing to new evidence on asymptomatic transmission, all persons entering Canada, with limited exceptions, are now required to quarantine for 14 days.

[English]

The testing and confirmation of COVID-19 cases is a key part of our response efforts. The National Microbiology Laboratory was able to quickly develop a diagnostic test when the genetic sequence of the virus was released in January. The agency’s National Microbiology Laboratory is working closely with provincial and territorial public health laboratories as part of the Canadian Public Health Laboratory Network to provide testing services. Now, over 30 labs across Canada have the capacity to perform confirmatory lab tests. This network is also evaluating new diagnostic tests, such as rapid point-of-care tests, as they become available. We are also working with our provincial and territorial partners to update lab testing guidance as our understanding of the virus evolves.

Another important area of focus has been securing critical personal protective equipment, or PPE, supplies and medical equipment for front-line health care workers. We are doing this through collaborative bulk procurement with provinces and territories, building domestic production capacity and identifying potential alternatives and ways to extend product life. The Public Health Agency of Canada is also deploying PPE and ventilators from its National Emergency Strategic Stockpile in response to urgent requests for assistance from provinces and territories.

[Translation]

Providing Canadians with credible, accurate information and guidance as the COVID-19 situation evolves has been an important part of the Government of Canada’s response. Our messages have consistently emphasized the importance of modifying our behaviours to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including staying home when ill, hand washing and practising physical distancing.

[English]

Canadians can access the Government of Canada’s COVID-19 website or the toll-free information line. We have also implemented a national public education campaign for COVID-19.

Currently there is no vaccine for COVID-19, but research and development of COVID-19 vaccines or therapeutic treatments are in various stages around the world, including in Canada. We will continue to work with the international community.

[Translation]

In March, the Government of Canada announced a government-wide COVID-19 response fund of over $1 billion, which includes $275 million to enhance our capacity to test antivirals, develop vaccines and support clinical trials.

[English]

Nationally, we have seen the impact of public health measures on the flattening of the epidemic curve and slowdown in the growth of new cases. The doubling rate of cases has slowed from 3 days in late March to over 20 days at present. We have also increased our testing capacity to a daily average of 28,000, and this number continues to grow.

[Translation]

However, until targeted therapies or a vaccine is available, our aim will be to carefully balance the risks associated with the spread of COVID-19 with health, social and economic consequences of the virus.

[English]

Many Canadians and businesses are eager to see the lifting of public health measures so that life and routines can resume in a new normal. In light of this, we have worked with our provincial and territorial partners across the country to develop a shared approach to help guide decision making on the lifting of public health measures. This is founded on common objectives, principles, criteria and indicators for determining readiness to lift or adjust various restrictive measures. We recognize that there will be regional differences, and governments will make decisions suited to their jurisdictions, geography and disease activity.

[Translation]

Before closing, I wanted to touch on a few of the challenges that we see before us. We remain concerned about outbreaks for vulnerable populations, including long-term care and correctional facilities. We continue to work with provincial, territorial and local public health authorities by providing guidance and on the ground support for these settings.

[English]

We are also seized with the importance of protecting Indigenous and remote and isolated communities, both in terms of preventing transmission from occurring and having the capacity to respond quickly and effectively if it does.

Finally, we are looking beyond the summer to the fall, and a potential resurgence of COVID-19 along with the flu season, and preparing for this potential dual public health challenge.

On behalf of the Public Health Agency of Canada, Ms. Evans and I would be pleased to answer your questions. Thank you.

The Chair: Ms. Weber, I think you have some notes for us.

Kendal Weber, Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategic Policy Branch, Health Canada: Good morning. I would like to thank the chair of the committee and committee members for inviting Health Canada to speak today. I am joined by Pierre Sabourin, Assistant Deputy Minister for Health Products and Food Branch.

The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything we have seen in recent history. We are pleased to appear before you today to share some of the measures that Health Canada is taking to protect the health and safety of Canadians during this crisis.

Health Canada plays a vital role in the government’s COVID-19 response as the regulator of health products. Core to our regulatory mandate is the review of health products for safety, quality and efficacy. During this critical period, it is very important to get drugs and medical supplies quickly to the front lines.

Health Canada is doing what it can so that our country is in the best possible position to access drugs to treat and prevent COVID-19 when they become available. To that end, we are prioritizing the review and approval of potential COVID-19 therapies.

For drugs that are experimental, the most appropriate way to access them is through a clinical trial. The department is working hard to facilitate and expedite the authorization of as many clinical trials for COVID-19 in Canada as possible. Although clinical trials usually take about 30 days to review and authorize, we have reduced this timeline to a matter of days. As of May 9, Health Canada had approved 30 COVID-19-related clinical trials.

We are also looking for ways to quickly bring therapies and vaccines to market in Canada through expedited processes by aligning information requirements with our trusted partners in other countries. In addition, Health Canada is in active discussions with many vaccine manufacturers and researchers, both in Canada and abroad, to provide regulatory and scientific advice for vaccine trials to launch in Canada.

Also important to supporting Canadians during this pandemic has been access to virtual care. On May 3, the Government of Canada announced over $240 million for virtual care and digital solutions to help Canadians access the resources they need to keep them healthy. Virtual care helps Canadians safely engage with health providers through telephone, text or video conferencing so they can get the care they need, while reducing pressure on health care systems across the country. This federal investment will help Canadian health systems further accelerate their work to deploy virtual health tools and approaches to meet the needs of Canadians.

We have begun work with the provinces and territories to identify where this new support is needed most. We have also developed a mobile app, which provides up-to-date information about COVID-19 and allows users to access all types of resources, including the Wellness Together Canada portal.

The Wellness Together portal provides access to credible information and support on mental health and substance use. It connects Canadians to peer support workers, social workers, psychologists and other health professionals.

Another key priority for Health Canada during this pandemic is substance use and the overdose crisis. Unfortunately, the pandemic has exposed people who use illegal drugs to additional barriers when it comes to accessing health and social services, while at the same time placing them at increased risk of being infected with COVID-19 due to social marginalization and underlying health conditions.

In addition, there are concerns that people may be increasing their substance use as a response to the stress and isolation caused by physical distancing and pandemic-related anxiety. In response, the Government of Canada has taken a number of targeted actions to remove barriers and reduce the risk of harm for people who use substances.

We have made it easier for people to access the medications they need by allowing pharmacists to extend and renew prescriptions, transfer prescriptions to other pharmacists, accept verbal prescriptions from physicians, and to allow for the delivery of controlled substances to patients to ensure continuity and access to treatment. We have also made it easier for overdose prevention sites to be rapidly established in temporary community shelters.

In addition, Health Canada is supporting front-line workers who are delivering important substance-use treatment and harm-reduction services. We recently developed and disseminated a tool kit sharing guidance and other resources to better support people who use substances to physically distance, self-isolate and stay safe.

Health Canada has also supported the provinces and territories as they respond to COVID-19 by providing surge capacity to provinces and territories in key areas. We’ve done this through a phased approach.

First, we enlisted qualified federal public servants available and willing to work in those jurisdictions feeling the most pressure. For example, we have mobilized Health Canada employees to support Public Health Ontario with their contact tracing needs.

The Government of Canada also established a COVID-19 voluntary recruitment inventory to provide additional capacity for provinces and territories as required for health services, contact tracing and data entry. At the closing of the application period on April 23, 53,769 volunteers had registered in the inventory. Additionally, to support the province of Quebec with challenges with their long-term care facilities, we are working closely with the Canadian Red Cross and are tapping into our inventory of volunteers and students to help with these efforts.

Honourable senators, our department’s core mission is to protect the health and well-being of Canadians as we respond to this evolving public health crisis. I can assure the members of this committee that Health Canada will continue to work closely with the provinces and territories and do our utmost to support our many other partners to uphold our commitment to the public. We look forward to working with this committee as you study the government’s responses to the pandemic and we welcome your questions. Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you very much. Mr. Mills, the floor is yours.

Michael Mills, Associate Assistant Deputy Minister, Real Property Services, Public Services and Procurement Canada: Thank you, Madam Chair and committee members for having me here today. Before we begin, I would like to thank the people working behind the scenes to make this meeting possible. I would also like to thank our interpreters, who continue to play an exceptional role in making sure Canadians have the latest information available to them.

I’m the Associate Assistant Deputy Minister of Real Property Services at Public Services and Procurement Canada. However, for the last several weeks I’ve been assisting our department’s procurement efforts as part of the COVID-19 team.

Joining me today is Lorenzo Ieraci. He’s our Director General of the Office of Small and Medium Enterprises. We are pleased to be here with our colleagues from Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Together our organizations have been working closely during this crisis, with my department focused on buying the personal protective equipment and medical supplies needed by health care professionals on the front line. These orders are made on behalf of the Public Health Agency of Canada, which works with the provinces and territories to determine the requirements and distribute supplies.

[Translation]

It is no secret that we are operating in a highly competitive global market. The entire world is seeking out the same materials, be they masks, test kits or gloves, and supply chains are stressed at multiple points. This is resulting in a complex procurement environment where we face many risks. For instance, we are seeing an increase in the cost of supplies as demand continues to grow. Established orders are sometimes redirected to those willing to pay the most. And we are often receiving products from unfamiliar suppliers. We are also dealing with bottlenecks in getting internationally purchased materials to airports and through customs, as everyone is trying to airlift their materials at the same time.

Honourable senators, like every other country, we continue to fine-tune our approach as things evolve. The first part of our approach has been to buy existing inventory immediately, at home and around the world, to meet our most pressing needs.

The second part has been to place large, consolidated bulk orders on behalf of provinces and territories. This helps us attract suppliers in a competitive marketplace and keep a steady stream of goods flowing in over the coming months.

From the beginning, we have used our online channels to engage suppliers, asking them to help in any way they can. The response has been encouraging, to say the least, with more than 26,000 submissions received. We are aggressively working through submissions, placing priority on those offers that have legitimate and needed support to provide.

Honourable senators, at the same time as our buying efforts, the government has called on Canadian companies to ramp up domestic manufacturing. Companies from across the country have answered that call, and we have been quickly establishing contact with them. For example, Medicom of Pointe-Claire is going to produce 20 million N95 respirators and 24 million surgical masks a year for the next 10 years, with deliveries to start this summer.

Some Canadian companies are retooling their production lines to meet our needs. Companies like Bauer, in Quebec, have gone from making hockey equipment to making face shields for front-line medical workers. An additional 15 million face shields will be made by Sterling Industries, based in Concord, Ontario, and Hewlett Packard, in Mississauga, is making over half a million more. Stanfield, in Nova Scotia, are set to provide us with 100,000 medical gowns a week. Irving Oil, in New Brunswick, is another example. They have retooled their production lines to produce hand sanitizer, and they will start delivering in the coming weeks. And Fluid Energy out of Calgary will also help produce hand sanitizer. These companies are only a few examples of the Canadian innovation that will see us through this crisis.

Honourable senators, while we are focused on buying the most vital supplies, we are also supporting the fight against COVID-19 through other procurements. Those include contracts for security and cleaning, mobilized community shelters, as well as chartered flights to repatriate Canadians, to name a few. Through all of these, we have significantly changed our approach to buying and accelerated the procurement process, especially when it comes to meeting our most urgent needs.

We are working around the clock and making quick decisions to get contracts in place as fast as possible in an intensely competitive market. Contracts that usually take several months to finalize are now being put into place in days, if not hours.

[English]

Madam Chair, while contracts are put in place and domestic production ramps up, we still need to bring in internationally sourced materials. Given the difficulty of buying in the environment we find ourselves in today, on-the-ground support is imperative to making that happen. The department has a solid team in China that includes Bolloré Logistics Canada, leveraging their important network in that country, as well as Deloitte. They are providing help with transportation, monitoring of shipments, receiving, storage services and customs clearances.

We continue to work with other officials and Global Affairs Canada to navigate the complex supply chain and get our goods into the country. Air Canada and Cargojet are helping us do just that, with a steady number of flights now regularly being loaded from our warehouse in China and making their way back home.

In partnership with Global Affairs Canada, we are also working with United States officials to ensure that vital supplies continue to flow across our border. It is important to note that provinces and territories are also securing supplies on their own and we are working with them to bring their shipments home.

After shipments arrive, the Public Health Agency of Canada must inspect all supplies for quality. The same is true for supplies reproduced in various regions at home. We are also engaging with suppliers to ensure they have access to our specifications to conduct quality control and testing procedures.

While the vast majority of supplies pass the government’s testing, I will note we have had some issues with supplies that have not met our standards. Recently, a significant portion of an order of KN95 masks did not meet our standards for this mask [Technical difficulties] KN95 masks from the supplier. I can assure you that none of these masks were distributed for medical use. Given the amounts we are buying from these manufacturers and the speed of our purchases, we are taking extra measures. For example, controls are in place at multiple points on the ground in China and then again in Canada. While we are buying at a faster pace, our priority remains making sure we get safe, effective supplies to health care providers.

After our orders pass testing, the Public Health Agency of Canada then turns our focus to getting supplies to where they are needed across the country. While we must take an inherent risk by aggressively buying in a highly competitive market, the government takes no chances with the safety and effectiveness of medical-grade equipment. Only when products are deemed effective and safe are they distributed to the front lines by the Public Health Agency.

The number of orders and deliveries fluctuate by the day, but I would note that things like surgical masks and face shields are now being delivered and distributed to provinces and territories. On ventilators, we have tens of thousands on order, with deliveries starting to roll in.

When it comes to tests for COVID-19, we have contracts in place for rapid test kits and we continue to seek out and purchase swabs and chemicals required for conventional testing. These chemicals, known as reagents, are in short supply around the world. I’m pleased to say that we have secured a shipment of an important base chemical so we can start making our own reagent here in Canada. LuminUltra Technologies, a company from New Brunswick, now has what they need to produce enough reagent for 500,000 tests per week, right through to March 2021.

These are some of the supplies we have coming in. While the order numbers are large, I would note that we are constantly and aggressively overbuying so that we have supplies needed over the coming months. We have launched an online report of the key COVID-19 supplies that have been ordered and received. You can find this weekly update inventory by visiting our departmental website. Our goal is to be as transparent as possible so Canadians can track our progress.

Madam Chair, I’m proud to be serving Canadians during this historic period to combat the pandemic. I am part of an extraordinary team whose most important role right now is the urgent procurement of vital supplies in the fight against COVID-19.

Before I close, I want to thank my colleagues and everyone at PSPC who are keeping our businesses going, especially those helping to meet Canada’s medical supply needs in a difficult and challenging time. We are committed to working with Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada and all of our partners to secure supplies needed to keep Canadians safe. Thank you for your time, and I am happy to take your questions.

The Chair: Thank you very much. We will now proceed to questions from senators. As we always do in this committee, I will remind you that you have five minutes for your questions, and that includes the answer. If you do wish to ask a question, please use the raise-hand function in Zoom, and once I add you to the list, your hand will be lowered.

When you are asking a question, please identify the person you wish to answer or if the question is for the entire panel. The first question will be by the deputy chair of this committee.

Senator Poirier: Thank you for being here today. My first question is for Public Services and Procurement Canada.

Since we have been dealing with COVID-19, we have heard of many Canadian companies stepping up and changing their production to our needs during the pandemic. Could you provide to the committee, through our clerk on a bi-weekly basis, an update on orders made with the various Canadian companies, the following information: type of product, date and number of products ordered, delivered to date, and expected date of other fulfilment?

I understand you provide a global weekly update, but I ask this because, as you say, we are dealing with a highly competitive global market. It is important to have a clear picture on how we are dealing with our own demands domestically and for products delivered in a timely fashion to our front-line workers.

Mr. Mills: In terms of that, I am certainly prepared to take it back to our department. As I mentioned, we have a website where we are providing our reporting. I will take that back to our department and work with our communications personnel as to what we can provide in terms of reporting going back, but I will definitely take back Canadians’ interest in having more information on the domestic supply.

Senator Poirier: Thank you. I guess the reason for the domestic update, as I was saying, is the international competition; it makes it harder to have access to these products. Therefore, it would be more reliable to have a strong domestic response rather than relying on international markets. Our front-line workers need these products as fast as we can, so we need to see how the domestic response is evolving. So far, we have heard about all the orders by Canadian companies, but we do not have an update on the actual number of products received domestically.

Mr. Mills: Again, I’ll look to get more reporting. I concur that an important part of our response is that domestic ramp-up. We have been very enlightened by the amazing innovation of Canadian firms in responding to this, and we’ll continue to work with Canadian industry to meet our needs during the COVID-19 pandemic response. I’ll definitely take back the need for greater clarity on what is happening on the domestic production side.

Senator Poirier: Thank you. On the same subject, my next question is for Health Canada.

Canadian companies that have retooled their facilities have been stuck in limbo waiting for approval from Health Canada. Some companies are being prevented from shipping tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of inventory, threatening their survival.

Is there any willingness from the government to fast-track Health Canada’s approvals so that Canadian businesses can produce and support the creation of critical medical supplies?

Pierre Sabourin, Assistant Deputy Minister, Health Products and Food Branch, Health Canada: I think that’s a very big question. Are you referring to drugs? Are you referring to diagnostic test kits? Is there a specific product?

We have done a number of regulatory measures to accelerate the approval of a number of clinical trials for drugs and vaccines. We have accelerated those. We have put in place what we call an interim order, which is basically an emergency regulation, in order to approve medical devices. Right now on our website, you can see that we have 16 diagnostic tests that were approved in an accelerated fashion. We also have one point-of-care diagnostic test kit approved in the same way, and we just announced yesterday the first serological test, again, approved under this interim order, where the review is accelerated.

In terms of prevention, we have accelerated the approval of hand sanitizers and disinfectants. We now have over 70 disinfectants with a COVID indication and over 2,000 hand sanitizers. Just to give you an example, for disinfectants and sanitizers the normal service standard is 60 days for approval, and we have done those in literally a matter of units of days.

So across all product lines, we have, in fact, accelerated approval while at the same time ensuring that we are not reducing the safety bar for Canadians. We have also been transparent around all these products approved, so the lists of clinical trials, diagnostic tests and sanitizers and disinfectants are all publicly available on the website.

More often than not, if a company’s name is not yet approved, it’s because they have not provided sufficient safety efficacy and quality information in order for the product to be approved.

We have also done the same thing on imports; we have put in place a regulatory measure and another interim order for imports. I’ll stop there and maybe follow up if you would like to know more about a specific product.

Senator Griffin: Thank you. I would like to give my five minutes of time to Senator Forest-Niesing. She has a lot of questions so I’m giving up my time. Thank you.

The Chair: Okay. We can do that.

Senator Forest-Niesing: Thank you to the witnesses present. Thank you also, Senator Griffin, for that courtesy. I will return the favour in the second panel.

[Translation]

My question, which is in the same vein and concerns specifically disinfectant and antiseptic products, is for Mr. Sabourin, from Health Canada.

Owing to the pandemic, Health Canada has authorized unilingual labelling in English on disinfectant and antiseptic products, as well as on household cleaning products imported into the country and sold to Canadians. When I read an article on the website of the newspaper La Presse yesterday, I rejoiced in learning that the situation would be rectified.

Can you confirm whether that is indeed the case and whether that decision is effective immediately?

My second question is more basic. Could the department have considered that kind of a measure for unilingual francophone Canadians? Although we have heard the President of the United States suggest that they be consumed, those products can be very dangerous when used improperly.

Why wouldn’t Health Canada treat unilingual francophone Canadians and unilingual anglophone Canadians the same way?

Mr. Sabourin: First, you have probably also seen in the newspapers that, according to Statistics Canada, when the pandemic was declared in March, Canadian consumption of hand sanitizer products increased by more than 700%. We are here talking about disinfectants. However, what was reported in the newspaper — and I read the same article as you — covers a certain number of products. There are household cleaning products, soap, disinfectants, and, more specifically, hand sanitizer for which, as I explained, Canada was experiencing a historically unprecedented demand.

You will also recall that, at the same time, hospitals and municipalities were worried they would be unable to acquire hand sanitizer and that the distillery industry volunteered to manufacture the alcohol required to produce it.

Since many of the distilleries were small, very small, we allowed domestic producers in Canada’s unilingual anglophone regions to manufacture unilingual labelling in English. However, I want to point out that, at the time, we were reassured that bilingual regions, as defined by the Treasury Board, would continue to receive products made in Canada with bilingual labelling, which was not mentioned in the May 12 article you referred to.

That policy relative to domestic production has indeed been amended and, as of June 8, all domestic producers in all of the country’s regions, will have to provide bilingual labels, as indicated in the article published on the La Presse website.

The other important point has to do with imports. I described to you the situation domestic producers are facing, but we also have to talk about importers. At the height of the crisis, we could have access to products from the United States, but, as the Canadian market is small, American exporters refused to change their labels. My colleagues who are in charge of compliance and enforcement agreed that, in order for the Canadian market to be well supplied, American producers could export their products to Canada.

That policy has also been amended and, as of June 8, this will no longer be allowed. So labels on imported products will have to be provided in both English and French.

The last issue I would like to raise regarding domestic production is that the policy applied to 225 products, 200 of which came from the country’s unilingual regions and 25 came from bilingual regions, for which labelling has always been bilingual.

As of June 8, however, those 225 companies will produce bilingual labels for the entire country, regardless of the company’s size. So that is the explanation.

Senator Forest-Niesing: Do I have a bit of time left?

My next question is for Dr. Njoo. When I look at the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 in major Canadian cities, I see a marked difference in the number of deaths in Canada’s big cities: in Montreal, as of May 11, there were 2,003 deaths; in Toronto, as of today, there were 622; in Vancouver, as of today, as well, there were 131.

What would explain that difference? Is it due to the number of tests done? Does it have to do with the calculation method? Is there a genetic difference within the population?

Dr. Njoo: Thank you for the question. I think there are a number of factors that explain that difference, but first, I can say that we know the virus is transmitted from person to person, and it is certainly more difficult to maintain social distancing in big cities than in more rural regions, in the country.

What is more, big cities are also where major international airports are located. At the time, the cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver were receiving many travellers returning from abroad. That is probably one of the causes. There is no reason to believe that genetics, calculation methods or different testing methods are to blame.

The Chair: Thank you very much. Senator Seidman, do you have a question?

[English]

Senator Seidman: Yes. First of all, I would like to thank our witnesses and your departments for the enormous work you’re all doing, likely 24-7, on behalf of all Canadians.

My question is for Dr. Njoo. As an epidemiologist myself, of course, my questions will concern data, its collection, standardization and coherence here in Canada. Each day the Public Health Agency of Canada reports the number of cases, the number of tests, the number of deaths and the number recovered. I presume this represents aggregated data received from each of the provinces.

I would like to try to understand this. I will go back to the deaths that you just discussed with Senator Forest-Niesing. Actually, they are really confirmed case fatality rates. In Quebec, we have made the point that we’re counting deaths differently from most other provinces and even from other countries. For example, for those recovered, I’m not sure that there is consistent reporting at all. So if each province follows its own testing criteria and they have rather different reporting mechanisms, what does that mean for coherent Canadian data? We need coherent data to make meaningful policy now more than ever.

In closing my question out, if I could mention that Michael Wolfson, the former Assistant Chief Statistician at Statistics Canada, noted that the federal government had missed opportunities to implement standards for data collection when it negotiated health transfers with the provinces and territories worth billions following SARS in 2004 and most recently in 2017. Thank you very much.

Dr. Njoo: Thank you very much for the question. It is always nice to talk to a fellow epidemiologist. My background is a medical epidemiologist.

I will be quite honest. From my perspective — and I’m speaking as a technical expert, not on behalf of the government — in terms of data collection for public health surveillance purposes, I can easily say that it has been an ongoing issue even since SARS in terms of getting coherence across the country.

We do live in a federated system of government. The responsibility for the delivery of both health care and public health services rests with the individual provinces and territories. The federal government in many ways is a facilitator. We bring the provinces and territories together to discuss issues of common interests and try to get as much coherence as possible. Certainly in the area of collecting public health-related data, that’s something that we are all striving for. I think we all would agree that we could do better.

The fact of the matter is that there are different information systems in terms of the technology and challenges within each province. For example, I work and live in the province of Ontario. I used to be the associate medical officer of health for the City of Toronto, so I also have experience at the local level, and my provincial colleagues are telling me that there are even issues in terms of trying to get the data from the local health units in a timely fashion as well as completeness of data.

Obviously, the front lines are working flat out. Dealing with the current urgent situation and trying to fill out what we have as national case reporting forms and giving it to the provincial levels and then getting it to us at the federal level is an ongoing issue and challenge right now.

I will easily admit that what we’re dealing with at the national level, which is aggregated data from the provinces and territories, is nowhere near a complete 100% of all of the cases reported. We have detailed data on about 40% or 50%, depending on the province and territory. It certainly comes in varying frequency to us. So when we are doing our analysis, we do recognize that there are limitations in terms of the conclusions we can draw from the data at any given time.

I don’t know what else I can say. We are looking at doing better. I will say that from a federal/provincial/territorial perspective it’s not due to lack of goodwill or the fact that our public health colleagues in the provinces and territories don’t want to work closely with us. The public health community is a tight community. We all understand the importance of data. The challenge — and I think I said it in one of my media availabilities — is that once this is all over, that’s one of the areas that we could take a closer look at and do better.

That is all I’ll say in recognizing there are specific shortfalls. If you want to get into more detail on any of those, we can speak to that. The fact of the matter is that even in terms of case definitions — you’re saying that Quebec is reporting not just lab-confirmed deaths but also those epidemiologically linked — accounting may vary between provinces and territories. The point is taken.

Senator Moodie: I thank all witnesses here today for your hard work on behalf of the Canadian people.

I am going to focus and take us a bit back into preparedness. Following the SARS epidemic, a pandemic plan was completed in 2006. This plan has been widely celebrated and supported as being an excellent plan. Despite its existence, we find ourselves in a precarious position resulting in various failings along the way.

A 2010 federal audit flagged problems with Canada’s emergency stockpile of medical equipment, and more recent reports noted that at the end of April, 2 million N95 masks were destroyed.

Dr. Njoo, what was the reaction in terms of replacement to that destruction of masks that apparently had expired? How is the stockpile monitored and supported? As we move forward with large numbers of new production and emerging supply sources, how are we making sure that the stockpile is appropriately resourced moving forward? This is probably one of the key failings that we have seen.

Dr. Njoo: Thank you very much. I’ll begin with part of the answer in terms of a high-level overview. I will then pass it on to my colleague Ms. Evans to also give you more detail in terms of the answer you’re looking for.

As you pointed out in terms of our pandemic planning, I think Canada has done well. As you mentioned, we do have a plan that was in large part a result of what we experienced during SARS and even H1N1. It has been continually updated. In terms of an overall framework and in terms of governance, I think we’re doing well. One of the main criticisms after SARS was the lack of cohesion and coherence between the various levels of government.

One of the things that has worked very well in this situation is, with the governance structure, we have the special advisory committee, which basically consists of all of the chief medical officers of health for each province and territory along with ourselves, Dr. Theresa Tam and myself, from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

In terms of looking at the types of public health issues, weighing in, sharing information, emergency response and looking at issues such as non-medical masks, from a public health perspective we’re doing very well in terms of our preparedness and our response activities overall.

Specifically in terms of the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile, when it was conceived and put together back in the day — I’ve been around a long time, so I still remember its origins during the time it was starting up — it was never meant to be the “be all” for all supplies for a pandemic response in Canada. It has always been envisioned as a surge capacity to support the provinces and territories. To make it simple for things such as N95 masks and other types of equipment, it has always been anticipated that the provinces and territories buy what is necessary, but there might be, in certain cases, a quantity of certain types of equipment that are in “nests” for a specific event should there be a need and a request from the provinces and territories.

Before turning it over to my colleague, I will say the word “strategic” is a very important aspect of the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile. With respect to the things we’ve also looked at is that even since 2005-06, there are certain types of equipment or medical countermeasures that would be more appropriately put in the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile that is controlled by the federal government as opposed to individual provinces and territories. For things like the Ebola vaccine or other types of rare countermeasures, it doesn’t make sense in terms of maintaining a specific stockpile — the smallpox vaccine is another one that comes to mind — in each province and territory. That’s why we have that in our stockpile and are ready to give it out when a certain emergency or situation arises.

With that, I’ll pass it on to Ms. Evans.

The Chair: Very briefly, if you can, please.

Cindy Evans, Acting Vice-President, Emergency Management, Public Health Agency of Canada: Certainly. Thank you very much, Madam Chair. To add briefly to what Dr. Njoo said, the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile was created over 60 years, and certainly there has been an evolution in terms of its mandate. After SARS in 2003-04 and with 9/11, the focus has very much been on pharmaceutical purchases and niche products, particularly those to protect Canadians from chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear threats. As he stated, it’s really to provide emergency supplies to provinces and territories when they’re requested, and provinces and territories are expected to be ready for emergencies and to come to the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile when they’ve exhausted their own supplies.

With respect to the supplies that had been discarded, in 2019, as part of the ongoing evolution and look at efficient management of the stockpile, we did have the removal of one of our 11 warehouses, but the supplies that were discarded were over 10 years old. They didn’t meet the standards that we would want for health care workers in Canada or anywhere in the world. They were disposed of appropriately with government policy in mind.

There have been a lot of lessons learned from COVID-19, and the evolution of the emergency stockpile will certainly be taking this in mind as we look forward to what the mandate should be and opportunities for us in supporting pandemics going forward. Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you very much.

Senator Dasko: My question follows quite closely on what Senator Seidman put forward in terms of the data gaps, data sharing and issues around data. I’d like to pursue this with Dr. Njoo.

We have heard about these gaps not only from Mr. Wolfson but from others and I’ve been reading quite a bit about it. It seems to be the case that these gaps may well have been impacting the response to the COVID-19 crisis, that is the lack of sharing and the different protocols in terms of measuring.

Apparently now the Public Health Agency does report data with respect to gender and age, rates of hospitalization and intensive care admissions, so you’re certainly collecting some data across the country that is standard. What about other variables such as occupation, location, income level, education and other background demographic variables that we would very much want to have? Are we able to get that?

More specifically, there has been a lot of interest in race-based data so that we can examine the extent to which certain communities might be especially impacted by the crisis in terms of incidence levels, hospitalization or mortality. I want to ask you specifically about that.

You said earlier in response to Senator Seidman that there had been some improvement. I’d like it if you could give me some examples of where we have improved. Has this crisis created anything that’s better in the world of sharing data among the provinces?

My perception is that because of concerns about transparency, provinces don’t like to compare themselves to other provinces. They might come out looking bad, and there is the preoccupation with data silos, which the provinces seem to have. They want to be able to keep their own data and not share it.

In any case, I have a whole bunch of questions there. Can you give examples of improvement in the data in this area? Can you speak to the topic of race-based data collection using that variable, which is very important? Has the inadequate data collection and sharing impacted the response to the COVID-19 crisis?

Those are three questions that follow up on the previous interest in the data. Thank you all for being here today. It’s been very informative and very helpful for us.

Dr. Njoo: Thank you very much for your questions. There is a lot in there, so hopefully I can address it in a nice, concise way.

First of all, in terms of data, as they always say in public health, you have to think globally but act locally. In terms of the data, it’s certainly important to have at a national level, but I would say that it’s even more vital that you actually have it at the local level. In the city of Toronto, where I used to work, it’s much more important, in terms of getting accurate data, to know what the case load is and what the capacity is in the local hospitals so you can manage human resources and other types of resources, shifting where the testing needs to happen.

By the time it gets up to a national level, it’s more to get a sense of what’s happening across the country. Obviously, there are some high-level policy issues that could be examined but, to be honest, when we get the data at the national level, it’s a composite of what’s happening in all 13 provinces and territories. There’s only so much you can glean so you can generalize, because obviously what’s happening even at a provincial level in British Columbia is different compared to what is happening in Quebec and Ontario.

I can’t really speak to what’s happening in the city of Toronto because I’m not on the ground. My understanding is that the data they’re getting at the local level for both public health and health care certainly has been, to a degree, that they’re able to react and manage in a timely fashion to what’s needed on the ground for contact tracing and so on. That’s all I can say because I’m really not in a position to answer that.

On your other question about variables and race-based or ethnic origin data and other types of information, in principle, the public health community is all on the same page. We would love to get more data. There are a number of factors, though.

First of all, people really have their hands full at ground level. With public health officials running at full speed in terms of contact tracing and the management of cases, to collect all of those additional variables for all identified lab-confirmed cases is also very labour-intensive, especially if you want good-quality data.

One of the balances we’re doing is determining the most critical types of data we need to collect versus things that are nice to have but maybe not as critical. People will have different perspectives, but I think in principle we are agreeing that certain data variables you mentioned, like ethnic origin, are very important.

We’re not doing it yet, but folks on the ground are having what we call active discussions to see how we can improve and do better on that front.

The only data we do consistently collect — or at least it’s on the case report form now — is that related to Indigenous peoples. There are variables that people can fill out for First Nation, Métis and Inuit, but even then what we get at the national level is not as complete as it maybe could or should be. At least that’s a starting point.

One of the other issues that has also been raised, though, is we do collect data like that. It can be very sensitive. It has even been raised in the Indigenous aspect that there is a balance between getting data that’s important to help provide guidance for public health measures versus stigma, discrimination and shaming and blaming, as that has been put to us. Obviously, for some of those groups, especially Indigenous peoples, if you want to collect more detailed data, as we recognize well, they say, “nothing about us, without us.” Therefore, you need to have careful consultation with the affected groups. That is just to say we’re on it and it’s something we’re actively discussing.

Finally, in terms of improvements and good practices, because of the structures in place, at least in having the discussions and getting to ground in terms of a minimal data set, there is very good collaboration among the technical folks in each of the provinces and territories. In terms of having the right people talk to each other and having those connections, I would say that we’re much better off than we were back in the days of SARS. Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you. I will remind my colleagues that while I realize we have not met in a long time, I’m quite happy to be flexible with time and we have the privilege of having our witnesses for a fair amount of time, but I want to mention that we are exceeding five minutes per question and answer on a general basis. I think we can allow it because we do have a little more time, but please be mindful of this.

[Translation]

Senator Mégie: I thank the witnesses who are appearing today. My question is for Dr. Njoo. I have two questions, and I will put them to you at the same time because everything will probably come together in the answer.

You said that, starting in January, as soon as you received the genetic sequence of the virus, the National Microbiology Laboratory started working very hard to produce tests. Can you tell us whether the first tests that were produced were as reliable as those that are currently being produced? Let’s say that a person tested positive. Would the result still be positive if another test was used now on the same individual? Naturally, there is no time for that, but I am wondering about the reliability of a test produced quickly in a time of crisis.

In addition, how will the department deal with or how is it already dealing with regulations relative to the manufacturing of vaccines, potential medications or other tests? You are aware of the current level of competition and the race among countries to be the first to find a vaccine and come up with the quickest test. Given the situation, you have to act fast. Do you have a plan, a regulatory process that would help ensure that, despite that competition, you are able to produce reliable products? Those are my questions.

Dr. Njoo: Thank you for your questions. For the second question, I’ll give the floor to my colleague, Pierre Sabourin, since the issue concerns regulations. Regarding the first question on the scientific perspective, it’s something really impressive. After China published the genetic sequence of the virus, all the scientists around the world were able to develop reliable tests, including Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. In January, it was the only laboratory in Canada that could obtain reliable results. You’ll recall that, for all confirmed or suspected cases in the provinces and territories, a sample needed to be sent to our laboratory in Winnipeg to obtain confirmation. I think that this is also a good practice, because our laboratory worked closely with its counterparts in all the provinces and territories. It’s a type of quality assurance check. There are currently about 30 laboratories across the country. I don’t have the exact number, but I’m referring to all the laboratories in the provinces and territories. In Quebec, a network of other laboratories can now provide reliable test results. Everything was arranged with our laboratory in Winnipeg. I think that the results are now as reliable as the results provided by our laboratory in January.

Before I give the floor to Pierre, we can say that yes... I think that this isn’t a competition. I may be a little naive as a public health expert. However, I think that there’s really a great deal of collaboration around the world. All scientists are working in a collaborative way. Everyone is developing all types of candidates, even Canada. Yesterday, it was announced that Canada and China would be working together to hold clinical trials with a vaccine candidate. If a vaccine is successfully developed anywhere in the world, I hope that, as a result of the willingness and collaboration of all stakeholders, the vaccine will be available worldwide. On that note, I’ll give the floor to Mr. Sabourin.

Senator Mégie: Thank you.

Mr. Sabourin: I believe that the five minutes are up. Do you want me to continue, or will there be another question on diagnostics? I’d be pleased to answer it.

The Chair: Please provide a short response.

Mr. Sabourin: I’ll be very brief. I want to reassure all senators that we believe that the tests approved by Health Canada — all the tests—are sufficiently reliable in the context of the crisis. The tests approved in March — the first tests — were created by Thermo Fisher and Roche, which are very well-established companies. The most recent tests approved last week are tests with well-established reliability levels and standards.

I want to add an important point. In our regulatory framework, if we find that one of these tests isn’t producing satisfactory results in a clinical setting, we have the authority to add conditions or to literally take the tests off the market, if necessary. I want to reassure you. You may have heard of serological tests in the United States. A certain method of approval allowed many serological tests on the market in the United States. These tests are known to be unreliable. In Europe, some tests were recalled because they were found to be unreliable. You’ll see that we haven’t had this type of issue in Canada, because I think that our effectiveness standards are well established. That’s it. Thank you.

Senator Mégie: Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you.

[English]

Senator Omidvar: Thank you for appearing before us today. I think we all know that public servants are unsung public heroes in this crisis, and I’m glad we have an opportunity to express these sentiments to you.

I have three questions. My first two are for Dr. Njoo, and I’ll ask them one after the other.

You spoke, Dr. Njoo, in your presentation about communicating with Canadians, and that’s certainly a really important function, but just as there is information, there is also misinformation and disinformation. The pandemic has been accompanied by an infodemic. Ryerson University recently did a survey that found 7 out of 10 Canadians had received misinformation about the crisis and about solutions and so forth. What is your agency doing to combat misinformation?

Dr. Njoo: Thank you for the question, and you’re right. We’re well aware at the agency that there is, as you say, an infodemic and a great potential for misinformation. There are a number of things that we’re doing. Especially for misinformation on social media networks and the internet, we’ve been working closely with the big providers, like YouTube and Facebook, and they have also put in various — I’m not a technical expert — filters and are putting what they might call “trusted sites” higher up in terms of search engines. It’s minimizing, but I wouldn’t say it’s 100% foolproof. But they’re on the lookout from a policing point of view to make sure that what goes up on their sites is, to the best degree possible, trusted information.

In terms of our press conferences and so on, we always make the point that people should go to trusted sites. Don’t go to the site that has a who-knows-what organizational name. Go to the ones that people will recognize are trusted sites, like our own site, canada.ca/coronavirus, as well as those of the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States. We also make a point with our regular press briefings of giving good trusted information to Canadians.

We’re also looking at reaching Canadians in all sorts of demographics across different platforms. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but I was asked to give a series of interviews on YouTube to try to reach a younger demographic that might not look at traditional TV channels. From what I have seen or heard from my own children, in fact, is that it’s been successful and there have been a number of views on YouTube. They contacted — in collaboration with the Government of Canada — four major influencers. We did interviews and apparently the uptick among their audiences has been good. I think those are some of the ways we’re trying to hit misinformation.

Senator Omidvar: Thank you. I’ll be sure to search for that YouTube clip.

My next question is around vulnerabilities of certain populations. You referred to vulnerable groups in your presentation, such as senior citizens in long-term care, Indigenous peoples and incarcerated Canadians in Correctional Service Canada. Can you comment on the vulnerabilities of poor people in urban settings in particular — you’re intimately familiar, I imagine, with Toronto — and the over-representation of racial minorities in poverty indicators in the city of Toronto and, I imagine, others? What are their vulnerabilities? How do you understand them at this point?

Dr. Njoo: Thank you very much for that question. The way I would look at it from my training as a public health physician is that we always talk about what we call the social determinants of health, recognizing that health is not just the absence of individual infectious diseases, but it’s a complete physical, mental and social well-being. We recognize that people’s environments, their upbringing, what they have access to in terms of resources, education and even nutrition and food all play an important part in terms of their overall health. Unfortunately, I think COVID-19 has also shown us our vulnerabilities and weaknesses in terms of the systems and types of social protections we give to our vulnerable populations.

For poor people, I would say that the most obvious example is what’s happening in our homeless shelters. People are homeless or underhoused. The fact is that they’re also in what we call a congregate setting, where even if someone is able to get into one of these places, we recognize that sometimes the beds are not that far apart. Certainly, it’s more challenging to deliver services and have the physical distancing.

We recognize the issues, and moving forward we’re doing what we can on the fly because we recognize the basic public health principles about good hand hygiene, physical distancing and so on, and we’re doing what we can with our current resources. But moving forward, after we get out of this, we will look at what we could and should be doing better.

For example, I mentioned earlier we had media availability. Even in our long-term care facilities, the fact that it’s normal to have, in structural design, multiple people in the same room, maybe moving forward we need to look at other engineering and administrative controls and things we could be doing to minimize the risk for this type of respiratory infectious disease being transmitted. That could include more training for staff, providing them with the right protective equipment and even the right monetary supports so that people and staff working with the poor and others in vulnerable settings are encouraged to stay at one of those facilities and not feel the need to work in multiple places. There are lots of structural and other types of practices that we could be improving on in the future.

Senator Campbell: Thank you to all the witnesses for coming today. It’s much appreciated and I will be brief.

What is the Public Health Agency of Canada doing to ensure that Correctional Service Canada starts depopulating as recommended by the other health professionals?

We know that the two areas of biggest concern are community care facilities with the elderly and prisons. From my point of view, although I’ve always recognized that Corrections Canada is hardly considered a beacon of light and enlightenment, I believe that the health officials should be in charge of this. They know what’s going on, and they should be putting that to Corrections Canada.

It’s my understanding there are at least 1,200 people who are eligible for release and that hasn’t been done. So what is your agency doing to ensure that people aren’t going to die in incarceration? Thank you.

Dr. Njoo: What we do in the Public Health Agency of Canada is provide public health advice and guidance. To your other point about how the residents or inmates of the prisons are managed, you’re talking about other policy issues and I can’t comment on that.

But one thing I can tell you is that we have been working closely with our colleagues at Correctional Service Canada from the public health perspective in terms of giving them support with guidance about infection prevention and control, for example, on the appropriate measures that should be put in place to protect the inmates in these facilities and the staff in terms of training; how to properly use personal protective equipment; the type of screening should be done in terms of visitors or other personnel moving in and out of these facilities; and making sure that the training and the practices are maintained on an ongoing basis.

As we speak, we are actually working closely with our colleagues, and I understand that there is an audit being done in each of the facilities across the country under federal jurisdiction to ensure that those good practices of infection prevention and control are strengthened and maintained to mitigate and, in the best case, prevent any introduction of the virus into these very vulnerable settings.

Senator Campbell: By the numbers that we see, either they are not following your guidance or they are not doing it, because the numbers tell us that this is not working. I do not believe for a second that they are following your advice. Thank you.

Dr. Njoo: Obviously, we’re aware that there have been cases and outbreaks and things aren’t perfect. Everyone recognizes that, even with the best guidance and protocols in place, it only takes one breach or one unintentional behaviour or practice that may lead to the introduction.

If one of those situations does arise, we have actually been there to help support our colleagues in those settings to do good contact tracing, making sure that people who might have been exposed to an initial case or cases in a cluster are appropriately tested and managed. We are making sure, moving forward, that anyone who might have been at risk of exposure is appropriately managed. As I mentioned earlier, we can hopefully prevent future cases with reinforcement of those good infection prevention and control practises in all facilities.

Senator Campbell: Thank you.

Ms. Evans: Thank you, Madam Chair. The Public Health Agency of Canada has been in daily contact with Correctional Service Canada. We have also been supporting them through mobilizing experts in epidemiology, as Dr. Njoo had said, to assist with contact tracing, infection prevention control, workplace health and safety and environmental controls. We have been providing support through tools, as Senator Campbell had mentioned, to examine how well the processes are working in practice and where improvements can be made within the confines of the space limitations. Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you very much.

Senator Kutcher: Thank you very much, everyone, for being here answering our questions and for the great work that you and your departments are doing.

I have two questions. One is around electronic health care, and the other is around a vaccine. The first is that there have been investments in electronic care, but in the mental health area most online therapeutic mental health interventions have not received rigorous research. We frankly don’t know if they are either effective or safe for people. Second, most existing mental health care approaches that are online are not an effective way to address the complex care needs of people who have severe mental illnesses.

So the two questions are: What concrete steps is the government taking to ensure that the most vulnerable Canadians, those with severe mental illness for whom these interventions aren’t useful, are able to receive the high-quality care that they need? And what is Health Canada’s plan to evaluate and perhaps certify online therapeutic mental health treatment interventions so that Canadians who access them can be sure that they are both effective and safe?

My second question is on vaccines. A recent study from the University of Regina indicated that about 20% of the population reported that they would not take a COVID-19 vaccine even if it were available. What effective measures is the government putting into place now in anticipation of the vaccine’s arrival to ensure that Canadians are properly protected? Thank you.

Dr. Njoo: Okay. I’m not sure if one of my colleagues wants to answer the question on mental health. First, as a physician, the delivery at the front lines of both health care and public health services is the purview of the provinces and territories. In terms of clinical management, et cetera, for people with mental health issues, that certainly is there. At the federal government level, we are there to support. I will pass it on to my colleagues if they want to talk more about electronic apps and other resources.

Ms. Weber: Thank you, Dr. Njoo. And thank you for the question. It’s an excellent question. It’s one of the things that we have been concerned about from the beginning of the pandemic. As it’s gone on, we have heard about the social isolation and the impact that can be having. I spoke in my opening remarks about the impact it is having on mental health.

In the early days, we knew it would be important to get services to Canadians if they were asked to stay in their homes. We knew they would need access to virtual services. Some were still able to get out, but many were even afraid or unable to leave the home.

That’s when we began putting together the wellness portal, which has different components to it depending on the needs or the wants of the actual individual accessing it. We do have self-directed tools where folks can log in and navigate the site themselves. We also have health promotion tools to help with social isolation or stigma.

And then, in fact, we do have new services where individuals can access chat services, phone calls and online services that were not there before. For some people, it will not be the ideal solution; in-person services will be ideal. But there are others accessing it who would not have reached out before. Because they are in the comfort of their own homes and they do have access to an online service and it’s virtual, we find they are reaching out and making that contact.

So your point is well taken that we will have to evaluate these tools as we go forward. We have regular conversations with our provincial and territorial counterparts. Dr. Njoo did mention this is an area where provinces play a significant role. We have heard, especially during Mental Health Week last week, it’s incredible the number of services that different provinces and territories have launched in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have heard of wonderful take-up in these areas, but we have also heard about the ongoing challenges that Canadians are facing. It will be important that we do evaluate these tools. Thank you for bringing it up. It’s an important point.

Dr. Njoo: The point you raised is not just exclusive to the COVID-19 vaccine that hopefully will be developed sooner rather than later. The point you’re raising is the anti-vaccination movement and some of the challenges we have had even for acceptance of what we call the normal childhood vaccines. That is a complex issue. Certainly we have been addressing that, at least at the Public Health Agency of Canada, for quite some time, through various studies. I’m not going to go into all the details. We have a better understanding of the factors that lead people to have some issues or concerns or questions about vaccines in general.

I don’t think most people are against vaccines. It’s just that they may have some unanswered questions or may just need to be further encouraged. We’re looking at multiple ways we could reach out and make sure that people feel their concerns are addressed. Certainly, as my colleague Pierre has said, all vaccines in Canada are very tightly regulated in terms of safety and security. There really should be no concern from that perspective.

We also know it’s not just governments telling people that vaccines are safe. People also look to other trusted sources. Their health care providers are seen as trusted sources so we’re also looking at ways to better support the front-line health care workers to give them the tools so they can have those positive conversations with their patients. There was a lot of work going on in that area, even before COVID-19, in terms of improving what we call the uptake of vaccines.

Senator Kutcher: Supplementary to that, Dr. Njoo, there are three physicians on this panel, including myself. We are very aware of these issues. That’s why I’m asking the question now: What is Health Canada doing to get ready? Because this has been an issue and a huge problem for a long time. So could you answer that question, please?

Dr. Njoo: You say Health Canada. I’m not sure. I would say that yes, as the work ramps up in terms of development of a vaccine, right now, all of our folks who deal with vaccines, at least in the Public Health Agency of Canada, are very seized in terms of looking at vaccine candidates and having all of those important conversations with partners, both in Canada and outside.

As we get into the next phase, they will hopefully, like I say, find time to get back to their ongoing work. I don’t think it’s anything new that we have to develop; it’s basically — I think your point is well taken — to get back to some of our normal business lines, which include improving the uptake of vaccines.

Your point is well taken. I’ll certainly take it back to my colleagues in the agency and say, “Hey, all of the good work you were doing even before in terms of vaccine uptake, you need to continue with that, maybe with the additional aspect of a potential introduction of a COVID-19 vaccine.”

Mr. Sabourin: From a regulatory perspective, what you’ve raised, senator, is very much a concern among all the major regulators with whom Health Canada works. In fact, regulators work together across an organization called the International Coalition of Medicines Regulatory Authorities. We have always met regularly, but now we are meeting twice a week. This is an organization that groups all the major regulators in the world.

We are currently preparing a statement, which will be from a regulatory perspective, around the safety of vaccines and the science behind it. I’m hopeful that statement actually comes out very soon, and of course, it would have been endorsed by every major regulator in the world.

Senator Munson: Thank you very much. I’m having immense technical difficulties this morning, but I’m glad to see you can hear me.

I have two or three questions. The terminology was used about tracing a moment ago. Those who have intellectual and developmental disabilities are in group homes across this country by the thousands, and they need special care. It’s similar to a nursing home environment because there are so many people in a confined space.

Do you have any statistical evidence currently in terms of tracing and what is happening in these kinds of homes across the country? I know part of the answer is going to be, “it’s a provincial responsibility,” but there are private and public homes. I have two other questions I would like to ask.

Dr. Njoo: I’m not sure if I’m understanding the question with respect to tracing. If you’re talking about contact tracing, which means that if you do find a case in, let’s say, any setting, it’s important to go in and try to determine how that case or infection was introduced to make sure there is appropriate testing and management of other potentially exposed individuals in that setting.

What I can say — and you’re right — it’s not because it’s a provincial responsibility. Because it really is on the ground, I don’t have first-hand knowledge. I will say that certainly as any cases are detected in any setting, local health officials are certainly doing their utmost to make sure they do the proper investigation, making sure that obviously the initial case, if I can call it that, in any setting, perhaps including those in homes where there are people with disabilities and so on, is appropriately managed with hospitalization or medical care, as necessary. Then there is the contact tracing, determining who might have been in contact with that individual, who might also have been exposed and making sure they also follow the proper protocols for quarantine, monitoring of symptoms and also testing, as appropriate. I hope that answers your question, but certainly, if there is an additional follow-up, I’m happy to take that as well.

Senator Munson: You have answered the question. That’s good insight to have. I think it’s important not to lose sight of the fact of what is taking place in these group homes across the country.

I don’t know if this question has been asked, but is Canada being outbid by other countries in its quest for securing much-sought-after health care supplies? CMA, the Canadian Medical Association, indicated frustration with regard to unclear and inconsistent messaging in terms of the supply of personal protective equipment.

Dr. Njoo: Maybe I’ll start and turn to my colleagues in dealing with procurement.

Obviously, we at the Public Health Agency of Canada are on the ground seeing what is happening. I think as our health minister, Minister Hajdu, has stated, as well as even the deputy prime minister, once it became a real global pandemic, certainly there was a need for certain types of equipment — obviously the PPE, personal protective equipment — I think the term used was that it has been a bit of a Wild West out there, a very tight global market with lots of competition. You’re right. There are stories to be told of Canada having to compete with other nations for scarce supplies, and I think we have been doing well. We have been ramping up our domestic capacity to be more self-sufficient as well.

Senator Munson: So Michael, is it still the Wild West out there? Are we still being outbid for crucial equipment in this country?

Mr. Mills: It has been a challenging environment. Prices have gone up. We have been able to secure contracts, and when we have supplies under contract, we have more security that those supplies are going to come, but initially it was challenging to get contracts in place.

There are certain commodities that will continue to be challenging. The N95 masks are in very limited production. We have gotten as much as we can, and we continue, if anything comes up, to try to source them. I think we have seen even on the N95s that prices have stabilized. I wouldn’t say we have been outbid so much as we have had to aggregate supplies with provinces to make sure they are attractive. Certain factories, for instance, would only sell a minimum quantity; they want to make sure they’re selling 10 million masks as opposed to 500,000.

We have had to take on different terms and whatnot to secure those supplies, but we now have a lot of that product under contract. It’s still challenging, and we’ll continue to see where the supplies are available.

Senator Munson: Thank you to the two gentlemen for the answers. I appreciate it.

Senator Martin: Thank you. I added myself to the list after listening carefully to whether there would be any follow-up questions to Michael Mills of Public Services and Procurement.

I am just adding to questions that were asked regarding the domestic ramp-up and the retooling that is being done by certain companies. I know that you mentioned fairly large companies like Bauer and Irving. I was curious about each region. In British Columbia, for instance, I’m aware of some of the medium-sized companies that are retooling or getting ready.

There is proof of safety and efficacy in applications sent to Health Canada. Are you coordinating at all to ensure that the small- and medium-sized businesses by region are getting approval as well so there is supply across Canada, not just in certain parts of Canada, and only to larger companies that obviously would be more competitive? I’m curious about creating that domestic supply across Canada by region and some attention to our SMEs, which are very important to our economy.

If I may just ask one other piece, is there a specific department from which the small- or medium-sized companies would be able to get further support?

Lorenzo Ieraci, Director General, Office of Small and Medium Enterprises, Public Services and Procurement Canada: Thank you very much for the question. I’ll answer your second question first.

In terms of your second question of whether there is an organization that they can reach out to, absolutely. It’s the Office of Small and Medium Enterprises. We would be happy to assist companies and teach them about the federal procurement process, how to find opportunities, how to register for those opportunities and how to ultimately bid on those opportunities. In addition, we also want to help them understand the current landscape in terms of procurement.

This leads me to respond to your first question: For domestic capacity, what are we doing to help small-and medium-sized companies? My response in this regard falls into two categories.

First, for companies that may not have been in the business of personal protective equipment or other such equipment and are looking to retool or revamp their production lines in order to be able to provide provinces and territories with that kind of equipment, we’re working in close collaboration with our colleagues at Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. They are the lead department dealing with what I’ll call the retooling side of it.

ISED has an online portal where companies can apply in order to be identified as companies that can retool their existing production lines to provide personal protective equipment. Based on the analysis done by our colleagues at ISED, and once companies have been identified, our procurement team works with them to put in place letters of interest and contracts to ensure there is a contract for the production that will eventually arise.

The second part of the question is about those companies that are already in the field of personal protective equipment or that are looking to get into that field, not to retool but perhaps as sellers or resellers. A form is available on our website, buyandsell.gc.ca, where companies can indicate if they have equipment available and what kind of equipment it is. They provide us with information, and then we will reach out to the company to get more information and speak to them about the process. If they have products or materials that we’re currently buying and that meet the specifications established by Health Canada, which are also available on our website for reference, we will explore those to see if we can move towards potential procurement of that equipment.

I would encourage companies to reach out to our organization, the Office of Small and Medium Enterprises. We have regional offices across Canada, and our folks are there to provide information on federal procurement and to hopefully demystify the federal procurement process. I hope that responds to your questions.

Senator Martin: That was very helpful. Thank you very much.

[Translation]

The Chair: Thank you. We have a few minutes left, so I’ll try to ask my own question to follow up on Senator Munson’s question. He spoke earlier about the Canadian Medical Association, which was experiencing some frustrations. I want to hear a little more about the concrete measures taken to ensure that health care organizations and providers are well informed of the current situation. We know that this issue remains a concern. I want to hear a little more about it.

Dr. Njoo: If you’re talking about significant information for health care providers, I think that, ultimately, as I said, everything is happening on the ground. I greatly appreciate the efforts of the authorities and experts on the ground, for example, in Montreal and in the major cities. At the federal level, we’re continuing to have good discussions with our counterparts on the special advisory committee. In addition, at the agency, we have guidelines that provide at least a basis, a framework, not necessarily protocols, but at least principles and good practices that health care providers on the ground can benefit from and can use in a particular situation. Obviously, if we publish something at the federal level on our website, the goal isn’t to replace what was there before. It’s always additional information for the provinces and territories, and maybe the information could even be adapted to the local context. I think that we’ve added many guidelines — I don’t know exactly how many to date — and we’re still developing more guidelines, as we go along, that are necessary and important for the people working on the ground.

The Chair: Thank you.

[English]

Honourable senators, for technical reasons, we have to suspend at 1:30, so this will not leave us time for a second round.

I want to thank our witnesses for being here today. This was very helpful, especially for our first panel for this study, so we really do appreciate it. Thank you for participating.

Thanks to my colleagues, honourable senators, for your excellent and relevant questions.

[Translation]

Honourable senators, we’re continuing our study on the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This afternoon, our witnesses are as follows. From Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, we’re joined by Carla St. Croix, Executive Director, Strategic Integration and Competitiveness Policy, Strategic Policy Branch; and Nathalie Durand, Executive Director, Sector Development and Analysis Directorate, Market and Industry Services Branch. From Statistics Canada, we’re joined by Josée Bégin, Director General, Labour Market, Education and Socio-Economic Well-Being; Karen Mihorean, Director General, Census Subject Matter, Social Insights, Integration and Innovation; and Ron Gravel, Director, Centre for Population Health Data. From the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, we’re joined by Theresa Iuliano, Vice President, Operations Branch; and Colleen Barnes, Vice-President, Policy and Programs Branch.

[English]

We will begin with Ms. St. Croix, followed by Ms. Bégin and Ms. Iuliano.

Carla St. Croix, Executive Director, Strategic Integration and Competitiveness Policy, Strategic Policy Branch, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss the Government of Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and its impacts on our agriculture and agri-food sector. I’m joined by my colleague, Nathalie Durand.

Canada’s food system has continued to function well in providing food to Canadians in the face of considerable stresses raised by COVID-19. The pandemic has caused an unprecedented shock in terms of how our food supply chains function and has also created significant fluctuations in demand.

The Government of Canada is working with processors, producers and provincial and territorial governments, given the shared jurisdiction of agriculture, to rapidly assess shifting demands, share critical information and find solutions to address the impacts of COVID-19 on the agriculture and agri-food sector. The food sector is proving itself remarkably adaptable as it adjusts to the pressures on the supply chain.

Infrastructure, transportation and trade are also critical to our food supply. Overall, the global shipping logistics for food have generally been performing well. We continue to work with our U.S. partners to ensure the border remains open for commercial transportation, including the movement of food. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has been engaging with the sector throughout the pandemic, leading regular calls with industry and food service associations from all commodity groups. The topics raised have been varied. I will briefly touch on three of the main themes today: the importance of labour, overall supply chain stresses and, finally, food insecurity and supports for vulnerable Canadians.

First, labour challenges: The Government of Canada understands the important role that workers across our food supply chain have in ensuring food availability and has recognized workers across the agriculture and agri-food supply chain as providing an essential service to our country. There is a strong need for workers on Canadian farms and in food processing businesses across the country right now. The sector relies not only on our Canadian workforce, but also on temporary foreign workers and seasonal agriculture workers. Early on in the pandemic, an important exemption from travel restrictions was made for temporary foreign workers. Given the incremental costs associated with the mandatory 14-day isolation period upon entering into Canada, the federal government is investing $50 million through the Mandatory Isolation Support for Temporary Foreign Workers Program, which provides up to $1,500 per eligible worker to help with those costs. Measures have also been put in place that will help to attract additional workers in the agriculture and agri-food sector, such as the amended Canada Summer Jobs Program.

Further, the federal government is working with provinces and territories to cost-share wage top-ups for essential workers, deemed eligible in their respective jurisdictions.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has also launched a Step up to the plate — Help feed Canadians job portal which is helping to match Canadians with jobs in the agri-food sector.

While Canada is one of the world’s largest exporters of agriculture and agri-food products with exports totalling $59.4 billion in 2018, we are the fifth-largest importer of food globally, reliant on imports for certain critical inputs and products. While the system is functioning remarkably well, there are stresses on it, and I will discuss those briefly now.

For example, some meat processing plants have had to reduce slaughter capacity or temporarily close due to impacts of COVID-19. As you can imagine, this presents challenges for farmers needing to feed animals for longer periods of time without a destination for processing.

The horticulture sector is another critical component of Canada’s food system. Our food supply in fruits and vegetables is highly dependent on access to labour, trade and timely transportation of goods, and is also vulnerable to weather, disease and insect pests, as well as access to crucial inputs such as bees for pollination. AAFC is working with industry stakeholders and provincial governments to address labour and other challenges to ensure farmers will continue to plant during this crop season. AAFC continues to monitor seeding and planting intentions.

The Government of Canada understands the immense pressures being placed on Canadian agri-businesses and producers and have created several initiatives to support the sector. These supports include, for example, providing a cash injection of $5 billion into Farm Credit Canada, which allows clients to defer loan payments, and launching a national AgriRecovery initiative of up to $125 million in funding to help manage livestock backed up on farms due to the temporary closure of food processing plants. In addition, existing business risk management programs also provide up to $1.6 billion on average per year to support producers to help manage risks that threaten the viability of the farm.

The safety and mental health of those who work in the sector is critically important. To ensure the health and safety of essential workers in the food processing industry, Canada and the sector have adopted new measures including investments in additional personal protective equipment, temperature testing of employees with scanners and retrofitting facilities to include plexiglass shields on processing lines, for example. To expedite these changes and others and ensure that processing capacity is maintained, the Government of Canada has created a $77.5 million emergency processing fund to help food producers and processors manage new challenges presented by the pandemic.

CFIA inspectors are in these plants to verify that safe food regulations are properly implemented; Canada invested $20 million to help ensure inspectors have the resources to do their job during these challenging times.

Finally, I will briefly touch on food security and our vulnerable populations. There is no doubt that the COVID-19 crisis is intensifying pre-existing food insecurity as well as increasing the total number of Canadians facing food insecurity. Prior to the pandemic, it was estimated that 8.7% of Canadian households experienced food insecurity. With COVID-19, there has been a substantial increase in demand for food bank services; in some cities, food organizations assisted over 50% more clients in March and many are seeing an influx of first-time users. At the same time, food banks and other community services are experiencing a decrease in resources. This is why the Government of Canada made up to $100 million in funding available to organizations addressing food insecurity, such as Canadian food banks, to help improve access to food for people experiencing food insecurity in Canada due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the same time, the widespread closure and decreased capacity of restaurants, bars and other food service operations has created an excess supply of some products, such as potatoes, milk and poultry, in sizes that aren’t typically consumed at the retail or household level. To bridge this gap, just last week, the government announced an additional $50 million for the surplus food purchase program, which will provide new funding to support food security needs, and help manage surplus commodities.

Work will be carried out with national food recovery agencies and also involve corporations for the repurposing and redistribution of existing and identified surplus food that respects the needs and health of vulnerable populations in Canada.

Finally, to avoid waste in the dairy sector, work is under way to expand the Canadian Dairy Commission’s line of credit by $200 million to support costs associated with the temporary storage of cheese and butter. Important efforts have been made to support the agriculture and agri-food sector during these difficult times, and the Government of Canada will continue to work with farmers, food processors and provincial and territorial governments to help address stresses in the food supply chain to bring food to Canadians. Thank you.

[Translation]

The Chair: Thank you. Ms. Bégin, we’ll continue with you.

Josée Bégin, Director General, Labour Market, Education and Socio-Economic Well-Being, Statistics Canada: Thank you. We shared a PowerPoint presentation. When I change slides or languages, I’ll let the committee members know.

[English]

Madam Chair, committee members, thank you for giving us this opportunity today to discuss the role of Statistics Canada in the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have responded to the increased need for timely, quality data in several ways: new data collection and creation, the development of innovative tools in conjunction with our partners and the filling of hundreds of custom data requests. In addition, our modelling and data science experts are working with partner agencies to develop robust models to inform responses to the pandemic.

We have partnered with the Public Health Agency of Canada to make detailed preliminary data on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases available to researchers and Canadians. We have developed geospatial tools and the COVID-19 interactive dashboard through a partnership with the Public Health Agency and Natural Resources Canada.

[Translation]

On slide 3, from the Statistics Canada site, you’ll find the information that you’re looking for on confirmed coronavirus cases, our geospatial explorer, our interactive dashboard, and published analyses of the impact of COVID-19 on the Canadian population and economy.

We’ve developed two new ways of collecting data on the social impacts of COVID-19: a web panel and crowdsourcing.

The web panel is a sub-sample of approximately 7,200 Labour Force Survey, or LFS, respondents who agreed to participate in a series of short surveys conducted each month. The panel uses probability sampling, which means that the results can be used to obtain estimates for the Canadian population. Through the web panel, we collected data on the impacts of COVID-19 on labour, behaviours and primary sources of information. In June, we’ll collect data on the recovery of economic and social activities, and Canadians’ intentions in this area.

[English]

We are also crowdsourcing information from Canadians. All Canadians are invited to participate in a non-probabilistic sampling approach. We are, therefore, not able to derive estimates that can be ascribed to the Canadian population, but we are able to collect information in a timely fashion that can help deliver insight for policy-makers.

The first iteration of our crowdsourced survey asked participants about the economic and social impacts of the pandemic on their lives and yielded more than 240,000 responses. New content is being launched every two weeks.

We have just finished collecting information on impacts on post-secondary students. Upcoming collections will include trust and confidence in health officials and impacts on children and youth.

As a key finding, the web panel indicated that more than half of Canadians use news outlets as their main source of information about the pandemic, while for about 3 in 10 Canadians the main sources of information were government health agencies or government announcements.

Statistics Canada pivoted very quickly to set up the necessary infrastructure to allow us to collect vital information remotely and safely. Interviewers for the Labour Force Survey were quickly equipped to conduct the survey over the phone from their own homes.

Additional indicators were developed that go beyond our usual reporting; for example, people who had a job but did not work during the reference week.

For the April Labour Force Survey, additional questions were added to gather information about the impacts of the shutdown; for example, place of work and working from home, job security and difficulty meeting financial obligations.

You see here an infographic providing an overview of the labour market in April as well as the highlights from our Labour Force Survey. The rest of our presentation will focus on some of those highlights.

Employment has dropped by 15.7% since February, which is a much larger and faster drop in employment compared with previous notable downturns in the economy. The unemployment rate hit 13% in April, which is a near-record. This increase is driven by the numbers who have been temporarily laid off.

With the current pandemic, almost all employment losses in March occurred in the services-producing sectors of the economy. By April, employment losses were proportionally larger in goods-producing sectors, led by construction and manufacturing.

[Translation]

On slide 11, the results obtained in April show that the ability to adapt to the crisis by working from home varies from company to company. Companies that were comparatively less affected by the crisis had a low proportion of workers in occupations that require close physical proximity, and a large proportion of their employees worked from home in April.

[English]

Women and youth were the most affected by job losses in March, but by April this impact was more widespread. Employment losses were steeper in low-wage and temporary jobs, as can be seen in the graph on the right.

Looking ahead, we see that concern for ongoing job security varies significantly by situation. Those who were employed but worked half their usual hours or less during the April reference week were substantially more likely to think they may lose their job in the next four weeks compared with those who had worked all or most of their usual hours.

While Statistics Canada has responded to the increased need for quality data in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the medium- and longer-term recovery will demand regular and timely reporting and monitoring moving forward. The need to provide granular data that is disaggregated to reveal the experiences of vulnerable populations will require a sustained effort. More effort is also needed to ensure that timely data on LGBTQ2, racialized groups — for example, black — disabled and Indigenous populations is available.

It will be critical to ensure that we can build on the work we have started and partnerships we have created to continue to build the integrated data system.

On this, we conclude our presentation. We hope that this overview of the role of Statistics Canada in the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic will be useful to the committee, and we would be more than happy to answer any questions you may have.

The Chair: Thank you for this. I am sure there will be many questions.

Theresa Iuliano, Vice President, Operations Branch, Canadian Food Inspection Agency: Madam Chair, thank you for this opportunity to participate in this virtual meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.

From the very onset of this situation, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has prioritized the delivery of activities that have been aimed at preserving the integrity of Canada’s food safety system as well as its plant and animal resource base.

These activities have included: Food safety investigations and recalls, animal disease investigations, the regulatory oversight of meat slaughter and processing, export certification, import inspection services, emergency management and the supporting of laboratory diagnostics.

Due to the fact that federally licensed food processing establishments require CFIA inspection presence in order to operate, we work very closely with industry to ensure appropriate food safety oversight and to prevent pressures on the food supply chain. While doing so, we are committed to protecting the health and safety of our employees. Physical distancing measures are not always possible in the food processing environments where our front-line staff work.

To mitigate the risk of exposure to COVID-19, our staff follow health and safety guidance issued by the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada, as well as by the local public health authorities, and they follow protocols put in place at the establishments in which they work.

As an additional measure of precaution, we have provided face shields and masks for these employees, primarily meat inspectors working in federally licensed slaughter and processing establishments.

When cases of COVID-19 occur in a food processing establishment, the CFIA works with local public health authorities to determine the level of risk of exposure for CFIA employees and their need for self-isolation or referral to health services for testing.

Before any employees are reintroduced into a work space, the CFIA works with establishments and with Occupational Health and Safety representatives to ensure that all measures recommended by public health authorities are in place.

To date, the CFIA has been able to maintain an appropriate number of inspectors in meat establishments and has leveraged contingency plans to address inspector absenteeism related to the COVID-19 virus.

To further support the delivery of critical services that fall within CFIA’s mandate and to protect the food supply without putting undue pressure on our existing workforce, the Government of Canada recently announced that $20 million will be provided to the CFIA to hire new inspectors and veterinarians, or to temporarily bring back recently retired CFIA employees; to explore work agreements with the provincial and territorial inspection authorities and put in place resource-sharing agreements like those already in place with the provinces of Ontario and Alberta; and for reassigning some staff to areas of high priority and providing them with the necessary training and tools to properly execute good safety inspections.

To conclude, I would like to reiterate the vitally important role that Canada’s front-line inspectors are playing to continue to make safe food available for Canadians. Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you very much. We are ready to proceed with questions from the senators.

Again, I would like to remind each of you that you have five minutes for your questions and answers. If you wish to ask a question, please raise your hand using the raised-hand function in Zoom and we will add you to the list. When you are asking a question, I would ask that you please identify the person that you wish to answer the question, and if the question is for the whole panel, you can let us know.

The first question will be from the deputy chair of the committee.

Senator Poirier: Thank you to all the witnesses for being here. My question is for the representative of CFIA. According to the Agriculture Union, the CFIA has instructed some of its non-meat inspection staff to undergo training to be deployed to slaughter plants that have seen outbreaks of COVID-19. The union has said that the CFIA will treat refusal as an act of insubordination. The president of the union said in the media this week that the CFIA is ordering its staff to work in facilities that obviously are not safe and without proper personal protective gear.

Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has stated that it is important that essential workers feel safe. Can the officials from the CFIA respond to the concerns of the Agriculture Union and provide some assurance that federal inspectors will not be forced to enter into situations where they feel unsafe?

Ms. Iuliano: Thank you very much for the question. When it comes to deploying our staff into meat establishments, we start by looking at existing inspection staff who are available to perform these tasks. We would then look to staff who have previously worked as meat inspectors. If that wasn’t sufficient, we would look at meat inspection staff who currently work with the provinces through the resource-sharing arrangements that we’ve recently put in place. We can also look at inspectors from other food processing sectors who have experience and are willing to be deployed. Finally, we look at bringing in newly hired inspectors and veterinarians.

To date, this approach of asking for volunteers and reaching out to new hires has worked for us and we have been able to maintain critical services.

Obviously, the health and safety of our staff are top priorities, which is why we have put in place guidance for our staff in terms of the protocols that they need to follow before they enter an establishment. That includes self-monitoring, temperature checks and following the protocols put in place by the establishment, and before any employee enters a plant, we have assurances that plant has in place appropriate pandemic control procedures.

Senator Poirier: Thank you. My next question is for Statistics Canada. In your report Work interruptions and financial vulnerability, there is a passage that struck me.

One limitation of the study is that some adults living in families that are financially vulnerable during work stoppages have not actually experienced work interruptions since mid-March 2020. This is the case, for example, of grocery stores’ employees living in financially vulnerable families.

As of today, do you have the number of these vulnerable workers who have fallen through the cracks of the government’s aid? If no, what is preventing Statistics Canada from producing this type of report? Is it access to data?

[Translation]

Ms. Bégin: We prepared an analysis for the release of our Labour Force Survey last week, which contains a great deal of information, particularly on vulnerable populations. I don’t have the figures with me right now, but we can provide custom tables to respond to your request, based on the segments of the population that interest you, but also based on the nature of their jobs.

[English]

Senator Poirier: Thank you. If you could send that to the clerk of the committee so we could have it, that would be helpful.

Senator Griffin: This question is for Agriculture and Agri-food Canada. As you know, I’m from the Maritime provinces, specifically Prince Edward Island. The food supply chain for the whole three provinces is integrated. We’ve had one province, New Brunswick, make a fairly last-minute decision to ban further temporary foreign workers, including those who work on farms, and that impacts all three provinces. Although agriculture and immigration are shared powers between the federal and provincial governments, do officials in your department have concerns that the New Brunswick government is stepping into federal areas of jurisdiction, such as border controls?

I have follow-up questions, but I would like you to answer that one fairly quickly, please.

Ms. St. Croix: We do have a very dynamic and robust ongoing conversation with our provincial and territorial partners. On a weekly basis we discuss the state of the supply chain at all levels of the federal-provincial-territorial system. Currently the number of temporary foreign workers that are coming into Canada are fairly strong. For the month of April, there were around 11,000 temporary foreign workers that came into Canada to work.

In terms of Canada as a whole, that is something that is continuing to progress, and I think those numbers are quite good. We do continue to have conversations with our provincial and territorial partners around ensuring that there are enough workers to keep the food supply chain in good standing.

Senator Griffin: Thank you. I might note that the ban by this one province is also having a negative impact on the availability of truck drivers in the Maritimes, which is a concern to the Atlantic Provinces Trucking Association. My fear is that a truck driver shortage will impact either the affordability or the availability of food for Maritimers.

This is my last question: Will the federal government offer compensation to farmers who, in good faith, incurred capital or operational costs preparing for workers this season due to the federal government’s decision to allow foreign workers into Canada? For example, one farmer invested $250,000. Are there any AAFC financial programs to mitigate this type of cost?

Ms. St. Croix: Our business risk management suite of programs is there to support producers with declines in income that can come from multiple situations that arise on the farm; that includes a program such as AgriStability, should that particular producer be enrolled in the program. The deadline for enrolment has been extended to July 3, so that is an option for those sorts of situations.

But I have noted the concerns that you’ve raised, and we are certainly always listening to the concerns of both members such as yourself and also industry to make sure that we can address them to the best of our ability.

Senator Griffin: Thank you. That took exactly 4 minutes and 16 seconds. I’ve left a little bit of time for other people.

The Chair: Thank you, Senator Griffin. We do have a list building up. Let’s begin with Senator Munson.

Senator Munson: Very quickly, on the farmer issue, is it realistic to expect what is happening in New Brunswick, following on Senator Griffin’s question, that the New Brunswick government wants to replace foreign workers and foreign workers can’t come? Realistically, can they fill the void within New Brunswick with local hires? Is that realistic?

Ms. St. Croix: It’s difficult to predict whether it is realistic for New Brunswick itself to fill that void, but I know many of the provinces have advanced efforts, as has Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, such as job portals to attract Canadian workers into the sector, and at every chance we encourage that to occur.

Senator Munson: Thank you very much for that. It’s going to be extremely difficult to catch up.

Now, to Statistics Canada: Do you have statistics of those with intellectual or physical disabilities living in group homes in this country? COVID-19 has struck there, as well as nursing homes, and nowhere do I see statistics about the tens of thousands who are living in these homes. I’m wondering what kind of coordination is taking place with the provinces to make sure that those with intellectual or physical disabilities are not left behind.

Since I don’t want to lose my time here, food bank numbers are quite interesting. There’s a surge, and I’d like to know where that surge is coming from and what demographic is there at the food banks. We know that food banks get their food from ordinary Canadians, but they also get a lot of money from ordinary Canadians.

Where are they getting their food from? The crucial question here is: Are suppliers lowering costs for food banks so that they can actually buy the same can of soup but for a cheaper price than they are getting now from their suppliers? People have to be fed.

The Chair: Do we know who would like to go first to answer those questions?

Senator Munson: The question was to Statistics Canada.

Ms. Bégin: Karen, do you want to answer the question on the collective dwellings?

Karen Mihorean, Director General, Census Subject Matter, Social Insights, Integration and Innovation, Statistics Canada: Ron might be better placed to talk about those sorts of facilities, but on the food security issue, when you talk about Canadians who are going to these food banks, part of the question I can answer is in our most recent web panel. As Josée said, this is probabilistic, so we can make generalizations to the population. We obtained these respondents from our Labour Force Survey so we have characteristics on these people.

The one that we just finished collecting and on which we are currently processing the data is looking at food security. We’re asking specific questions, such as if they’ve had to go to a food bank or a community-type support service to get food, if they’ve run out of money to buy food or haven’t been able to put nutritious food on the table. We’re going to have data on those sorts of questions out in the next week or so, and we’ll be happy to share those with the committee once those data come out.

Ron, I think you’re best placed to answer the question of disabilities and those sorts of facilities.

Ron Gravel, Director, Centre for Population Health Data, Statistics Canada: Yes. Thank you. It is a very valid point that there is limited information as we speak. We have started conversations with some departments in order to address that need. It would be done in two different ways.

The first one, as you know, this is a small population, so there is a need to proceed with a collection strategy that is able to target those individuals to be able to provide the answer.

Then there is a set of questions that will need to be elaborated on that front. It’s not under my responsibility, which is the Centre for Population Health Data, but there are some components of health that would be addressed in that initiative.

Senator Munson: Thank you very much.

Senator Seidman: Thank you all for being with us at this historic virtual meeting. I have two questions, and they’re probably both for Statistics Canada.

You said in your presentation that you partner with the Public Health Agency of Canada and that you have partnered with them in order to collect data on COVID-19 cases. This question would probably go to Ron Gravel because it’s specifically around population health data.

Can you explain the nature of your partnership with PHAC? Who is responsible for collecting the data, deciding on the type of data and defining the terms? Who communicates with the provinces? Is it PHAC or Statistics Canada?

Mr. Gravel: Thank you. Karen, perhaps you can answer the first part in the context of crowdsourcing, and then I can discuss an initiative specifically that we have with the centre there.

Ms. Mihorean: Sure. Early on when COVID-19 struck, we very quickly were in touch with our colleagues at PHAC and Health Canada to see what their information needs were with respect to COVID-19. They reached out to us, and we worked jointly with them to come up with questions around the impacts on not just health but on behaviours. They were very interested at that time, for example, to know just how much Canadians were following restrictions that were being put in place and how Canadians were changing their behaviours. Those questions were developed jointly with our colleagues at PHAC and Health Canada.

Another area, of course, that they were very interested in was where Canadians were getting their information sources from. As Josée presented, we wanted to know if it was actually from health officials, from the provincial or federal governments or via social media. Again, it was very important for them to know the answers to those sorts of questions.

We continue to work with them on developing questions. We keep identifying as we move forward in our crowdsourcing effort. Every two weeks we are launching new questions, so they are a key part of those consultations.

Mr. Gravel: There is also an initiative taking place with regard to mental health in multiple forums. There is an interdepartmental committee focusing on mental health, which is under the responsibility of a joint secretariat between PHAC and Health Canada. Statistics Canada is a member of that group.

What’s interesting about that one is it targets various aspects, whether it’s workers, vulnerable populations and so on. The idea is to elaborate a strategy to address the impact of COVID-19 on mental health, but also the impact of the financial burden and the economic consequences of the strategies that have been put in place in the context of COVID-19. That is one that is taking place.

Independent of that, the Public Health Agency of Canada, or PHAC, is an initiative where PHAC is responsible for gathering or compiling information coming from each of the provinces and territories. We refer to that as the detailed case level information. You may have visited the website of PHAC where there is a report on the number of positive cases and deaths and so on. Out of that, data are being fed to PHAC to produce some of this information. We are making the PHAC data set available to researchers. We are continuing to work with them to expand that data set to make variables that are relevant to the research community and the data users there.

Senator Seidman: That’s helpful. Actually, I do have a question about your crowdsourcing. Even though it’s tempting to pursue what you’re doing with PHAC specifically around your data, I’d like to ask you about your crowdsourcing because I know PHAC is also talking about using crowdsourcing, as are you. Have you done any work on contact-tracing apps and their acceptability among Canadians?

Ms. Mihorean: Thank you for that question. The short answer to your question is we haven’t yet. With COVID-19, our biggest challenge is that, every day, our landscape is changing with respect to the pandemic. As provinces are lifting restrictions, people’s behaviours are changing and people’s concerns are changing. As I said, we work closely with PHAC but we have many other partners as well. For example, Children First is an organization that is very keen on knowing how children are coping during this pandemic. We literally keep an Excel spreadsheet listing different topics that people are interested in. We have to make decisions on priorities in trying to stay ahead of the important information needs.

One thing to which we absolutely need to turn our attention, and are doing so now, is recovery. How will Canadians react as we come out of this? How will Canadians feel about these devices, as you’re suggesting? These are things that we are going to be looking at and considering in our crowdsourcing. Thank you for that question.

Senator Seidman: Thank you very much.

The Chair: Senator Moodie, I had you on the list, but I don’t see your hand any more. I want to make sure it’s not a technology glitch. Did you have a question?

Senator Moodie: I did. I’m not sure why it disappeared.

The Chair: It’s all good. Go ahead.

Senator Moodie: Welcome to our committee meeting and thank you for appearing today. I have two questions, and they’re both to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, or AAFC. The first is related to food insecurity and the redistribution of excess food.

We have all been told in recent days about the dumping of excess milk that could not have been used. We are all aware of the many individuals who live in poverty, a situation that has been worsened by COVID-19. What is being done to divert excess milk to people in need? What are the specific measures being taken, besides the legislation that we know has been raised and brought forth by the government for storing cheese and by-products for later use?

The second question is about foreign workers who have been brought to Canada and deemed essential workers for the food supply chain and the Canadian agriculture industry.

Of these 11,000 who came in April, how many workers have become sick? What is the status of their disease burden? What supports do they have? Are they having full access to medical care and critical care if needed?

Ms. St. Croix: Thank you. On the first question related to surplus food, in terms of how that’s being used, there is the Surplus Food Purchase Program, which was just announced, of $50 million. That will provide new funding to support food security needs and help manage surplus commodities. We are aware of potatoes, poultry and some dairy products that could be captured in that piece.

Work will be carried out with national food recovery agencies for the repurposing and redistribution of existing and identified surplus food that respects the needs of vulnerable populations. That work is under way, and that funding will be flowing soon.

In terms of dairy itself, as you mentioned, legislation is under way to increase the borrowing capacity of the Canadian Dairy Commission. Between the last week of March and mid-April, as you mentioned, there were slightly less than 30 million litres of raw milk discarded. While surpluses remain, since mid-April, raw milk is no longer being discarded.

That is a result of actions that are above and beyond programming. That’s a result of reduced production, a slight increase in consumer demand, additional donations to food banks and the purchasing power of the CDC in terms of butter and cheese under its existing borrowing authorities. There are multiple ways where those sorts of surpluses are being addressed.

To your second set of questions around how many workers have become sick upon entry into Canada, I don’t have that data. Perhaps Nathalie, my colleague from AAFC, may have more information about that but, to my knowledge, the quarantines and the 14-day isolation period are being followed. I’m not sure if we have captured the data on the number of sick individuals or not.

Nathalie Durand, Executive Director, Sector Development and Analysis Directorate, Market and Industry Services Branch, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada: Thanks, Carla. Maybe I can add, if possible, Madam Chair, to what Carla was just saying?

The Chair: Absolutely.

Ms. Durand: I just wanted to flag that, with respect to foreign workers being sick, we are not aware of situations of significant numbers of foreign workers being sick.

We have situations. We have a greenhouse in Ontario where there has been an outbreak of COVID. Some temporary foreign workers were part of that and the facility there took all appropriate measures to ensure the health of workers is considered and maintained.

If you were looking for additional data on foreign workers and health, that would probably be better addressed by other government departments. Maybe Health Canada or Statistics Canada would have information related to that, but we at AAFC are not tracking that information per se.

The Chair: Do we have that kind of information from Statistics Canada?

Mr. Gravel: No. At the moment, we do not have that specific information. That information would probably be collected by the provinces and the territories. Yes, that’s where the main source would be on that end.

Senator Moodie: Are those workers fully protected by access to full medical care? That was the other part of the question.

Mr. Gravel: From a Statistics Canada perspective, we would not be able to provide an answer to that particular question.

Ms. Durand: Same for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, but we can certainly follow up on your question and get back to you.

The Chair: That would be appreciated if you can send us that information.

Senator Omidvar: Thank you, witnesses, for being here and for all that you do. I have three questions addressed to each one of our witnesses. Equal opportunity here.

My first question is for Agriculture Canada, and it is again about temporary foreign workers. Can you share with us the number of agricultural workers who are temporary foreign workers in Canada versus the number that is put forward by Canadian farmers, and help us understand the supply and demand? You have said 11,000 workers, but what is the real demand? I need to understand the gap between that.

My question for Statistics Canada relates to the comments made at the end by the witness around the need for granular, disaggregated information that allows us to understand in greater depth the impact of the crisis on different demographics.

I’m particularly interested in the intersectionality of race and gender, race and youth, and race and unemployment. I know that Manitoba is collecting data. I know the city where I live isn’t collecting race-based data. When and how will Statistics Canada be able to present a fuller picture of the impact of the crisis, based on racial minorities?

My final question is for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Are you able to confirm these figures that have been provided to us by the union representing food inspectors? Apparently, 40 food inspectors have tested positive for the virus and 18 of them are in Alberta. I think this is of grave concern to us. We won’t get the virus from eating hamburger or steak, but we need to make sure that the people working to protect our food supply are safe and that the product is safe. Can you comment on that? Thank you.

Ms. St. Croix: Perhaps I’ll begin and address the question around temporary foreign workers.

Each year, the agriculture and food processing sectors receive between 50,000 and 60,000 foreign workers. That is a pre-COVID-19 scenario. Typically, above and beyond that, an additional 15,000 jobs remain vacant.

Labour was a challenge previous to the pandemic. COVID-19 has exacerbated that challenge, but certainly we are seeing good numbers of temporary foreign workers coming into the country. As I said, there were 11,200 in April alone, and another 1,900 or so have come into Canada in May. We are tracking to have good numbers and be on par.

We’re closing the gap, I would say. Things change daily. Flights are being booked on an ongoing basis bringing more temporary foreign workers into the country. This is just to acknowledge that there was a challenge pre-pandemic, but the numbers are getting better now in terms of being able to bring workers into the country. Hopefully that addresses your question.

Senator Omidvar: May I suggest that the numbers are actually worrisome. There is a huge gap between 11,000, plus 1,900 that have come in May, and the 50,000 or 60,000. This is an issue of timeliness because the strawberries and peaches won’t wait forever to be picked. I want to underline the issue of timeliness and meeting the demand that has been put forward by Canadian farmers. Thank you.

Ms. St. Croix: Absolutely.

Ms. Mihorean: I will start by answering the second question for Statistics Canada, and then my colleague Ms. Bégin can speak to it specifically from the Labour Force Survey perspective.

Early on in the pandemic, after we had launched our first web panel on March 29 and our crowdsource on April 3, we heard that we needed disaggregated data. For the second wave of the web panel, as well as the crowdsource, we added questions that are key indicators to look at disaggregating the data. That included immigrant status, population groups — visible minority and the ability to look at blacks, et cetera — and Indigenous, including First Nations, Metis and Inuit. Those questions have been added to both the web panel and the crowdsource.

In the first crowdsource we did, as I said, we didn’t have those variables, but we did collect postal codes. Out of the 240,000 Canadians who participated, the vast majority gave us their postal code.

We’re now looking, with our methodologist, to overlay those data on to maps so we can look at smaller communities where there are high immigrant populations or visible minorities. We’re seeing what we can do there to be able to disaggregate the data.

However, I’m particularly anxious to see the results of the second wave of the crowdsource that we launched, which was looking at mental health. For that crowdsource, we had about 46,000 respondents. It was in the field for a much shorter time. We’re trying to turn these over about every two weeks. Still, 46,000 should yield good results, at least at the national and regional levels. Those indicators are there. Again, we’re processing those data now. We’ll be releasing them in the next week or so, and we’re hoping we will be able to look at the different immigrant population groups as well as Indigenous. I’ll have to promise these results to the committee once we get them.

Ms. Bégin: Maybe I can add to that the need for more local and granular data in terms of the Labour Force Survey. If you’re thinking of employment and unemployment, it is a need that is critical to our users.

In the last year we have been working with our partners in the provinces and territories to see if we could be using other administrative sources of information and statistical techniques to be able to estimate those indicators at a more local level. Right now, we are producing our indicators at the level for 76 regions. Those are the Employment Insurance regions.

For the Labour Force Survey, we do not collect information on visible minorities. We do have information on immigration status and we do collect information for Aboriginals living off-reserve.

However, regarding the visible minority status, we have a project in progress to obtain information from other sources and integrate that into the Labour Force Survey. In the future we will be able to report on that.

Recently we have engaged with the City of Vancouver, who approached us about the need to have information from the Labour Force Survey for the City of Vancouver; again, more local data at a more detailed level than what we currently produce. We have been working on that, as well as looking at the 2022 census metropolitan areas, or CMAs, for the rest of the country. Thank you.

Senator Omidvar: Chair, I fear my time has expired.

The Chair: It has, yes.

Senator Omidvar: If you would agree to table the question and come back to the last question in the second round, I would be more than happy to do that. I don’t want to be selfish.

The Chair: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. We will take note of that for sure.

Senator Dasko: Thank you to everybody who is here today and telling us about these important topics.

My main question is about the big picture. Canadians as a whole have gone through so much in this crisis and I would just like to put a number on it, if I could, being a numbers person. I’m interested in the extent to which Canadians have suffered economic hardship from the crisis. I will define that in terms of people who are unemployed because of it. They may be unemployed and looking for a job; they may be unemployed and not looking for a job — for example, not in the technical labour force anymore; and they may also be people who have lost income as a result of the crisis so that their income has gone down. Perhaps they have reduced their employment hours, so they too have suffered from the crisis. I’m not asking about people whose pension investments may have gone down. That’s something different, but I’m mainly focusing on the labour force data.

I would like to get a sense of how many people we are talking about. What percentage of Canadians are we talking about?

Second, it was noted earlier that you are interested in the recovery now. For people who have lost their jobs or lost income, do we know anything about whether they think they are going to go back to their jobs? For example, have we asked them the question, “Do you expect to go back?” That kind of information would help understand the recovery prospects, at least to some extent.

I’ll start with those questions, again, on the big picture, so there should be all kinds of data that answers that. Thank you very much.

Ms. Bégin: Thank you for the question. In the presentation, there is an infographic and two tables showing highlights, and I think some of those highlights would give you the picture that you’re looking for. Maybe I can go through some statistics in terms of the number of Canadians that have been impacted, if we’re just looking at their employment.

If we look at February 2020, we know that the number of Canadians with a job or a business was 19.2 million. By April, employment declined by nearly 2 million, for a total, since February, of 3 million Canadians.

Also if we look at the Canadians who were employed but absent from their work, this number is usually very stable when we look from month to month. However, we know that the number of Canadians who were employed but worked less than half of their usual hours for reasons related to COVID-19 increased by 2.5 million between February and April, and 4 in 10 of these workers fear they might lose their job. More than one quarter of them live in a household that had difficulty meeting financial obligations.

I would like to come back to your question regarding asking them about whether they are expecting to go back to work. When we go through the Labour Force Survey interview and somebody tells us that they are away from work or they have lost their job, we ask them if it’s temporary or not. We also ask them questions in terms of whether they expect to be called back to their job. We do collect that information, and with the Labour Force Survey, we have the flexibility to add some questions every month to capture, in this case and this month, more information in relation to the COVID-19.

So we have added questions around if they had applied for EI or CERB benefits and if they were worried about being able to meet their financial obligations. I’m missing a couple of questions, but we have added about five questions to help answer those. I could provide additional tables of information with that.

Senator Dasko: Thank you. If I could get back to the first part, can you tell me what percentage of Canadians we’re talking about? You gave some actual numbers, but what percentage of Canadians would have suffered some sort of employment loss — either the loss of a job or loss of employment hours or income?

Ms. Bégin: I don’t have that number in front of me, but I would be happy to share that after the meeting.

Senator Dasko: Okay. So we don’t know whether it’s 20% or 40%?

Ms. Bégin: We do have the information. I don’t have it in front of me. I would be able to provide tables with detailed information on that number.

Senator Dasko: It’s just that big picture, what percentage has somehow been impacted.

In terms of social distancing — I know you have done some research on it — are there any types of social distancing that people are reluctant to participate in? Or have Canadians across the board taken to it and seem to be doing it very willingly? Is there anything that Canadians have been less willing to do, from your research?

Ms. Mihorean: Thank you for that question, Senator Dasko. By and large, when we started out asking these questions, the vast majority — and we saw other polls showing the same sort of thing — of Canadians were very willing to participate in various restriction measures that were being put in place, with social distancing and washing hands being among the most frequent. Anecdotally, we have heard that while people may say they practise social distancing, people will say they don’t always see that happening in their community. But that is something we are tracking. So again, with this next crowdsource, it will be particularly interesting to see the extent to which Canadian continue to adhere to the restrictions. We have heard comments that as nice weather starts and people want to get out to visit family and friends it might be increasingly difficult, but as we move to the recovery, this is where we really need to start monitoring these sorts of things.

To pick up on what the senator said earlier, when we look at the economic recovery and as provinces lift restrictions and open stores, the important thing that we’ll need to know and measure is the extent to which Canadians will have confidence in partaking in these activities. It’s fine to open up things, but if Canadians’ spending behaviours or patterns change, we need to know that to put that into the various statistical models to see what the medium-term impact will be on the economy. Those are things that, through some of our new tools, we want to start tracking as well as we move into recovery.

Senator Dasko: That’s great. Thank you.

The Chair: I want to ask Statistics Canada a question, because I keep wanting to know how you choose what data to collect, the criteria and when to collect it. I’m thinking about all the different issues, and what you choose to collect data on has an impact on so many things. If we decide to collect data on child distress during this pandemic, it may provoke funding or some things that will have an impact. I’m curious to know how this process is being done and how we come to choose one and not the other when we collect data on something.

Ms. Mihorean: It is a challenge. Statistics Canada does not collect this information for us, but for our users, for stakeholders and for Canadians in general. During this very important time, it’s to measure the things for policy-makers to have that information to make decisions.

Certainly we have our federal stakeholders, but we also have our provincial, municipal and non-government people who are very interested in understanding how this pandemic is affecting Canadians from the social, economic and health sides. As I said before, we are listening to what people are asking for, and really it’s to see where we’re at with the pandemic right now.

As I mentioned, yes, we need to understand what’s going on with children in the pandemic, and especially now with schools opening, that’s becoming more important. Very early on, when we launched our first crowdsource, there were all kinds of discussions around every university and college going online. What will this do to post-secondary students? We launched a crowdsource where we had over 100,000 students respond to that because we really needed to understand not just how they were coping at the moment, but also, heading into a fall semester, how worried they were about summer employment. Would they be able to go back to school?

Perhaps I’m not answering your question specifically, but it’s consulting and working with our stakeholders to do our best to see what the real pressing emergency is — the thing that we need to ask now that can help make those really important decisions.

We are trying to turn things around very quickly. As I said, at first we were only going to launch a crowdsource every month or something, but because this thing is moving so quickly, we’ve now stepped up to every two weeks. Thankfully, we had already had our web panel tool planned so we were able to react very quickly because right now it’s all about timeliness of data. Our main goal is to get the information as quickly as possible. We can’t answer all questions, but hopefully we’re answering the big, important ones.

The Chair: Thank you for this.

Senator Kutcher: Thank you all for being here. This is a little bit complicated, so pardon me while I go through it a bit. My question is for StatCan and it’s about mental health, an area I know a little bit about.

Getting data on mental health status, using either self-reported opinion about status or the use of generic terms such as “anxiety,” which can mean anything from fear to “I’m upset,” doesn’t help us understand which of the negative emotions people are reporting are actually a sign of good mental health and adaptive to the situation, and which might be pathological or problematic.

For example, your report of April 24 on self-perceived mental health status gives the impression that the mental health status of Canadians is going in a negative direction when what we may actually be seeing is a positive and appropriate response to stressors. That’s a sign of good mental health, not bad mental health.

Your slides, which use the term “anxiety,” don’t help us differentiate between normative and positive responses and actual pathological responses. This is problematic because it doesn’t let us fine-tune the question that Senator Omidvar raised. If we can’t tell which are normative responses and which are pathological, we don’t know which groups suffer more and what interventions we need to make.

Can StatCan use a more fine-gained analytical tool to help us differentiate good, normative and positive mental health responses, using negative emotions, from those which are problematic?

Mr. Gravel: It’s a very good question. Thank you. Neither the web panel nor the crowdsourcing are making the distinction as you are actually articulating. The program at StatCan actually has this opportunity to be able to make the distinction between the mental health well-being of individuals and the disorder or the pathological side through the use of forms or questionnaires that are actually calibrated to measure disorders. This is a population health survey, so it’s not a clinical diagnosis, but we are able to produce profiles that are consistent with the experience of symptoms that are associated with disorders.

The upcoming panel that Karen Mihorean was referring to, which will be published in the coming weeks, does in fact use one of those short forms. It’s called the GAD, or general anxiety disorder, and it does make the distinction between anxiety in general terms versus the pathological aspect. That’s something that will be released as part of the outcome web panel.

On an ongoing basis, we are exploring the use of some of those short-form instruments in different modules or surveys. This would be pertaining to mood disorders and anxiety disorders, and alcohol and substance use and abuse.

Senator Kutcher: Would it be possible for us to chat off-line a little more? One of my concerns about those tools, which I know, is they were normed at times when this was not happening, so they were never developed to be able to assess normative responses to major stressful situations. That’s a huge problem in the tool.

Mr. Gravel: I would love the opportunity to have that chat. Thank you.

[Translation]

Senator Forest-Niesing: I’ll certainly honour my commitment to Senator Griffin. I’ll ask only one question and give the rest of my time to her.

My question concerns the measures implemented to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of ensuring that the people who have the greatest needs receive the benefits promoted. More specifically, and I believe that Ms. Mihorean can respond, my question concerns the data used to count the Indigenous population. I heard you say earlier, in response to another question, that we can locate and subdivide this information by using the postal code. I’m especially interested in knowing whether you take into account members of the Indigenous population who live in urban centres. Are you taking into account the Métis and Inuit populations? In particular, could the method for counting the data result in a segment of the population not benefiting from any emergency measures despite having tremendous needs?

[English]

Ms. Mihorean: I hope I got all the questions. As I said, for the current crowdsource and the one that has just come out of the field for which we’re processing the data now, we did add the indicator on Indigenous, and it is distinction-based, where we’re asking if they’re First Nations, Metis or Inuit. At this point, I can’t tell you how many people will have responded who will identify with either of those groups. We do have about 46,000 Canadians who did respond from across Canada. I can tell you that from a provincial point of view, we have good coverage. We do have some coverage in the territories as well; it’s not that great in Nunavut, but in the other two territories it’s not bad.

We will be able to tell by postal code if people who have identified themselves as Indigenous are in a more urban area as opposed to a rural area. We have the data and we need to see just how good those data are to see what we can do with the analysis. I’m hoping we can, and then I would certainly be happy to share it with the committee.

[Translation]

Senator Forest-Niesing: Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you.

[English]

Senator Griffin: If that’s the last question, I can ask another quick one. We’re sharing here.

The Chair: Absolutely.

Senator Griffin: On May 5, the Prime Minister had announced the investment of $252 million in the agricultural sector, and he did say it was just a beginning because, of course, the Federation of Agriculture had identified the need for $2.6 billion for the industry. This is a question for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada: Which agricultural stakeholders were consulted for the aid package and how were they consulted?

Ms. St. Croix: We have regularly been meeting daily for some time since mid-March with industry stakeholders — between 400 and 500 participants on some occasions — so the dialogue has been ongoing and steady throughout the pandemic. In terms of the CFA request, it was for around $2.6 million in federal farm aid, and as you noted, the $252 million that was announced is part of the support that the sector acquires. As you will have noted, federal, provincial and territorial governments invest close to $1.6 billion annually, on average, in business risk-management programs to help producers remain viable under difficult circumstances, such as the one we’re in currently.

The government is unlocking additional support from its comprehensive suite of business risk-management programs, such as that additional $125 million that was part of the $252 million I related to the national AgriRecovery framework. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada remains attentive to stakeholders and continues to have an ongoing dialogue with stakeholders on various challenges they are facing during this time.

Senator Griffin: Thank you.

Ms. Durand: In terms of the consultations we’ve had with stakeholders, in addition to the calls that Carla was mentioning, we have regular sector-specific calls to understand the situation with each one of those sectors, whether it’s the meat industry or the horticulture industry. I’m in charge of the horticulture sector and we have daily calls to look at their situation. The dialogue we’ve been having with them is really going into more details than what their particular situations are and seeing whether the support that we have in place is meeting the needs of the sector and identifying any gaps. That’s part of our daily work.

Senator Pate: Thank you to the committee, Madam Chair, and to the committee members for allowing us in. My question is for Ms. Bégin, as someone who is working on social and economic well-being.

Given the long-established links that we know exist between health and poverty or health and income, and that public health officials for some time have been calling for a guaranteed basic income — we’ve seen that call during this pandemic, and this is something that a number of senators are also interested in — is there work being done in your department or in other parts of the government with whom you’re consulting to develop options for consideration of basic income, either as the next iteration of CERB or a way to look at addressing issues like we’re facing during this pandemic going forward in the future?

Ms. Bégin: Thank you for the question. What I can say is our role really is to support and provide information to our colleagues who are the policy-makers. In terms of developing an income-support measure, we are not involved in those discussions. However, in terms of well-being, we have been working closely with colleagues from other departments, including Finance, to see what indicators we need to have in order to better measure the well-being of Canadians in one area.

Senator Pate: In terms of the research that you are doing and some of the questions other colleagues have asked, have you been asking this sort of question about the impact of income insecurity and what kinds of measures the Canadian public would like to see going forward as part of your surveys?

Ms. Mihorean: In the crowdsourcing and the web panel, we haven’t asked those opinion-type questions, so we haven’t included those in our survey. All we do at this point is ask about their financial stress. Are they not able to pay for things because of job loss? How worried are they about financial stress? We are asking those types of questions in both the web panel and the crowdsource.

Senator Pate: Is it revealing any gaps in terms of who is getting income or is that not part of the assessment?

Ms. Mihorean: We haven’t looked at it from that angle yet. The challenge with the crowdsource is it’s Canadians who respond, and it’s whoever wants to respond. We push the links out, we publicize them through social media and we try to reach out through organizations to publicize that we’re doing the crowdsourcing. We have age and gender that we do collect and, as I said, postal code. Right now, we know that women are more worried and have more financial stress, for example, so we try and do that type of analysis. But to see what types of measures or supports they would need, we haven’t asked those sorts of questions.

Senator Pate: Thank you very much.

Senator Lankin: My question follows on that, with just one quick comment to StatCan. The kind of information we are anecdotally hearing about Canadians who have applied and not been able to access the support programs is important, and, of course, it helps inform government policy-makers who have added additional patches to the income supports that are there — and I say that in a positive way. It would be helpful if that kind of information was being sought through sources of StatCan, even if it is what people are hearing from others in their social networks about people who have applied and can’t access benefits that they require.

My question builds on that. It’s about the machinery of government. It’s about the interaction between departments and inter-agency communication and how that feeds policy-making.

In particular, with respect to the agricultural industry and the kinds of increases we are seeing in prices of food, whether it’s temporary and whether it’s related to meat or poultry processing plants shutting down or supply and demand pressures on costs or whether it is, as Senator Griffin was talking about, potential disruption of supply chains in trucking and delivery, that might put costs up. We see that starting to happen.

I’m interested how real-time we are in terms of measuring changes in those sorts of things — food costs — and how that is affecting, influencing or being fed to the right departments, like ESDC and Finance, around the support programs.

I think it was just yesterday that the Prime Minister announced support for seniors on OAS or GIS of $300. A number of people asked, “Why would seniors need that?” It’s going to low-income seniors, first of all. We’ve seen increasing costs like monthly prescription fees instead of every three months. We see that seniors may not take public transit anymore to get their groceries, so there are delivery costs. There are a range of other sorts of additional costs like that. At some point in time, if food prices go up, it may be that $300 is not sufficient.

Let me use CERB as an example and say that —

The Chair: Senator, we will need a question.

Senator Lankin: If there is an example where there is pressure on food costs in particular food types, how quickly does that get gathered, measured and communicated to the policy developers who may have to look at whether, in the next iteration of CERB, the amount is sufficient or whether there needs to be an adjustment in that amount?

It’s the machinery of government: what data, how quickly and how is it communicated? Are you seeing government being able to respond to that kind of data and information in a way that’s going to get supports to Canadians who are in dire straits? Thank you.

The Chair: Do we have someone to take that question?

Ms. Mihorean: Josée, did you want to start by just talking about survey household spending or the market basket measure, and then I can jump in on some of the stuff we have done?

Ms. Bégin: Yes. Thank you for the question. You were referring, senator, to food costs. Every month we measure the Consumer Price Index, and there’s a food basket component to that. I believe that my colleagues from the economic statistics sector have published that information very recently. That’s gathered on a monthly basis. We also collect additional information in terms of the spending patterns of Canadians. That information is collected on an annual basis.

We also collect the market basket measure with our Canadian Income Survey so that we can develop the official poverty lines in Canada. That information was published recently, in February.

Ms. Mihorean: On our web panel, where we will be able to generalize to the population our findings — because it is a probabilistic sample — we have our food insecurity question. So there we’re specifically asking if they did not have enough money to put nutritious food on the table, et cetera. We’ll be able to get a real sense of how much Canadians are struggling with purchasing food or having to use food banks and other community-type services.

At one point, senator, you mentioned something about the various support measures that the government has put in place. There is a really interesting piece that we can do with the crowdsourcing, for example. We started the post-secondary student crowdsourcing before the government had announced the student aid. When you look at the responses of the week before on how worried students were about their financial security and whether they were going to run through all their savings or be able to go back to school, once the government announced the student aid, you noticed a shift. Although students were still worried, it wasn’t as great, so we could see in the timing of the introduction of that measure that students were feeling somewhat better or a little less worried.

As we move through with crowdsources and as some of these measures are announced, we can look at periods of how behaviours and feelings of Canadians have shifted.

The Chair: Thank you very much. We do have some time for a second round of brief questions. Senator Omidvar, I think you had a question that was not fully answered in the first round.

Senator Omidvar: Thank you, chair. That’s very generous of you. My question has been asked. It was around a report from the union representing the food inspectors at CFIA that 40 have been infected by the virus, 18 of them in Alberta.

Can you confirm these numbers? And what assurance can you give us that the people who are inspecting the food supply are safe so that the food supply itself is safe?

Ms. Iuliano: Thank you very much for your question, senator. I’ll start with the second half of it.

In terms of assurances, all establishments that produce food are required to have and implement COVID-19 response plans. These plans include cleaning and sanitizing protocols, social distancing measures, and barriers and face masks where social distancing is more difficult.

Our CFIA staff equally follow these measures. We have provided guidance and instructions to our staff relating to prevention and wellness. They’re instructed to self-monitor their own condition on a daily basis before reporting to work. At the same time, we’ve also provided specific guidance and instructions that we’ve posted online to each slaughter and processing establishment across the country about the protocols they have to put in place when suspected and confirmed cases of the virus are reported among the plant’s employees.

We report positive cases of illness, and as of May 11, we’re reporting 38 positive cases in CFIA employees. I note that we have about 6,000 employees across the country.

Senator Omidvar: Thank you.

Senator Poirier: I have another line of questions for Statistics Canada.

We all know that a unique aspect of COVID-19 for Canadians has been a loss of work hours, and many Canadians who have worked in many different jobs are still considered employed but their hours have decreased.

How difficult is it for you to produce an accurate labour survey with CERB instead of EI where we have Canadians still employed but who have lost many hours of work? And on hours worked, could you share with us the impact of the lost hours for Canadian families in the economy since mid-March and if this trend continues?

We’ve also learned this week that the government will not pursue false CERB and EI claims during the pandemic. How important is that for the accuracy of your data to have these false claims dealt with in a timely manner?

Ms. Bégin: Thank you for the question. In the Labour Force Survey for April we asked our respondents whether they had applied to the EI/CERB benefit. I would be able to provide additional information for you in terms of tables on that.

The purpose of those questions was not to measure the number of applicants to these benefits but to understand the dynamics of families: who is applying, what kinds of jobs they had, what age groups they were in, and men versus women. We have that information, and I could share that with the committee. I could also provide additional information in the form of tables for the number of hours worked and in which industries we find those.

Senator Poirier: Thank you.

The Chair: Please connect with our clerk to make sure that we get those documents. That would be appreciated.

Senator Munson: There has been so much information today. I’m still trying to figure out the lead. It’s fascinating.

On May 5, the government announced its intention to work with Parliament to increase the Canadian Dairy Commission’s borrowing limit by $200 million to support costs associated with the temporary storage of cheese and butter to avoid food waste.

I have three quick questions. What quantity of milk and milk products are at risk of being dumped? How much more butter and milk can be stored with the additional borrowing limit of $200 million? And how will the government ensure adequate processing capacity to process milk into cheese and butter when processing plants may have lower production capacity as a result of physical distancing and disinfection protocols? We heard that worry about dumping.

Ms. St. Croix: Thank you for your question. In terms of milk discarded across Canada, between the last week of March and mid-April roughly less than 30 million litres of raw milk has been discarded. While surpluses do remain, since mid-April raw milk is no longer being discarded. This is the result of reduced production, a slight increase in consumer demand, additional donations to food banks and the CDC’s purchases of butter and cheese.

That additional borrowing capacity of $200 million would significantly increase the ability of the Canadian Dairy Commission to purchase butter and cheese to alleviate dumping. For example, for every $10 million of borrowing capacity, the CDC will be able to purchase 1,200 tonnes of cheese equalling approximately a reduction of 7.7 million litres of surplus milk. The CDC’s cheese program was launched on April 17 and will cease once the issue of surplus raw milk is resolved.

Senator Munson: I know it’s difficult for you to answer the question, but do you think the government is going to have to spend more money?

Ms. St. Croix: I think you kind of nailed it on the head. It’s difficult for me to answer that question.

Senator Munson: Thank you very much.

[Translation]

Senator Forest-Niesing: My question concerns the impact of the pandemic on the food chain in Canada. Have the agriculture and food authorities in the Canadian government learned any lessons from the impact of the pandemic? If so, what lessons? If not, is there a plan to conduct a post-mortem analysis to possibly aim for greater self-sufficiency?

Ms. Durand: Thank you for the question. As a result of the pandemic, we’ve identified vulnerabilities in the food chain. Earlier, we discussed the workforce issue. Some industries, such as horticulture, depend on labour, and we’re taking note of this. We’ve also started to think about the post-COVID-19 period and about what we must do to support our industry over the longer term, by ensuring the food supply and improving that capacity. We’re considering measures that may be beneficial in this area.

There have been some issues with the food chain, especially with respect to the workforce. I must say that the transportation, import and export components constitute one of the food chain’s strengths. At this time, there’s no interruption, which is good news. However, we’re continuing to closely monitor the situation.

We’ve also seen some vulnerability in the food supply chain at the retail level. Products are supplied on a day-to-day basis, and it’s somewhat difficult to adjust to sudden changes in demand. Over the coming weeks and months, we must pay attention to this aspect to determine how we can work with the industry to better adjust to this reality.

Aside from some difficulties with certain products that can be kept for a long time, in terms of supply at the retail level, I believe that, in general, the population has been able to feed itself properly. We don’t anticipate any supply issues in the coming weeks, which is good news overall.

[English]

The Chair: We are just about to run out of time for the meeting, but Senator Dasko, I see you have your hand raised. If you can make your question brief, it would be appreciated.

Senator Dasko: Yes, I’ll make my question very quick.

This is a question about the unemployment data from Statistics Canada. Tell me if I’ve understood this correctly: In the first round of unemployment numbers, women had experienced much more unemployment than men. In the second round from April, I understand that has changed a bit. If you look at the unemployment numbers overall from March through April, what would you conclude in terms of the gender difference? Thank you.

Ms. Bégin: You are correct. While women accounted for a disproportionate share of job losses in March, declines in April were larger among men, resulting in a narrowing of the gender gap in cumulative employment losses. Among the total population aged 15 and older, employment losses from February to April totalled 1,537,000 for women and 1,468,000 for men. I also have some breakdowns by age group for men and women, and if you are interested I could provide that after the committee meeting.

Senator Dasko: Thank you very much.

Senator Kutcher: Thank you. This is for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. We have learned a lot about the need for Canadians in the labour market and the agriculture and agri-food sector. What things have we learned from this COVID-19 that we can put into place to make employment much more attractive to Canadians in that sector?

Ms. St. Croix: Maybe I can try to answer that very complicated question, and then see if my colleague Nathalie would like to add anything.

To me, I think some of the initiatives that are under way right now, such as the Step up to the plate campaign that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has launched, as well as some of the campaigns that our provincial and territorial counterparts have launched, are ways to get people excited about working in the agriculture sector. It is a very exciting place to work. It certainly is a pandemic that is going on, but I think the more people learn about the agriculture sector, heightened awareness around it and the potential that exists is a good thing from these sorts of campaigns.

Ms. Durand: We’ll continue to work with the industry and with colleges, universities and others to identify where the needs are and what other initiatives can be undertaken to help. As I was indicating earlier, in terms of the dependency on labour, we are also looking at other adjustments within farms and plants that can help to reduce some of our reliance on labour. Thank you.

[Translation]

The Chair: I want to thank our witnesses for taking the time to appear today to help us start our work on this study.

[English]

It is very much appreciated.

On this, is it agreed, honourable senators, that we now move in camera to discuss future business? All those in favour, please raise your hand in response and keep your hand raised for 10 seconds.

Senator Dasko: What is the question, Madam Chair?

The Chair: The question is: Is it agreed that we now proceed in camera to discuss further business? All those opposed? All those who abstain? It is then agreed. Please wait until the clerk advises that the committee is in camera. Again, many thanks to our witnesses.

(The committee continued in camera.)