Pandemic Observance Day Bill

Second Reading--Debate Adjourned

November 30, 2021


Hon. Marie-Françoise Mégie

Moved second reading of Bill S-209, An Act respecting Pandemic Observance Day.

She said: Honourable senators, I rise today to begin second reading of Bill S-209, An Act respecting Pandemic Observance Day.

Philosopher George Santayana wrote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” He is essentially saying that if our world is to move forward, it must learn from and remember the past. We must learn from this pandemic to avoid repeating the same mistakes with another future pandemic or with any coronavirus variants that may yet emerge.

March 11 was chosen because March 11, 2020, was the date on which the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. As everyone knows, memories can fade, and establishing a pandemic day responds to the twenty-seventh recommendation of the Québec Ombudsman’s special report on COVID-19 in long-term care homes, which was released last week.

The recommendation states the following:

Propose that there be an annual day of commemoration for the COVID-19 victims and those who worked with them directly or indirectly, in order to remember what they went through during the first wave of the pandemic and the suffering and loss experienced by these sorely affected people.

It is normal for memories to fade over time, which is why Bill S-209 is necessary.

The Québec Ombudsperson entitled her report Identify the causes of the crisis, act, remember. Why commemorate the pandemic anyway?

I see three reasons: the duty to remember, the duty to get through it, and the duty to be prepared for a future pandemic. Our first duty is to remember. Many health care workers in Canada died because of COVID-19.

The Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions has recorded many cases, some of which remain anonymous.

I would like to talk about some of those cases. They are the people who stepped up to help during the pandemic and who did so at the cost of their lives.

Dr. Huy Hao Dao was the first health care worker to die of COVID-19 in Quebec. Dr. Dao was a professor and researcher in the department of community health sciences at the Université de Sherbrooke. One of his achievements was obtaining a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for a project to detect opioids in order to “prevent overdoses in people who consume drugs alone at home.” He also supported colleagues working on epidemiological studies to track where people who tested positive for coronavirus contracted it. That’s when the disease took his life. He was 44 years old.

Marcelin François was a father who had recently arrived in Canada with his wife and children via Roxham Road. He was a machine operator in the textile industry through the week and a personal support worker on Saturday and Sunday. He was “dragged” to various seniors’ residences by his “agency.” He died from COVID-19 in April 2020 at the age of 40. La Presse columnist Yves Boisvert wrote the following about Mr. François:

He does not appear on any official lists, since he was neither a government employee nor a union worker. Nor anything else. Although I should say, “pending status”. . . .

In the meantime, they were denied refugee status. When you only seek refuge from misery, you are not a refugee under the law.

Victoria Salvan, who immigrated from the Philippines in the 1980s, had two children and had been working as a personal support worker for over 25 years. She died of COVID-19. She was 64 years old.

Yassin Dabeh was a housekeeping attendant at a long-term care home in London, Ontario. A Syrian refugee who came to Canada in 2016 with his entire family, he died in January 2021 after testing positive for COVID-19. He was 19 years old.

Honourable senators, these individuals who died helping to care for or save the lives of others who were ill from COVID-19 were working on the front lines. They are called “essential workers” or “guardian angels,” an expression our politicians often use to refer to them.

In contrast, other workers, such as security guards, remain an anonymous group that are not really regarded as “guardian angels.” They have not received the same treatment in their immigration cases. It is important to note that people in those jobs are often racialized individuals. They can be found on the front lines, at the entrances to stores, hospitals, long-term care facilities, COVID-19 testing sites and so on. They are taking care to enforce health guidelines to protect the public and contain the virus. Some of these people are verbally and sometimes even physically abused as they work to keep us safe.

We are also thinking about the truck drivers and the delivery people, who work in a sector that has seen marked growth with the rise in home delivery. They are far too often underpaid and undervalued.

In addition to workers, our duty to remember also extends to seniors who were hard hit by the virus in private and public seniors residences, as well as in long-term care centres. These seniors often died far from their loved ones, who were unable to be by their side as they took their last breath.

Given the current COVID-19 numbers in Canada, we can assume that everyone knows someone who has died from the virus. Many people in my office have also recently lost loved ones, either a mother, a grandfather, a grandmother or an uncle from the ravages of this disease.

Closer to home, in this chamber, Senator Josée Forest-Niesing, our late colleague, fought COVID-19 before returning home. I want to express my condolences to her family and her staff.

This pandemic has prevented many from carrying out the rituals of grieving. Far too many people have not mourned their losses. The grieving process, set aside by many, will take time to heal.

Our second duty is to get through this pandemic. With the sudden arrival of the new Delta and Omicron variants, we can see just how much our daily life continues to be far from normal. Until we manage to immunize the vast majority of people on the planet, it will be difficult to overcome this pandemic.

Given the new concerns over variants, there is only one way to emerge from this pandemic, and that is by doing so together. We must ensure that vaccination is accessible in all countries. This will help us combat the variants, restrict their transmission and reduce the rates of hospitalization and death.

Finally, our third duty is to draw lessons from this experience in order to be better prepared for a possible future pandemic.

The pandemic of 1918, known as the Spanish flu, caused the death of 50 million people around the world. That pandemic led to the creation of Health Canada. It is one example of the measures that helped ensure better health for Canadians. We must learn from the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that we put the right measures in place or change the current system to save more lives and keep people healthy.

Honourable senators, I opted for the legislative approach in introducing this bill. I wanted to ensure that the subject would move forward in both chambers and that we would be able to reach a consensus quickly in order to designate March 11 as pandemic observance day.

In closing, you are familiar with the motto of Quebec, which is attributed to the architect of the National Assembly, Eugène-Étienne Taché: “Je me souviens.” That motto is very relevant today. In the words of former Quebec minister Thomas Chapais:

This motto has only three words, Je me souviens, yet in their simple brevity, these three words rival the most eloquent of speeches. Yes, we remember. We remember the past and its lessons, the past and its misfortunes, the past and its glory.

It is my hope, for the generations of today and tomorrow, that March 11 becomes a time to reflect on the impacts of the pandemic, on how to manage and prevent pandemics, as well as to remember those who have cared for and protected us and all those who have died. Thank you.

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