‘Yahoo!’: Calgary MP’s organ donor bill gets second life in new year

Conservative Len Webber thought he’d spend his winter lobbying fellow MPs for help with reviving a private member’s bill that nearly became law in the last Parliament.

Instead, luck (or maybe more than luck) smiled on him, and now he’s guaranteed debate time for his organ donation bill this February.

The Calgary MP arrived late to the Dec. 11 lottery that determined the “order of precedence” for private members’ business in the 43rd Parliament. (With many more MPs than there are hours in the parliamentary calendar, the luck of the draw decides which backbench MPs are allocated time for debate on their personal bills and motions.)

“We went in with the focus on going after an individual who did draw high to try to negotiate a trade,” Webber said. MPs are allowed to swap placement on the order of precedence for strategic or charitable reasons. Webber intended to plead his case with colleagues who didn’t already have their minds made up on how to use their time.

“When we went in there and I saw my name up on that list as number one… I literally yelled out, ‘Yahoo!’ Like we do in Calgary during the Stampede,” he said. (His elated outburst interrupted the draw, he said, not sounding terribly sorry.)

The story of Webber’s bill is playing out a bit like a script for a Hallmark Christmas movie.

It’s simple legislation to fix a stubborn problem: Canada’s relatively low rate of organ donation.

Webber’s office cites research that suggests that while 90 per cent of Canadians say they support organ donation, only about one in four or five Canadians have signed up with their provincial or territorial registries. Without more donors — including donors from diverse ethnic groups — patients die before transplant matches become available.

Webber’s bill would make it easier to register by adding the option to the bottom of the federal tax return, similar to the question there now that seeks consent to update Elections Canada’s voters list with the tax filer’s current address.

Liberal Pam Damoff (left) and New Democrat Gord Johns (right) were among the MPs offering cross-party support for Webber’s bill in the last Parliament. (Len Webber/submitted)

The House of Commons recognized a good idea when it saw one. With all-party support, the bill breezed through all its stages and passed late in 2018.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau got on board too, taking the unusual step of putting $4 million in that fall’s economic statement so that the Canada Revenue Agency could get to work on implementing the proposal as soon as it became law.

Time runs out in Senate

But then it didn’t become law.

Webber’s bill was one of several that failed to clear the Senate before the last election — casualties of a tight calendar and partisan gamesmanship that saw some bills prioritized over others.

Relatively few private members’ bills succeed. At a holiday reception for his Calgary constituents last month, Webber confessed that he thought his bill was done — he’d missed his shot.

It was back to the drawing board in the new Parliament. Back to the lottery.

But then came the happiest possible outcome: Webber’s bill got the top slot for the very first hour of debate once private member’s business begins in late February.

“The bill is about giving people who require a life-saving organ a second chance and this drawing has given my bill a second chance of life, too,” he said.

“I believe that there’s a God up there, and even more so now.”

Webber was inspired to become an advocate for organ and tissue donation after his wife Heather, right, said shortly before her death that she regretted not being able to donate her organs. (Len Webber/submitted)

Webber’s commitment to this cause began after his wife passed away from cancer in 2010. 

“One of the last things she really said to me was that she regretted the fact that she could not donate her organs,” he said. “I said, ‘I will do what I can do to help that cause.'”

Webber’s wife Heather (centre), seen here with his three daughters, died in 2010 following a breast cancer diagnosis. (Len Webber/submitted)

As a MLA in Alberta’s legislature, he championed a bill to establish that province’s donor registry in 2013.

Along the way he formed a bond with Robert Sallows, a young man from Red Deer, Alta. who received a double lung transplant at 17. Sallows died only a week before Webber’s first bill passed in the House of Commons; he willed the MP the gold medal he won in the Canadian Transplant Games.

Webber met double lung transplant recipient and athlete Robert Sallows (right) while working to establish Alberta’s organ and tissue donor registry. (Len Webber/submitted)

Expecting that the draw might not go his way, Webber was already talking to senators to find someone to introduce his bill in the Senate.

That’s no longer necessary. Assuming the new House of Commons again endorses Webber’s bill overwhelmingly, he said, he’s hoping a critical mass of senators will support prioritizing it for passage this time.

Community safety, pharmacare among other plans

Other MPs who pulled top slots in the private member’s lottery are less certain about their plans.

Conservative Bob Saroya from Markham, Ont., who pulled the second slot, told CBC News this was a “huge opportunity” to make a “practical change” to address issues of community safety, a longtime passion of his.

“My constituents have made it very clear to me that they want action taken to stop the rise in crime. I heard it at the doors during the election,” he said. “Over the next two months I will be meeting with my constituents, law enforcement and other stakeholders to see what changes they would like to see made.”

The newly-expanded Bloc Québécois caucus pulled four spots in the first round, including the third and fourth timeslots.

Party spokesperson Joanie Riopel said neither Gabriel Ste-Marie nor Kristina Michaud, the top two BQ MPs in the draw, were available for interviews and the party will reveal how they’ll use their slots “in due time.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh promised his party’s first bill would implement a “framework for a national pharmacare program.” The NDP can only introduce bills through private members’ business.

The top New Democrat in the lottery was Peter Julian. He declined to discuss his plans with CBC News. Another New Democrat, Alistair MacGregor, also has a slot this spring.

Read the full order of precedence on the parliamentary website. Note: MPs named as cabinet ministers, Speakers or parliamentary secretaries are not eligible to introduce bills or motions as private member’s business.

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