You wouldn't take Terence Young for a radical. The silver-haired Conservative MP looks like he could be a local TV news anchor. He was first elected, to Ontario's legislature, almost 20 years ago. But in Ottawa for five years, he's had to smooth over his zeal.
"The death of my daughter radicalized me," Mr. Young said in his Parliament Hill office.
Mr. Young's daughter, Vanessa, was 15 when she died from a heart attack in 2000, a reaction to the prescription drug Prepulsid. It was a tragedy her parents never thought possible with a drug they thought harmless. Vanessa had a mild form of bulimia, and was prescribed Prepulsid, a heartburn drug they viewed as a sort of "super-Rolaids," Mr. Young said. No doctor told them of the risks, buried in drug-company labels, though 80 other people had already died.
That transformed him into a prescription-drug consumer advocate, demanding clearer warnings, requirements for hospitals and clinics to report adverse reactions to medications that kill thousands every year, and stiffer penalties for drug companies that cover up the dangers. Since the 2008 election, he's been cornering ministers and MPs. In December, much of that agenda was placed in a new government bill, subtitled Vanessa's law.
Mr. Young is not the only backbench MP to come to Ottawa with a mission. Several others were motivated by the death of a family member. The late Chuck Cadman, a ponytailed former rock guitarist, was propelled into Reform Party politics by the 1992 murder of his teenage son Jesse, hoping to toughen youth-justice laws.
But in this Parliament, Mr. Young can be seen as a symbol of a backbencher driving an agenda. That's no small thing: Stephen Harper is a famously controlling prime minister. For decades, PMs have centralized power at the expense of ordinary MPs. Just a few days before Vanessa's law was tabled, another Conservative backbencher, Michael Chong, created a buzz by tabling a private member's bill designed to curtail a leader's power and boost the influence of backbenchers.
Mr. Young didn't take a rebel route. Vanessa's law is a government bill, presented by Health Minister Rona Ambrose. That's a success: it almost guarantees it will pass.
It should be an example for a weakened Mr. Harper, who needs his MPs to feel their agendas can be advanced. More importantly, it's an example for parliamentary democracy, one that complements Mr. Chong's attempts to reform. The point of reforms is to make it possible for more elected representatives to influence policy. But it still requires MPs with drive.
Mr. Young has had drive. When he came to Ottawa in 2008, he figured it would be quick and easy to change things. He told other MPs of the danger, that a U.S. study had found 106,000 people a year died in hospitals from reactions to drugs taken as prescribed – suggesting the number in Canada would be about 10,000 – the fourth-biggest cause of death in North America. He told them pharmaceutical companies make big money by pushing new drugs to as many patients as possible as fast as possible, downplaying warnings in long-winded notices. Reports of adverse effects trickle in. Nobody published figures for the number who died.
His colleagues would nod. "And I realize, 'holy shit, I've lost them. I've done it again,' " he said. "They think, 'this guy's lost his mind. He's grieving for his daughter, he's lost his objectivity,' And they stop listening. So I learned to temper my statements, and give it to them one thing at a time."
He wrote a 2009 book, Death by Prescription, and gave it to MPs. Those who read it were won over, he said, but of course, not all busy politicians did. He won over one MP by identifying his arthritis medication by his limp, he said. But he made headway.
Mr. Young's blunt language does sound radical at times. He calls common pharmaceutical industry practices "utterly corrupt."
But his pressure for stronger warnings helped bring regulations on plain-language labelling last year. Vanessa's law will allow Health Canada to order drugs off the market sooner, raise penalties for companies that keep unsafe drugs on the market from $5,000 a day to $5-million, and call for jail time in criminal negligence cases. It will, for the first time, require hospitals and clinics will have to report adverse reactions to drugs. That's critical because even if a drug repeatedly causes liver damage or heart failure, it's rarely reported to authorities – so it can take years to realize the risks.
"That's a fantastic early-warning system," Mr. Young said. "For example, a new drug is on the market, and all of a sudden they're doing a body count – but instead of waiting years to get the numbers, they'll be getting them within a month."
It's not every measure that Mr. Young wants, but it is a big chunk of the agenda, he said. It's a rare win for a backbencher, pushing a radical's campaign through Parliament.
Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.