New Democrat MP Charlie Angus Register file photo.

Put words in action

  • June 11, 2014

Seldom does the House of Commons speak as one voice. So Parliament’s recent near-unanimous support of a motion to make palliative care a national priority was encouraging and welcomed. Yet the roar will quickly fade to a whisper without sincere government action to turn this rare cross-party unanimity into meaningful legislation. 

The non-binding motion to form a pan-Canadian strategy on palliative care was drafted by New Democrat MP Charlie Angus. Bravo. He quite rightly believes that, as the population ages and the nation’s medical system becomes more stressed, there is an urgent need for Canadians to discuss dying. 

Step one was getting the nation’s attention with his motion, passed May 28, calling for a coherent, national palliative care and end-of-life strategy. That was the easy part. Now the real work begins by, as Angus puts it, urging voters “to hold the government’s feet to the fire to make sure it follows through.” 

This issue touches everyone and warrants prompt attention. Our society is aging, the nuclear family is in decline and the health-care system is struggling to keep up. The demand for hospice and palliative care has never been greater and it’s growing. Yet 70 per cent or more of Canadians have no access to end-of-life care services. 

This vacuum is being filled by a disturbing clamour for euthanasia and assisted suicide. Conservative MP Steven Fletcher has introduced two private-member’s bills that advocate physician-assisted suicide. In October, the Supreme Court will hear an appeal on a B.C. case to legalize assisted death. But, most unsettling, on June 5 Quebec became Canada’s first jurisdiction to pass legislation to permit euthanasia. Under specific circumstances, Quebec doctors now have a government blessing to kill consenting patients. 

This law, cynically dressed up as health care, marks a tragic turn in Canadian history that must be reversed by a federal government intervention to enforce Criminal Code provisions that outlaw euthanasia and assisted suicide. Despite what Quebec argues, killing people is never health care. It’s a callous denial of even rudimentary care. 

In a caring society, the proper response to people nearing death is to provide them and their families with medical, financial, emotional and spiritual support to allow the terminally ill to reach a natural death in dignity. Providing home- or hospice-based palliative care is a fundamental obligation of society. It is what Angus proposed and Parliament unequivocally endorsed. 

Yet, since 2006, the government has invested just $46 million, a relative pittance, into palliative care research and training. That is less than 20-cents per year for each Canadian. We must do better. 

The Angus motion can be that first step to real progress. There is a rare consensus to act. To squander it would be tragic.

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