Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto speaks alongside other Canadian religious leaders during an April 19 news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario. The group, representing Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities, held a joint news conference to express their "grave concern" over the decriminalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia. CNS photo/Art Babych

When it comes to Bill C-14, time is not on our side

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • May 11, 2016

It is possible that Canada’s Minister of Justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould, has a sense of humour or a real flair for irony, but odds are she meant what she said as the Liberal Government invoked time closure on May 4 and shut down debate on the assisted dying legislation.

“We need to ensure that this discussion continues in committee,” she told the House of Commons. “We need to ensure that the discussion continues in and around the kitchen tables of this country. This is a paradigm shift. This is an important subject that we need to ensure continues to be at the height of our political debate.”

The Liberals then voted to stop debate over the legislation a mere two parliamentary days after it had started. During debate a number of themes became clear. The most striking, made even more so by the decision to shut down debate, was the question of time. Many critics raised the issue how little time there was to consider such a fundamental change in Canadian culture, in Canada’s laws.

A number of MPs echoed the call of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops demanding, at times pleading with, the government to invoke the notwithstanding clause of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to put the February 2015 ruling of the Supreme Court on hold for five years. One of the strongest pleas came from Conservative MP Gerard Deltell. He told the house about being a member of Quebec’s National Assembly where the members studied and debated the question for more than six years and the idea that the Commons could do it in mere weeks was an untenable proposition.

Conservative Harold Albrecht told the House that the lack of time for deliberation has been a problem all along. He was part of the Special Joint Committee that heard representations and presented the government with a series of proposals. He said time was so pressing there that they could not hear from the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, L’ Arche Canada, and Living with Dignity or even Balfour Mount, this country’s leading authority on palliative care.

“We are under a very strict timeline in terms of debate,” Albrecht said. “The justice committee itself will be under an extremely short timeline. It is clear to me that we do not have adequate time to give this serious topic the serious consideration it really needs.”

On the other side, even the most strident supporters of the right to die argued that Parliament had no choice but to have a law in place by June 6 as per the ruling of the Supreme Court.

If time for talk, debate and reflection was a pressing and recurring theme, so too was the question of palliative care, or actually the lack of palliative care, available for Canadians. NDP MP Charlie Angus was most insistent and vocal about the very critical lack of palliative care across the country and the real role that palliative care can play as an alternative to medically assisted dying. The logic is compelling. If there is no choice available to a terminally ill individual other than doctor-assisted suicide then the “choice” being discussed is non-existent.

Angus and a number of other MPs, including Liberals, worried aloud about how the government kept talking about $3 billion in new palliative care money but how none of that money had yet been allocated or budgeted. Again, the nature of this part of the debate echoed Church voices in insisting that palliative care was the real pressing issue.

For those committed to implementing the Supreme Court’s decision, the palliative care discussions took on the air of bromides, with MPs insisting that of course palliative care was essential and the Trudeau government was committed to it, but this legislation was about the right to die.

A similar split was evident in one of the other major themes of the debate: conscience protection for health workers. Critics of the bill noted that there is no mention in the legislation allowing for doctors, nurses, pharmacists and others to choose not to participate in an assisted suicide. Supporters of the legislation argued repeatedly that at the moment the concern was amending the criminal code so as to allow for assisted dying and that regulating health care workers was a provincial responsibility. In response to members worried about how these conscience rights will be protected, Liberal MP Pam Damoff insisted that, “This is the start of the conversation, not the end of the conversation.”

The idea that the conversation doesn’t end with the legislation was at the heart of much of the debate over safeguards to protect the vulnerable, a key consideration in the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision. In an odd twist, the most critical voices on the question of safeguards came from members who support the legislation but think it is too conservative in two areas: denying advance directives for people wishing to arrange for an assisted suicide down the road, and restricting assisted suicide to competent adults as opposed to opening the potential to mature minors or the mentally ill.

The Justice Committee will now consider the legislation and send the bill and any proposed amendments back to the House for a final vote. Be prepared for the process to move quickly to meet the June 6 deadline. That means a law passed by the House of Commons, passed by the Senate and signed by the Governor General.

(Kavanagh is a freelance writer in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.)

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