An undated photo of the Canadian Senate chamber. The senate voted on June 9 to get rid of certain criteria to make assisted suicide more accessible. Photo/Courtesy of Mightydrake, Wikimedia Commons

Senate amends Bill C-14 to make assisted suicide more accessible

  • June 9, 2016

OTTAWA – A majority of Canada’s Senators, concerned Bill C-14 is unconstitutional, voted June 9 to get rid of the requirement death must be reasonably foreseeable to be eligible for assisted suicide.

They did so despite pleas from two Senators to consider the message Parliament is sending to youth in Attawapiskat and Woodstock, Ont., as these communities and others experience a suicide crisis among young people.

“We will be sending the wrong message to our youth when this is opened up — that anybody who has particular issues intolerable to them in their circumstances can be killed or can die,” warned Conservative Senator Tobias Enverga.

“What do we tell the people of Woodstock, Ont., where five young people under the age of 19 committed suicide in the last month?” asked Senator Terry Mercer. “Also, 36 people in Oxford County in Ontario also attempted suicide in the last month or so. What do we tell those families?”

The amendment, proposed by Senator Serge Joyal, removes the subsection of Bill C-14 under the heading “grievous and irremediable medical condition” that would restrict access to an assisted death to those with a “serious and incurable illness, disease or disability,” who are in an “advanced state of irreversible decline in capability” that causes them “enduring physical or psychological suffering that is intolerable to them” and whose “natural death has become reasonably foreseeable.”

Constitutional lawyer Gerald Chipeur, who appeared as a witness before the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee, has argued restricting access to those whose death is foreseeable is one of the most important safeguards for protecting vulnerable people.

The Senators in favour of the amendment pointed out legal and constitutional expert Peter Hogg had said the bill as it stood is unconstitutional because it narrows the eligibility criteria the Supreme Court of Canada allowed in its Carter decision. 

The Minister of Justice and several other constitutional experts, including new Senator Murray Sinclair, a former Manitoba Justice, have argued, however, the bill is constitutional. The amendment would also throw the constitutionality of the Quebec euthanasia legislation in doubt, because it restricts access to euthanasia to those who are terminally ill. Even without the amendment, Quebec’s Health Minister Dr. Gaetan Barrette has said he does not support Bill C-14 because it is broader than the Quebec bill even without the amendment.

In moving his amendment, Joyal said it is linked to another set of amendments to be proposed by Conservative Senator Claude Carignan to add additional safeguards for those not at end of life to protect vulnerable persons.

Carignan is expected to propose an amendment to add an additional requirement of a judicial review for all assisted death requests from people who are not terminally ill. A prior judicial review is one of the safeguards groups advocating for the rights of the disabled have put forward.

The amendment to remove death is reasonably foreseeable as a condition is unlikely to be accepted by the Liberal government. The government’s representative in the Senate, Senator Peter Harder, warned Senators before the vote the amendment “in some measure largely guts the bill.”

He stressed “the ministry and the Attorney General of Canada have given assurances, both in this chamber and elsewhere, that the bill is Charter-compliant.”

Earlier in the day, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told journalists the government had worked hard to find the right balance between “recognizing personal autonomy and protecting the vulnerable.”

“If we were to consider removing reasonable foreseeability, that would broaden the regime, the balance that we have struck, that we’re confident is the best approach right now in this country in terms of medical assistance in dying, would need to be reconsidered,” she said.

She did, however, leave open the possibility access to assisted suicide and euthanasia could be broadened in the coming years. 

“This is going to be a discussion that goes on for years to come, a necessary discussion, but the balance that we’ve fought for and sought so concertedly and comprehensively is reflected in Bill C-14,” she said.

The Senators also debated how far they could go in challenging legislation put forward by the elected representatives in the House of Commons and what solutions might be possible should the Senate and the House of Commons reach an impasse.

Debate on amendments is expected to continue at least into the week of June 13.

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