The Irene Thomas Hospice in Delta, B.C. Photo by Agnieszka Ruck

End appears near for B.C. hospice

By  AGNIESZKA RUCK, Canadian Catholic News
  • January 13, 2021

VANCOUVER -- The Delta Hospice Society has been forced to issue layoff notices to clinical staff at its 10-bed hospice in Delta, B.C., effective Feb. 25, as the B.C. government moves to take over the hospice due to its opposition to on-site euthanasia.

“We have been left no other choice due to the Fraser Health Authority cancelling our service agreement and 35-year lease,” society president Angelina Ireland said in a statement Jan. 8.

“Fraser Health is about to evict us and expropriate approximately $15 million of our assets simply because we decline to euthanize our patients.”

The society has been fighting an uphill battle since last February, when the Fraser Health Authority announced it was cancelling the society’s lease and terminating contracts effective February 2021 due to its unwillingness to support assisted suicide at its Irene Thomas Hospice. That led to legal battles and protests as the society has tried to maintain its position that assisted suicide is contrary to hospice care and the mission the hospice was founded on nearly 30 years ago.

Ireland said health and government officials have refused offers to negotiate.

“They want us to give everything over to them voluntarily ... just give them everything, be quiet and go away.”

“This is a situation where I very clearly see that the B.C. government policy discriminates against people who want to be cared for in a euthanasia-free environment,” said Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.

Late last year The B.C. Catholic reported the hospice was considering a Supreme Court of Canada appeal, saying the society is being “mistakenly” treated as a public institution rather than a private one. Ireland wasn’t immediately available to provide an update, but said in a video message Jan. 7 the controversy won’t end when the lease does. The society has launched Save Delta Hospice and plans to lobby legislators to ensure some hospices remain euthanasia-free zones.

“We are a society that has gone national in our quest for hospice sanctuary and safe spaces in this country,” she said. “The fight is not over. The fight has just begun.”

The society has support from some top voices in palliative care in B.C. and Ontario. Dr. Margaret Cottle, a Vancouver palliative care physician for more than three decades, said forcing assisted suicide into hospices undoes the legacy of physicians who pioneered palliative care through its early years.

“We spent a lot of time talking to patients, talking to our colleagues, saying ‘We are not Dr. Death. Palliative care does not hasten or prolong natural death,’ ” said Cottle.

She said hospices exist to help people live well and symptom-free until natural death.

Dr. Neil Hilliard, a palliative care physician in Abbotsford,  B.C., said he resigned as palliative care program director with Fraser Health in 2017 over the issue of requiring hospices to provide assisted suicide.

“We know that only five per cent, at most, of Canadians wish for medical assistance in dying,” Hilliard said. “It makes me wonder why the province of B.C. has taken this particular action of forcing a hospice against their principles to provide physician-hastened death.”

Dr. Rene Leiva, a family physician in Ottawa, said institutions across Canada are allowed to practise under their own ethical principles. For B.C. to impose its own values on unwilling hospices “is very unusual for a government to do … it is, in fact, totalitarian.”

He said the government is failing to provide a “reasonable accommodation,” especially since assisted suicide is available at the Delta Hospital next door.

Vancouver family physician Dr. Williard Johnston called the lease cancellation an “obviously unfair and unjust attack.”

“The vast majority of people have no interest in having anything to do with euthanasia,” he said.

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