A palliative care doctor at Abbotsford Regional Hospital, above, and Dr. Neil Hilliard, formerly Fraser Health’s director of palliative care, both warned the health authority against introducing euthanasia in hospice and palliative care facilities. Their recommendations were rejected. Photo from Google Maps

Fraser Health ignored experts over MAiD

By  Terry O'Neill, Canadian Catholic News
  • September 22, 2023

VANCOUVER -- A new set of secret documents that the Fraser Health Authority tried but failed to keep from the public confirms that its board of directors overrode advice from its own experts in ordering that euthanasia be offered in all its facilities, including hospices and palliative-care wards.

The revelation came in response to The B.C. Catholic’s three-and-a-half-year effort to pry information from Fraser Health, the province’s largest health authority, about the development and implementation of its policies and practices relating to Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD).

Those policies and practices have drawn critical international media attention over the past several years after grieving family members complained that loved ones were pressured to die against their will. In 2019, for example, hospital staff in Chilliwack improperly authorized Alan Nichol’s request for MAiD. Earlier this year staff in Abbotsford pressured Marilynn Leskun’s husband, Richard, to authorize a medically assisted death.

In a more recent case, the daughters of a Maple Ridge woman say medical staff there improperly approved their mother’s MAiD request in 2021. After failing to persuade the RCMP to lay charges in the case, Alicia and Christie Duncan mounted a petition campaign to change the law in memory of their mother, Donna Duncan.

“Our goal is to pass Donna’s Law to ensure that doctors and nurse practitioners who do not follow the protocols for MAID can be charged criminally so no other family will have to endure the painful loss we have experienced,” the sisters said on the campaign website inmemoryofdonnafaith.com.

The B.C. Catholic launched its Freedom-of-Information request in March 2020 after patients who were not critically ill reported that Fraser Health medical staff had pestered them about the availability of MAiD. Health authority officials have repeatedly stated that the authority’s policy is for MAiD to be a patient-led process.

The newly released documents show that the board was determined to force all its funded medical facilities to offer medically assisted suicide, even as Dr. Neil Hilliard, its director of palliative care, and Dr. Steve Mitchinson, of Abbotsford Regional Hospital’s Complex Palliative Care Unit, were vigorously opposing the plan on the grounds it would damage authentic palliative care.

Hilliard ended up resigning in 2016 after the board ordered all senior employees to support its MAiD policies. Those policies also led to a bitter legal fight with the board of the Delta Hospice Society, which refused to obey the edict. In 2021, Fraser Health forced the society to vacate the Irene Thomas Hospice and the Harold and Veronica Savage Centre for Supportive Care.

Fraser Health has slowly released some of the information requested, but only after dogged pursuit by The B.C. Catholic. After a third appeal to the provincial Office of the Information and Privacy Commission (OIPC) seeking the release of the suppressed documents was heard this spring, Fraser Health was ordered to take the wraps off of the 131-page package under question.

Fraser Health emailed the new information to The B.C. Catholic on Sept. 6.

Much of the new information did not actually concern MAiD, but in a section that Fraser Health kept secret until the OIPC order, Hilliard is shown to have submitted a briefing note to the board’s Aug. 16, 2016 Quality Performance Committee meeting in which he outlined his concern that introduction of euthanasia into the health authority’s palliative care program would erode public confidence in a program that was already mistakenly perceived as a means to hasten death.

“If this is a problem now, how much more misunderstanding and mistrust will there be if MAiD is provided in hospice and PCCUs (Palliative and Comfort Care Units)?” he wrote. “The MAiD service and the Fraser Health Palliative Care Program are not only distinct, but need to be kept separate, to prevent confusion, avoid mistrust and to promote access to high quality palliative care.”

Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Ontario-based Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, said that Hilliard, who told The B.C. Catholic last year that MAiD “is like a cancer growing in palliative care programs,” has been proven correct and that palliative and hospice care have suffered because of the introduction of MAiD.

“Dr. Hilliard should be considered a hero, because he fought so hard,” Schadenberg said. “Look where we are today; everything he was arguing has proven to be correct.”

Yet Schadenberg remains hopeful that Canada’s pro-euthanasia tide can be turned. He pointed to the Conservative Party of Canada’s policy convention in Quebec City this month where it adopted a policy to develop a national palliative care policy. 

More important, he said, was the party’s approval of a policy opposing MAiD’s extension to mature minors, to those whose sole underlying medical condition is a mental illness and to those not facing imminent death. The new policy also says the party in principle “opposes euthanasia and assisted suicide.”

Under Leader Pierre Poilievre, the Conservatives have built a 14-point lead over the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau — a government that legalized MAiD in 2016 and then widened its scope in 2021 to allow persons whose deaths are not reasonably foreseeable to access assisted suicide.

Former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister Rich Coleman, a delegate at the convention, is heartened by the new Conservative policies.

“I’m not a fan of MAiD,” said Coleman, a parishioner at St. Nicholas in Langley. “I think it’s gone too far, especially when you start having people almost selling it in circumstances when people are vulnerable.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.