It’s back to the House

Bill C-7 was lobbed back to the House of Commons from the Senate earlier this week, and it came with a powerful backspin.

This Bill responds to a 2019 Quebec court decision that found some sections of Canada’s medical assistance in dying legislation unconstitutional. The Bill has bounced from the House of Commons to the Senate once before, but died when the Prime Minister prorogued Parliament last year.

The Senate has returned Bill C-7 to the House of Commons having overwhelmingly approved (66 – 19, with three abstentions) a number of significant amendments, thus establishing that, while it may be the place of sober second thought, it is now also the place where new and progressive thinking can take place.

 As Senator Pamela Wallin said:

“This more independent Senate has led to a truly constructive legislative process. Our approach here on Bill 7 is exactly the kind of independent work the Senate should and will continue to do.”

Individual autonomy

Bill C-7 was written to extend access to medically assisted death to people whose deaths are not imminent but who are living with intolerable pain. The Senate amendments would extend access to MAiD further by also imposing an 18-month time limit on the ban for people suffering solely from mental illness and by allowing people to make advance requests for assisted death that would remain in effect if they become incompetent later as a result of, for instance, dementia or Alzheimer’s.

The Senate has additionally passed an amendment requiring the government to collect race-based data on who requests and receives assisted dying and to establish, within 30 days of the bill receiving royal assent, a joint parliamentary committee to review Canada’s assisted dying regime.

Senator Stan Kutcher, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus of psychiatry at Dalhousie University, spoke to the issue of MAiD access for people with a mental illness:

“The intolerability of suffering is a personal experience. It is not for me, for you or for anyone else to put our own judgement on the value of that person’s suffering, and when we exclude people with a mental illness from a referral for MAiD, we actually say that their suffering is of a second class. . . . You know, this is blatantly unfair. It’s discriminatory and it comes from a paternalistic, ‘I know what’s best for you’ perspective.  . . . We need to come from a perspective which recognizes the autonomy of individuals and supports them in their own decision making.”

Having some control

Speaking to the concern raised by opponents of expanded access to assisted dying, Senator Chantal Petitclerc commented on her own situation when, as a child, she was permanently disabled as the result of a serious accident:

“If I ever knew a pain that unbearable would be irremediable, I, too, would fight for the right to decide. . . . This bill is ultimately about striking a balance . . . [It} is a compassionate response that protects vulnerable people and respects their dignity, autonomy and what is required by the constitution.”

Pamela Wallin argued that the advance directive amendment was needed:

“so no one is caught in the Catch-22 that holds people captive in a world they no longer know or understand. Now people with dementia or Alzheimer’s can plan for their future and maintain some control over their life and their death.”

On the same point, Senator Renee Dupuis said:

“the current regime must go further in respecting the autonomy of adult men and women who have the capacity to decide for themselves to draft advance directives so their wishes are respected when they are no longer capable of expressing those wishes.”

No more ping pong

This Bill has gone back and forth between the House of Commons and the Senate enough, while Canadians who don’t meet the restrictive conditions set out in the original legislation are being denied the right to have control over the circumstances of their death.

The Conservative party has been outspoken in its opposition to MAiD all along, so we can assume its members will not support the Bill in its amended, more radical version. Justice Minister Lametti has not yet commented on the amendments. Even if the government votes for it, given that the Liberals hold only a minority of the seats in the Commons, support will be needed from the NDP or the Bloq Quebecois.

BQ leader Yves-Francois Blanchet has indicated he is reluctant to go along with changes proposed by the Senate because it is unelected and, in his opinion, “has absolutely no legitimacy.”

The NDP feels similarly about the Senate. Justice critic Randall Garrison said:

“I’m always concerned that the Senate has adopted this new role for itself where they redo everything that we’ve previously done in the House, where historically they were supposed to review rather than redo.”

Time to quit playing political games, boys. The amendments were supposed to be passed by February 26th, already the third extension Minister Lametti has had to request from the court, but last Friday he returned to asked for yet another. It’s time to get on with this.

We have a role to play, too, by letting MPs know – especially Liberals, New Democrats and the Bloq – that we expect them to pass the amended Bill.

As Senator Dennis Glen Patterson said:

“Everyone who is suffering intolerably, I believe, should have the right to choose to die peacefully and with dignity in a timely manner, compassionately and in the manner of their choosing.

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