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Assisted suicide likely a matter for courts: feds

Minister firm amid pending Quebec bill

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TORONTO -- The federal government kept the door firmly shut on assisted suicide Friday, saying it might ultimately fall to the courts to decide whether Quebec would have the ability to legalize the practice.

Following discussions on the issue with her provincial counterparts, Health Minister Rona Ambrose was unequivocal in expressing the Conservative government's opposition.

"We do not support assisted suicide -- that is our government's clear position," Ambrose said.

"Quebec is going through the motions of debate in their legislature, and should that pass, then obviously we would look to see what to do with that, and if it does end up in court, then the courts would decide about the jurisdiction."

In 2010, Parliament voted against legalizing assisted suicide, but a bill currently before the Quebec legislature would, among other things, set the conditions necessary for someone to get help dying.

Réjean Hébert, the province's health minister, disputed the characterization of the legislation -- the first of its kind in Canada -- as simply about assisted suicide.

The bill, Hébert said, is about the larger issue of end-of-life and palliative care as well as about setting specific criteria for dying with help.

"It's not assisted suicide," Hébert said. "It's medical aid for dying."

Other ministers said they were watching closely what happens in Quebec but made it clear they would not be taking up an issue Ambrose called "very emotional" and "very divisive" any time soon.

Beyond talking about the topic, which wasn't formally on the health ministers' agenda, the various ministers said they had no plans to hold any legislative debates.

They did say many families are talking about assisted suicide, especially after a prominent doctor made an impassioned, videotaped appeal to legalize it just a few days before his death a few weeks ago.

Dr. Donald Low, who guided Toronto through the 2003 SARS crisis, asked that Canada allow people to die with dignity, eight days before he died from a brain tumour at age 68.

"The last two weeks have been transformative in terms of raising the consciousness of all Canadians on this issue," Manitoba Health Minister Theresa Oswald said.

Assisted suicide hit close to home for Oswald in April, when Winnipeg resident Sue Griffiths had to fly to Switzerland to take her life at an assisted-suicide clinic in Zurich.

Griffiths suffered from multiple systems atrophy and refused to suffer an agonizing, slow death.

While Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne suggested the media rather than the public were leading the current discussion, Ontario's Deb Matthews said a worthwhile conversation was "definitely happening" around the country.

"We're not planning on taking any action, but we sure do encourage people to think about the issue," Matthews said.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 A26

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