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Trudeau skips out as Liberal conventioneers vote to legalize assisted suicide

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MONTREAL - Federal Liberals have voted in favour of legalizing assisted suicide but whether Leader Justin Trudeau will run with the idea is a mystery.

Trudeau was not in the room Sunday when delegates to the party's national convention passed a resolution urging that voluntary, medically assisted death be decriminalized — although moments earlier he had been just outside the convention hall, cheering as the Canadian men's hockey team won Olympic gold.

He was in the room later when delegates gave him an overwhelming, after-the-fact endorsement of his decision to kick senators out of the Liberal caucus.

Delegates also passed a raft of potentially costly resolutions that included supporting many big-ticket items:

— An $18-billion-a-year investment in infrastructure.

— Creation of a basic annual income.

— A national transportation strategy.

— Funding for aboriginal education on reserves equal to that spent on provincially operated schools.

— Increased funding for mental health services.

— Expansion and enhancement of the Canada Pension Plan.

None of the resolutions are binding on the leader and, since he gave no closing remarks and did not hold the traditional wrap-up news conference at the convention's end, it was unclear which resolutions Trudeau believes should make their way into a 2015 election platform or how a Liberal government would pay for them.

He did give a number of one-on-one television interviews — which were taped before the resolutions were voted upon.

In an interview with Global's Tom Clark, Trudeau, who has promised not to hike corporate or income taxes or the GST, said the debate to come will be over where to spend the surplus the Harper government has forecast for next year.

In an interview with CTV's Question Period, he declined to give his personal view on assisted suicide, saying he's waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on some pending cases which could provide guidance on the issue.

He did allude to the "death with dignity" resolution, jointly proposed by the party's women's and youth commissions, in relatively positive terms during a keynote convention speech Saturday, but stopped short of taking a clear stand.

The resolution, Trudeau said in the speech, challenges Liberals "to expand our idea of what it means to be a free citizen in a modern democracy" and "to reflect on giving terminally afflicted Canadians the choice to end their pain and suffering and plan their own death with dignity."

Voluntary, medically assisted death should be decriminalized, states the resolution — after a public consultation to recommend the criteria for allowing terminally ill Canadians to choose to end their lives and an oversight system to protect the vulnerable.

It passed by a show of hands after a brief debate.

Resolution co-author Wendy Robbins said it reflects findings that 70-80 per cent of Canadians want the right to choose to die, with medical help.

"It's a question largely of autonomy," she told the convention. "We think we have the right to die with dignity."

A delegate who described himself as an anaesthesiologist called it "horrifying" that he could be paid through provincial health plans to end the life of a patient.

"We have enough trouble trying not to harm people who are having treatments right now. We don't need to get into the business of doing it deliberately."

The doctor delegate argued the focus should be on palliative care and how to ease end-of-life suffering, rather than on ending life.

The resolution did not sit well with all Trudeau's 35 MPs either, which may explain why he's avoided taking a stance.

"I have great difficulty with it, I'm very uncomfortable with it," Toronto MP Judy Sgro said in an interview.

Nevertheless, she said Canadians want a debate on the issue and the resolution will help get it started.

John McKay, another Toronto MP, said convention debate on the issue was superficial and didn't get into alternatives to assisted suicide or the "downsides" of legalizing it.

"Canada has to come to grips with its culture of death and it's particularly exemplified here," he said in an interview, noting Liberals adopted an explicitly pro-choice policy on abortion at their last convention.

"They're very enthusiastic about end of life legislation. They're very enthusiastic about end of life legislation for the beginning of life .... I don't think there's a lot of care given to particularly vulnerable people."

The one resolution on which Trudeau's views were explicitly known emanated from the national caucus, with the leader's input. It reiterates Trudeau's democratic reform proposals for empowering backbench MPs and making them more accountable, including more free votes in the House of Commons and disclosure of expenses.

It also calls for an all-party consultation immediately after the next election to recommend ways to reform Canada's electoral system so that each party's share of seats in the House of Commons more accurately reflects its share of the popular vote.

The resolution — which passed easily — specifies that preferential ballots and a system of proportional representation (PR) should be among the ideas considered.

During the leadership contest last year, Trudeau opposed PR, arguing that all MPs should be directly elected by Canadians, not chosen on the basis of lists drawn up by political parties. His thinking on the subject has since evolved, as evidenced by his involvement in drafting the resolution.

Trudeau's surprise decision last month to turf 32 senators from the Liberal caucus came after the deadline had passed for proposing amendments to the party's constitution for this convention. The constitution recognizes senators as members of caucus and confers special privileges on them, including the automatic right to attend conventions.

However, the party's national board of directors asked delegates to support a "sense of the convention" resolution endorsing Trudeau's decision.

"Justin Trudeau has accomplished more Senate reform in one morning than Stephen Harper has accomplished in eight years," deputy leader Ralph Goodale said as he urged delegates to support the resolution.

It passed by a vote of 525-32 and the only objections voiced were over the wording of the resolution, not its intent.

Follow @jmbyden on Twitter

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