MONTREAL -- The federal government says it will review Quebec's right-to-die legislation, setting the stage for a possible showdown between Ottawa and the province's sovereigntist government.
Quebec argues delivery of health-care services is a provincial jurisdiction and maintains it is on firm legal ground with the landmark bill -- the first of its kind in Canada.
Assisted suicide and euthanasia, however, are illegal under Canada's Criminal Code and the federal government has insisted it has no intention of changing that.
"The laws that prohibit euthanasia and assisted suicide exist to protect all Canadians, including those who are potentially the most vulnerable, such as people who are sick or elderly, and people with disabilities," Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said in a statement Wednesday.
He added the Supreme Court has upheld existing laws and Parliament voted against any changes in 2010.
"This is a sensitive issue for many Canadians, with deeply held beliefs on both sides of the debate," Nicholson said.
It's one of the few times the Quebec government has managed to get a rise out of its federal counterpart since the Parti Qu©b©cois took power last September.
While Premier Pauline Marois has promised to choose her battles in her minority-government status, she vowed during the election she would not be shy about picking fights with Ottawa in seeking gains for Quebec.
She explained the long-term plan was to cite any federal rebuffs as an argument for Quebec separation.
At a news conference Wednesday, provincial Social Services Minister V©ronique Hivon, who sponsored the right-to-die bill, said the Quebec government believes it is on solid legal ground.
"It has nothing to do with criminal matters," she said in Quebec City. "It has everything to do with health matters and that's the perspective that is in this bill and we're really confident that we're on solid grounds."
She said Quebec had not received any warnings from the federal government to kill the bill.
"I think they recognize, as we do, a certain flexibility in Quebec in matters of health, as confirmed by legal experts," she said.
Hivon, who is also junior health minister, said the term "physician-assisted dying" was carefully chosen for the legislation and does not constitute a euphemism for euthanasia or assisted suicide.
Udo Schuklenk, a medical ethics expert at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., praised the Quebec government for its initiative and said its provisions reflect recommendations in a Royal Society of Canada report on end-of-life care to which he contributed in 2011.
However, he said it may be years before the legislation is implemented, even if it's passed, because court challenges are inevitable. "The case that has to be decided here is, of course, not an assisted-dying case," he said.
"The question here is whether or not a province is entitled to issue regulations and legislation in a domain that the provinces are properly responsible for, in this case health care, if the regulations they want to put in place impinge on the Criminal Code, as clearly this does."
The tabling of the legislation in Quebec City comes five months after a panel of experts concluded provinces have the legal jurisdiction to legislate in matters of health.
Hivon suggested it is a humanitarian response to a heartbreaking situation.
"There are people in Quebec who suffer and who don't find answers to their suffering at the end of their life and the whole idea behind this bill is to give the answers that are needed for those people," she said.
The bill has three main thrusts -- expanding palliative care, setting protocols for doctors sedating suffering patients until they die naturally, and guidelines to help patients who want to end their pain.
Bill 52 says patients themselves would have to repeatedly ask a doctor to end their lives on the basis of unbearable physical or psychological suffering. They would have to be deemed mentally sound.
-- The Canadian Press