Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/5/2016 (1199 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — There is no doubt assisted suicide is one of the most emotional and personal debates most MPs in the current Parliament will face.
Discussions about suffering, the right to die and all the moral, religious and ethical considerations it brings are not easy.
One need only see how many MPs were brought nearly to tears during the debate this week to know how highly charged this subject matter is.
And yet, with the looming Supreme Court deadline to implement its ruling on the legalization of doctor-assisted dying, the Liberal government in Ottawa moved Wednesday to curtail debate on its legislation at second reading. It wasn’t that no debate took place. The House sat until midnight Monday and Tuesday just to debate this bill.
But there is a general sense, right from the moment the Liberals inherited this issue last fall, that things were being rushed. The government did seek an extension from the court of six months, given the delay imposed by the election campaign.
The court agreed to four months only, until June 6.
And so here we are, ramming through a highly charged piece of legislation that could have serious impacts on the lives and suffering of Canadians if we don’t get it right. Debate on second reading lasted four days. Committee hearings were started even before the bill passed second reading, all to try and get things done as efficiently and quickly as possible.
Certainly, if there is any issue that should be exempt from the use of time allocation, it’s this one. But if legislation is not in place by June 6, then physician-assisted suicide will become legal without any regulations, Criminal Code changes or limits beyond that a patient getting help to die must be a competent adult who is suffering intolerably from a grievous and irremediable condition.
No waiting period, no policy for how a request should be made, no protection for physicians who don’t want to participate in it, no protocol for tracking and monitoring how it is being done.
So opposition parties howl about the use of time allocation (and let it be said the Conservatives are on very thin ground to complain about this tactic). Yet the Liberals are between a bit of a rock and a hard place here.
And none of this needed to happen if Parliament had not buried its head in the sand on this issue as public opinion began to change and the western world within which Canada operates shifted. Even the Supreme Court, in its ruling on the matter, noted one of the reasons it ruled in favour of physician-assisted suicide this time, when it had not in 1993, was because of the evolution of global thought on the subject in the last two decades.
And yet as that evolution was occurring, Canada’s lawmakers were largely sitting on their hands.
In 2012, when the B.C. Supreme Court ruled banning physician-assisted suicide was unconstitutional, the government could have said, OK, it’s time to take a look at this.
It did not. Instead it appealed the decision.
When the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in January 2014, Parliament could have taken it as a sign it better be ready just in case.
It did not.
A few months later, when former Winnipeg Conservative MP Steven Fletcher — now a Manitoba MLA — introduced private member’s bills on the subject, the government could have used that as the impetus to take a closer look.
It did not.
In fact, even after the court made its ruling and gave the government a year, knowing a year was already a short time frame to enact a new law, and that year was going to be eaten into by the federal election, the government waited six months to do anything. It appointed a panel to study and make recommendations just two weeks before then-prime minister Stephen Harper called the election.
So yes, the Supreme Court could have given the new government more time within which to act, but it’s hard to fault the judges for being unwilling to help Parliament when Parliament has shown such a strong unwillingness to help itself.
After introducing his bills and while the court case was underway, Fletcher repeatedly said Parliament, not the Supreme Court, should decide the matter. This is why.
The Supreme Court has made a decision, but it’s the government that has to talk the specifics. And here we are with legislation that had to be so hastily written, it has gaps that surely will see us end up back in court before long.
Yes, there will be time in the future to debate additions to the bill, but if Parliament had taken even some basic initiative four years ago, or three years ago, or two years ago, we wouldn’t be forced to swallow that such a complicated, emotion-laden piece of legislation has to be rammed through Parliament now.
Mia Rabson is the Free Press parliamentary bureau chief.