Physician-assisted dying legislation should apply to all Canadians, Commons-Senate committee hears

Jan 25, 2016

A special Commons-Senate committee heard from expert witnesses in Ottawa today who said new physician-assisted dying legislation should apply to all Canadians.

The special committee has until Feb. 26 to hold public consultations and report back to the government with recommendations.

Five senators and 11 MPs — including six Liberals, three Conservatives and two New Democrats — form the committee.

Parliamentarians heard from officials in the federal Department of Health who supported previous reports calling on the government to avoid creating "a patchwork approach" when drafting new physician-assisted dying legislation.

"From a federal perspective, a reasonable degree of consistency across provinces and territories would support the underlying values of the Canada Health Act, that is that all Canadians should have comparable access to needed healthcare services without barriers associated with financial means or geography," said Abby Hoffman, assistant deputy minister of strategic policy with the Department of Health.

"A uniform regime would also provide greater certainty for providers and help to avoid people seeking physician-assisted dying in another jurisdiction because it is not available or only available under more restrictive conditions in their own home province or territory.

"More importantly, it would provide reassurance to eligible Canadians that no matter what their means or where they live, the option of physician-assisted dying is available to them," Hoffman said.

Avoid 'agonizing' over federal-provincial powers

'If Parliament does not enact a law that could be operated in a province where there is no law, the people in that province could be denied physician-assisted dying which the Supreme Court has said they have. - Peter Hogg, constitutional lawyer

Peter Hogg, a constitutional lawyer, cautioned the government not to focus too much on federal-provincial jusrisdiction.

"Agonizing over the exact boundaries between provincial and federal power... is not really necessary."

The federal government should draft a law that would cover all Canadians even if their home province or territory doesn't enact its own legislation, said Hogg, scholar in residence with the Toronto business law firm of Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP.

Quebec is the only province that has enacted end-of-life care legislation.

"It's very important to recognize that there's no guarantee that all provinces will enact statutes. So you have to design a law that can be effective throughout the country even on the assumption that there is no provincial law or territorial law in part of the country," Hogg said on Monday.

"If Parliament does not enact a law that could be operated in a province where there is no law, the people in that province could be denied physician-assisted dying which the Supreme Court has said they have.

"What you have to do is design a set of safeguards that could work even if a province did nothing," Hogg said.

Committee aims to work in overdrive

The joint committee was appointed by the Liberals to review the final report by the external panel on options for a legislative response to Carter v. Canada.

The final report was made public on Jan. 18, following six months of work by members of the panel, which the previous government appointed in July.

Monday's special joint committee also heard from the following witnesses:

  • Sharon Harper, manager with the chronic and continuing care division of the Department of Health.
  • Marc Sauvé, director of research and legislation services with the Quebec Bar.
  • Jean-Pierre Ménard, lawyer with the Quebec Bar.

In an interview with CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Liberal MP Robert Oliphant, joint chair of the committee, acknowledged parliamentarians have their work cut out for them, given the tight timeline.

"We're going to be working very hard," said Oliphant in an interview recorded Friday.

Oliphant said while the average committee meets twice a week, the joint committee will meet five times this weekend, "probably five times the next week."

"So we'll be doing two or three times the usual work of other MPs," he said.

Oliphant, a United Church minister for 25 years before working as an MP, said "every Canadian at some stage of their life is vulnerable, and I believe that the courts and Parliament and the legislatures have a responsibility to ensure that every Canadian is protected."

The federal government has until the end of June to draft new physician-assisted dying legislation.

It initially had until February to draft new legislation, but the Supreme Court of Canada approved an extension of four months, after the Liberals requested an additional six months.

The committee is also meeting behind closed doors Monday, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

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