June 2, 2016

Honourable senators, I rise today to participate in this important discourse on Bill C-14, An Act to amend the Criminal Code with respect to medically assisted dying. My views may not reflect those of the majority of my colleagues, but I feel compelled to give a voice to the opinions of my constituents and other Canadians.

I want to say as well that, as I think about the issues in this bill, I am mindful of the crisis we are facing amongst Inuit of the highest suicide rates in Canada. Our territory and its government and other regions where Inuit live in Canada are currently agonizing over how to stop this terrible loss of life, mostly amongst our youth, some very young.

There has been a lot of concern expressed in this debate about how we craft thoughtful safeguards to protect our vulnerable citizens, the mentally ill, and mature minors.

The Minister of Health told us yesterday we need more time to work on these safeguards. They have been punted to a future time. We are told improving palliative care will be studied and worked upon in the future, but not addressed alongside allowing assisted death.

Both ministers we heard from yesterday described this bill as only a first step, and I would respectfully say a rushed first step.

I agree with Senator Joyal, for whom I have great respect, when he said perhaps the minister should have admitted we didn’t have time.

I want to commend the joint parliamentary committee for working diligently over the holiday season and in January of this year to study this bill, but the committee did not have time to widely consult Canadians.

We are also rushed because the previous government, recognizing that this issue was a fundamental question affecting all Canadians and that an election was scheduled for the fall, deferred responding to the Carter issue until after the election. I don’t think that was an unreasonable approach on such a fundamental issue from a government at the end of its mandate.

Then the new government needed time to establish itself, assign ministers and asked for more time. They made what I think is a reasonable request to the court for six months’ more time and got only four months.

Who is supreme? The courts or Parliament? I’m very concerned that, as Senator Tkachuk said so well, the court did not take into account what is a reasonable time to thoughtfully develop and consider legislation, especially on such a complex and nuanced issue.

The government then rushed to develop, without significant public consultation, draft legislation that sets aside many issues for the future. One way to take the time to develop a new legislative regime, following on full consultation with Canadians and with affected provinces and territories, is for Parliament to assert its supremacy over the courts, as the Constitution allows.

Parliament is supreme under our Constitution. I heard our Minister of Justice say yesterday in this chamber, “I have the utmost respect for the Supreme Court of Canada . . . .” Well, I say we need to also show our utmost respect for the Parliament of Canada, and our debate in this chamber on the principle of this bill is giving this important issue the respect and gravity it deserves.

As I began to consider this bill, I couldn’t help but reflect back on the first ministers’ conference of November 1981, following the patriation of the Constitution. In response to a proposed clause in the Charter of Rights, now known as section 33, the “notwithstanding” clause, G.W.J. Mercier, then Attorney General of Manitoba stated:

. . . the rights of Canadians will be protected, not only by the constitution but more importantly by a continuation of the basic political right our people have always enjoyed – the right to use the authority of Parliament and the elected Legislatures to identify, define, protect, enhance and extend the rights and freedoms Canadians enjoy.

Shortly after the first ministers’ conference, then Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau admitted in an interview regarding section 33 that it “is a way that the legislatures, federal and provincial, have of ensuring that the last word is held by the elected representatives of the people rather than by the courts.”

I share the opinion of other luminaries from Canadian history, such as Roy McMurtry, Thomas Axworthy and Jean Chrétien, who have expressed over the years that the “notwithstanding” clause is a mechanism that cannot be employed liberally, but must be used to ensure that it is the legislature, not the courts, that have the final say on matters of public policy.

I’m therefore perplexed as to why the government apparently did not even consider invoking section 33 in this instance.

Now, I know the “notwithstanding” clause has not been used often — only once, I believe, since the Constitution was patriated — but that is not to say that it cannot be used, especially for such a fundamental question on which there are so many diverse views. It could have been invoked to allow us the time we obviously need to consider this issue responsibly.

The questions involved here are not readily answered — difficult, abstract issues that are difficult to discuss and resolve in debate. We are told by the government that many of them, including the important issue of improving palliative care, need to be worked on further. The health minister said yesterday that she is “deeply committed” to better access to high-quality palliative care. So I find it troubling that the government would rush through the creation and passing of a law that leaves many important issues unresolved due to an arbitrary timeline imposed by the courts, that I firmly believe we should not be held to, especially considering this law is truly a question of life or death for many.

Issues like that of the conscientious objector must be fully addressed. We heard from the ministers that this legislation did not compel doctors to administer the lethal dose. Minister break; Wilson-Raybould has stated that solutions to this issue have already been created at the provincial and territorial level. But upon researching these issues, I find that in some provinces, the solution was to require doctors to refer patients seeking assisted death to medical practitioners who are willing.

This would still make many people complicit in the death of a patient. Harry Underwood, counsel for the Canadian Medical Association, noted that “For doctors, whether a practice conforms to the law does not exhaust the question of whether they can support it.” To many, this bill directly contravenes the doctor’s mandate to “do no harm.”

Colleagues, the ethical weight of assisting someone with what many Canadians see as suicide falls on our doctors. It is they who will have to administer the final dose. Why are we then not addressing the concerns our doctors are voicing?

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However, the viewpoint that I would like to give voice to in this debate is that of the moral objector. Father Daniel Perrault is the parish priest from Our Lady of Assumption Catholic Church in Iqaluit, Nunavut. He sent me some compelling thoughts I would like to share with you today. I quote:

Is euthanasia an ethical choice? The question could be asked in a different way. Is it a right to be able to choose the moment of one’s death when one is gravely ill and no longer wishes to suffer?

We must look for the answer in the values that our societies commonly accept, the values for whose promotion and acceptance generations have made great sacrifices. The value at issue in this case is the sanctity of human life, starting with human life. This goes far beyond any religion belief. From the origins of humanity, the value of human life has become increasingly significant and a priority for all civilians. It is a value that was born in primitive societies as a sure means of protection, for individuals and groups, against anything that might destroy us. It quickly became necessary to protect life so that a group or a nascent society could be viable. Progressively, this value attached to human life became universal and sacred, because, beyond the protection it affords us, it opens our horizons to the contemplation of something that transcends us, life itself . . . all life.

The life that transcends us is loaned to us; it does not belong to us. I can make it greater in myself and in others by caring for it, by being attentive to its needs. By doing so, I cultivate growth and harmony around me. This is choosing life. I can also destroy it in myself and others by living only for myself, by not caring for it or being attentive to its needs. By so doing, I destroy the harmony in and around me. Then I am choosing death.

Sickness and suffering are also a part of life. A less pleasant part, of course, but they cannot exist without life, any more than old age can. They are stages in our life, and death is its natural end. We are often tempted to ignore them until the day when they affect us directly. At that point, we have a choice of sorts: to run away, or to accept them as significant stages in our existence.

When we are in good health, sickness, suffering and old age in others afford us a wealth of opportunities to offer the best of ourselves, without fear, without discomfort, unconditionally. This is love, the gift of ourselves. It is compassion. Caregivers, loved ones and families carry in them that extraordinary human potential for love by providing the sick with comfort, peace and tenderness.

The patients, without knowing it, are also giving the best of themselves, by providing others with the opportunity to be at their best. When reality is accepted, it has the power to bring people together, to unite them in a solidarity that shows the greatness of humankind at the very time when we are showing our greatest weakness.

Although there is a lot of talk today about dying with dignity, we forget that it is perfectly possible, with all our modern medical resources, to live to the end with dignity. It is a shame that our post-modern civilization drives us to seek so much efficiency that it makes us to forget to live. When times are more difficult, we are tempted to take shortcuts in order to forget sickness, weakness, suffering and old age. By efficiency, we mean as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

Those are the thoughts of Father Daniel, dear colleagues.

Honourable senators, I ask how can we in good conscience pass a rushed and incomplete bill without addressing the concerns of all Canadians?

I believe that it is our duty and the mandate of this chamber to ensure that any legislation with such significant implications be as well considered and thoughtful as possible, instead of allowing ourselves to be beholden to an arbitrary deadline.

I have faith that the Senate and its capable committee will do that job well. Thank you, honourable senators.

Speech – C-14: Bill to Amend the Criminal Code (Assisted Dying)—Second Reading