‘Ottawa’ Crucial Days Ahead in Ottawa Battle Over Assisted Dying
OTTAWA — All signs suggest an unprecedented clash this week between the new, maverick Senate and the Liberal government over the disputed assisted-dying legislation.
The debate over proposed amendments to Bill C-14 resumes in the Red Chamber 5 p.m. Monday, with government anxiously looking on as its cautiously crafted legislation continues to be carved up. Senators last week adopted a bold amendment scrapping the government’s plan to limit assisted dying to people nearing death.
This week, independent Liberal Sen. James Cowan, formerly Liberal leader in the Senate, is expected to propose another significant change that would allow eligible individuals to make advance requests for an assisted death at a future date, a measure the government already has flatly rejected.
Many smaller changes have been adopted and more, possibly dozens, are contemplated. A few have been defeated, too, including a proposal Friday to make it a crime to compel medical practitioners and institutions to provide or assist in the practice.
The final, amended bill could be sent back to the Commons for approval mid-week, say Senate insiders.
Health Minister Jane Philpott and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould have expressed serious reservations about extending medical assistance in dying to people suffering intolerable, enduring pain but whose death is not “reasonably foreseeable,” as the original C-14 stipulated.
Advance requests, assuming Cowan’s amendment is adopted, would demolish what’s left of the government’s go-slow approach to authorizing people to deliberately and purposely take the lives of others with impunity.
The feared standoff results from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2014 decision while in opposition to expel Liberal senators from the party’s parliamentary caucus, now leaving no government caucus members to shepherd government bills through the upper house. Seven more independent members were recently appointed by Trudeau.
Compounding matters is the Senate’s hope to redeem its image, post-Duffy, through what it sees as principled activism. And C-14, one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in the country’s history, is one of the first pieces of government legislation to navigate the shifting landscape.
Cowan couldn’t suppress a small grin when asked about the dramatic convergence of the three elements.
Parliamentary veteran and Senate Liberal George Baker says, “the whole political structure that was in place for the passage of legislation is gone. But senators, I believe, realize that they can only go so far. Under what circumstances can we defeat things that were passed by an elected body? That’s the challenge now for senators.”
Baker believes any chance for compromise over an issue riddled with deeply entrenched positions and intense emotions should be sent back to joint deliberation between the Commons and Senate standing committees that previously reviewed the legislation.
“It needs a dispute mechanism to break the impasse that’s obviously going to happen,” he says. “Barring that, you’re into a situation of ping-pong for weeks and months.”
Or, until the Senate, which gets final say on any legislation, either agrees — or defeats C-14, stranding medical assistance in dying in the same fuzzy legal void as access to abortion.
The Supreme Court of Canada decriminalized abortion in 1969. Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government attempted in 1988 and 1989 to create a new criminal law to govern the practice, but opposition to an initial bill forced the legislation to be abandoned. Then the Senate defeated a reworked government bill.
Abortion today remains neither a crime nor an act sanctioned by the national government, but a practice guided by a patchwork of provincial regulations.
Until and unless an exemption for medical assistance in dying is legislated and added to the Criminal Code, it will be governed by the Supreme Court’s 2015 “Carter” ruling, provincial health regulations and guidelines and professional medical codes of conduct.
Meanwhile, the start of the Commons’ scheduled summer break is June 23, nine sitting days from now. Leaving such an exceptional political and social issue burning until the Commons returns in the fall is something Grits desperately want to avoid.