The Trudeau government appears to be in no hurry to grapple with the explosive issue of doctor-assisted dying, even as it prepares to urge the Supreme Court of Canada next week to give it more time to craft a new law on the matter.
The new Liberal government rushed last month — during the only week that Parliament has sat since the Oct.19 federal election — to pass a motion striking a special joint parliamentary committee on assisted dying.
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At the time, government House leader Dominic LeBlanc said it was urgent that the committee get to work quickly, since it would have only until the end of February to consult broadly on the complicated life-and-death issue and come up with recommendations for a new law.
One month later, no MPs have yet been assigned to sit on the committee, much less begin hearings on the matter.
Legal arguments next week
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Monday on the federal government's request for a six-month extension for coming up with a new law.
The top court last February struck down the prohibition on physician-assisted dying and gave the federal government one year to produce a new law recognizing the right of clearly consenting adults who are enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to seek medical help in ending their lives.
In considering the request to extend the deadline to August, the court may want to consider the government's efforts — or lack thereof — to meet the original Feb. 6 deadline.
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The previous Conservative government dragged its feet until mid-July, when it created a three-member panel to consult Canadians and stakeholders.
That panel, created just two weeks before the Conservatives plunged the country into a marathon election campaign, handed its report to the new Liberal government last month.
The report has not yet been released publicly, but one panel member, Benoit Pelletier, has said the panel found near-unanimity on the need for better access to palliative care for the terminally ill. The report reflects the diverse views the panel heard on other issues, such as the need to protect the vulnerable in any assisted dying regime, effective monitoring and reporting practices and the issue of institutions that refuse to help people end their lives, according to Pelletier.
Senators named immediately, but not MPs
LeBlanc last month blamed Conservative foot-dragging for putting the new government in a time-bind on the issue. And he railed against Bloc Quebecois MPs when they initially refused to give the unanimous consent needed to create the special joint committee on an urgent basis.
"We have very compressed timelines and they're going to make sure, frankly, that Canadians and Quebecers can't be heard on an issue as important as physician-assisted dying," LeBlanc said at the time.
The motion creating the committee was ultimately approved on Dec. 11. The Senate immediately named five senators to sit on the committee but there's been no move to appoint MPs since then.
The senators tasked with studying the matter are:
- James Cowan (Liberal-appointed, Nova Scotia)
- Serge Joyal (Liberal-appointed, Quebec)
- Nancy Ruth (Conservative, Ontario)
- Kelvin Ogilvie (Conservative, Nova Scotia)
- Judith Seidman (Conservative, Quebec)
Conservative Sen. Judith Seidman used Twitter on Thursday to complain about the delay.
"Senate members, of which I am one, named and ready to get to work on this. What's taking the House so long?"
Government insiders say not all parties have yet named their members to the committee but that it should be up and running soon.
In the meantime, however, the committee has lost a month in which it could have been delving into the complex issues involved in doctor-assisted death.
According to the motion creating it, the committee is supposed to consult broadly with Canadians, experts and stakeholders, examine research studies and models for assisted dying used elsewhere — including potentially travelling within Canada and to other countries — and to report back with recommendations for new legislation, all by Feb. 26.
LeBlanc has said that deadline is intended to give the government time to draft a new law, which will have to be debated, studied by Commons and Senate justice committees and passed by both houses of Parliament before they break for the summer in late June.
All of that assumes that the Supreme Court will grant the six-month extension. Should the court deny the request, the government would have less than month to fill the legal void that would arise as of Feb. 6.