Mike Duffy has been publicly silent for the better part of two and a half years, assiduously avoiding inquiring reporters — until Wednesday.

The independent P.E.I. senator showed up at the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee to join the group of senators studying the government's assisted-dying legislation. He waited patiently to speak, for more than two hours, and was then given the floor by the chair, Conservative Senator Bob Runciman.

He opted to ask a question of Health Minister Jane Philpott and to voice his support for expanding abortion access in the province he represents.

"Minister, I'll make this quick because I know you're on a tight time schedule. I represent Prince Edward Island and there, women in P.E.I. have, for some time, had concerns about access to full medical facilities, medical services for women. That's recently changed, and that's a good thing," Duffy said.

"Have you thought ... about what mechanisms the federal government might have, i.e. the Canada Health Act, cash, money, to ensure that this service you're proposing will be available everywhere in Canada?"

Duffy speaks, voices support for abortion, physician-assisted dying1:28

Philpott praised the question as "excellent," and noted abortion access on P.E.I. is an appropriate comparison to the future availability of physician-assisted dying should the Liberals' bill C-14 pass.

Compel provinces to provide assisted-dying

She also implied the federal government could compel provinces to provide the service to residents through the power of the purse. "The biggest mechanism we have is the fact that the Canada Health Act requires the upholding of a number of principles, including accessibility.

"The Canada Health Transfer, as you're also aware, is dependent upon assuming that provinces and territories uphold the Canada Health Act and all of its provisions. That certainly would apply in this case," she said.

Indeed, there are provisions within the Canada Health Act that allow the federal government to withhold funding to provinces that do not adhere to the five criteria of the act: public administration, comprehensiveness, universality, portability and accessibility.

Physician-assisted dying would likely fall under the comprehensiveness component, which mandates provinces pay for all medically necessary procedures or risk having money held back.

Duffy, who is not a member of this particular Senate committee, is still entitled to ask a question as a senator in good standing.

Justice Charles Vaillancourt dismissed all 31 criminal charges against Duffy related to his Senate expenses last month, clearing the way for his return to the Senate.

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