Analysis

Assisted dying legislation a unique window into Parliament's soul

The vast majority of votes in the House of Commons are decided along party lines. And what free votes do occur are rarely of such consequence as the assisted dying legislation currently before Parliament.

MPs balance personal considerations, constituent concerns as Bill C-14 goes to justice committee for study

Conservative MP Scott Reid is asking his constituents how he should vote on C-14, the Liberal government's bill to regulate medically assisted death. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Speaking in the House of Commons last week on C-14, the Liberal government's bill on medically assisted death, Liberal MP John McKay acknowledged the value of the free vote to take place.

"Because this is a free debate and a free vote, it actually strengthens this vote. It is, after all, important that we reflect the consensus of Canadians," McKay said. "They put us here and they are the ones who we are to reflect."

In perhaps the most direct version of this, Conservative MP Scott Reid is inviting his constituents to instruct him how to vote in a referendum. Households in his riding of Lanark–Frontenac–Kingston will be sent a ballot and a tally of the returned ballots will determine how he votes on C-14 at third reading.

"It's clearly a matter of personal conscience," Reid says. "And my position has always been that my constituents have consciences that are just as good as anybody else's."

As the bill goes to the House justice committee for further study, Reid's might be one of more than 300 individually interesting rationales.

The vast majority of votes in the House of Commons are essentially decided by the vote on election day, the final votes in the House generally breaking along party lines. And what free votes do occur are rarely of such consequence. (In this case, only the federal cabinet is pledged to vote together.)

Bill C-14 might thus provide a unique window into the soul of Parliament.

Personal reflections

In discussing the bill, MPs have recalled the deaths of loved ones and their own experiences around dying.

Liberal MP Robert Falcon-Ouellette said he had almost tried to kill himself at the age of six and worried about whether he might have gone ahead with his attempt if he had seen a loved one avail themselves of physician-assisted suicide. 

Robert-Falcon Ouellette voted against the bill at second reading, after the government agreed not to whip the vote. 14:03

In making what he described as a "personal decision" on the bill, Conservative MP Peter Kent said he would be guided, in part, by the death of his brother-in-law.

"I was also powerfully informed and persuaded by the tragically tortuous passing of my brother-in-law, Rik Davidson, a brilliant academic, through Alzheimer's," Kent said. "Should such an ending be diagnosed for me, I assure the House that an advance directive would be composed, and either under law or not, it would be fulfilled."

Liberal MP Arnold Chan, currently suffering from cancer, acknowledged that he "may in fact be someone who may have to, potentially, depending on how treatment goes, avail myself of this option."

Constituent concerns

Alongside these individual reflections, MPs also have spoken of their constituents.

Conservative MP Cathy McLeod said she had written to her constituents about the Supreme Court's decision and that about 70 per cent were supportive of at least some form of physician-assisted death — that and her own judgment led her to vote in favour at second reading.

Guy Lauzon said he surveyed his constituents and found 65 per cent were opposed to C-14 — that and his own religious views led him to vote against.

​Chan noted that the majority of constituents who reached out to him were opposed to physician-assisted death, and that some believed the notwithstanding clause should be invoked to set aside the Supreme Court's decision in Carter v. Canada, an option that has been raised by a few Conservative MPs.

A challenge for Parliament

In lieu of such a dramatic move, the court has effectively made the larger decision of whether to legalize medically assisted death. 

But Parliament is still grappling with questions about conscience rights for doctors and nurses, who should be eligible, and what safeguards should exist. And some number of votes at third reading will likely depend on whether the justice committee amends the bill to address at least some of those concerns.

Faced with a June 6 deadline to implement a new law, there are questions too about how Parliament has handled the court's decision. A Liberal proposal to establish a special committee more than a year ago was blocked by Conservatives, while Conservatives and New Democrats were outraged last week when the Liberal government used time allocation to limit debate.

How to decide how to vote

NDP MP Kennedy Stewart, the member for Burnaby South, says he always aims to honour the will of the majority of his constituents. He consulted before last week's vote and will consult again before the next vote.

"However," he says, "if the government does not amend the law so it better complies with the Carter decision, I will have a hard time supporting the bill as I don't think we should pass a law that will only be again struck down by the courts." (The family of Kay Carter has argued that, though she suffered from spinal stenosis, Carter would not have met the bill's standard of reasonably foreseeable death.)

The family at the centre of the SCC case on assisted dying weighs in on the Liberal government's assisted dying legislation. 7:54

Liberal MP Dan Vandal, the member for Winnipeg's Saint Boniface–Saint Vital riding, says the majority of his constituents might be in favour of the bill, but that he is primarily guided by the experience of his mother, who was in pain for several years before dying last August. He told the House she had wished there was a way to end the suffering sooner.

"I felt that I had lived through a really difficult part of my life and that she would have wanted me to tell this story," he said. "She would have wanted me to advance her preference."

Some of his constituents are opposed. He would have liked to see the bill further broadened to include those who experiencing enduring and intolerable pain.

"You have to engage your constituents and speak to them about important issues. But if you feel strongly or passionately about a certain issue, by no means do you not vote to represent how you feel," he says. "For this one, there was no other way for me to vote."

It is always a balance, Vandal says, and a representative is never going to satisfy 100 per cent of his constituents.

"And that's why people get to decide every four years whether they want you as their representative," he says.

Corrections

  • This story has been edited from an earlier version that misstated Kay Carter's medical condition.
    May 09, 2016 1:34 PM ET

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