British Columbia

Delta hospice battle between Christian board and supporters of assisted dying returns to court Wednesday

The Delta Hospice Society has been accused of vote stacking in its efforts to ban medically assisted death at the Irene Thomas Hospice.

B.C. Court of Appeal to hear arguments in the fight over offering medically assisted death

The Delta Hospice Society is appealing a B.C. Supreme Court ruling saying it had to accept membership applications that had been denied. (Canadian Press)

The Delta Hospice Society (DHS) will be in the B.C. Court of Appeal on Wednesday, asking to overturn a lower court ruling that said it had acted in bad faith by rejecting applications from people wanting to join the society.

It's the latest chapter in the battle between the current DHS board of directors, who voted to stop allowing medical assistance in dying (MAiD) at the Irene Thomas Hospice after coming to power late last year, and a community group led by former DHS board members who support access to MAiD.

The earlier ruling also cancelled an extraordinary general meeting where members were to vote on amendments to the society's constitution, which would have made DHS an expressly Christian organization.

According to a society newsletter published last week, DHS will argue that B.C. Supreme Court Justice Shelley Fitzpatrick "erred in fact and law" in her June 12 order compelling the board to accept all rejected membership applications going back six months.

DHS's legal team also intends to argue that even if the justice's order is allowed to stand, it constitutes a Charter violation of the right to freedom of association and freedom of conscience.

"... Fitzpatrick declared DHS an open society akin to a public institution, instead of the private society we have always been," said the newsletter. "This forces the society to accept all hostile membership applications." 

Board chair Angelina Ireland told CBC that because DHS is a private society, its board has the right to choose who can and cannot become a member.

She said anyone seeking to become a member can be judged to be hostile through a vetting process that cross-references the applicant's name with what they have posted on social media.

The 10-bed Irene Thomas Hospice in Delta, B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

'This is not the society for you'

"We'd look at if you said anything publicly. If you say that you're a proponent of euthanasia and you want to see euthanasia inside of that hospice, then, you know, probably this is not the society for you," said Ireland. 

"This society is for people who want to support palliative care within the community and within Canada," she said.

But those opposing Ireland and the board say actions taken by the DHS do not represent the will of the Delta community.

An advocacy group called Take Back Delta Hospice has been actively opposing the board on social media and elsewhere, and encouraging people to send in membership applications. 

Christopher Pettypiece, Sharon Farrish and Jim Levin are the former DHS board members leading the group.

Vote-stacking allegations

They also brought the petition to B.C. Supreme Court alleging the current board had stacked its membership list by rejecting hundreds of applications from people — including former hospice staff, volunteers and area politicians — who don't support the board's Christian beliefs.

"Our intent is simply to allow the greater community to participate in a society that they've effectively built over the past 30 years," said Pettypiece. "I don't see that as being hostile."

Regardless of the outcome, it's not clear what effects the legal manoeuvring will ultimately have.

The Delta Hospice Society is set to lose $1.5 million in annual public funding in February 2021 — equivalent to 94 per cent of its budget. The province withdrew the funding after the board decided to stop allowing access to MAiD. 

Then Health Minister Adrian Dix said Fraser Health would assume operation of the 10-bed Irene Thomas Hospice. 

MAiD was passed into federal law in 2016, allowing for Canadians who meet strict criteria to choose a medically assisted death.