Assisted-death committee warned about Canada's jurisdictional patchwork

Canada's patchwork of federal, provincial and territorial governments will be a challenge for the senators and MPs tasked with forging a response to the Supreme Court's ruling on doctor-assisted death.

Canadian political landscape differs considerably from other jurisdictions that have doctor-assisted death

Bill 52, also known as an act respecting end-of-life care, that passed Thursday afternoon in a free vote at the National Assembly in Quebec City, would allow a doctor who has been given the consent of the patient to administer medication to cause death. (AFP/Getty Images)

Canada's patchwork of federal, provincial and territorial governments will be a challenge for the senators and MPs tasked with forging a response to the Supreme Court's ruling on doctor-assisted death.

That's just one of the warnings delivered Monday to the committee of lawmakers that has been assembled by the federal Liberal government to wrestle with the divisive question of how — or even if — to legislate the right to die.

The Canadian landscape differs from other jurisdictions that have already explored the issue of doctor-assisted death, Justice Department lawyer Joanne Klineberg testified.

Here, the practice and delivery of health care is regulated and policed by the provinces and territories, while criminal law is under federal jurisdiction, Klineberg said.

"In all the other places, it is one level of government that makes all the decisions and really administers the regime," Klineberg told the committee during Monday's inaugural hearing.

"I think a very big challenge will be deciding which are the aspects of a physician-assisted dying regime that are best dealt with at the federal criminal level and which are the elements that are best dealt with at the provincial level."

Benoît Pelletier, one of three panelists tasked by the last government to study doctor-assisted dying, discusses the right to die and his panel's findings 7:26

Also Monday, a three-member panel commissioned by the previous Conservative government released its final report after consulting with 73 experts in five countries and 92 representatives from 46 Canadian organizations.

"We are convinced that implementing a safe and thoughtful physician-assisted dying framework with equitable access for eligible Canadians will require substantial co-operation between all Canadian jurisdictions," the report said.

"We are aware that the provinces and territories of Canada have worked hard towards establishing a framework. Medical regulators have also been diligent in their preparations."

Implementation will require expertise from multiple sectors, the report noted.

Another major hurdle from a policy perspective will be how to achieve consensus on the conditions under which a person should be eligible for a physician-assisted death, Klineberg said.

Over the next month, the MPs and senators on the committee are expected to hear from the public, experts and stakeholders with the goal of reporting back with legislative suggestions by Feb. 26.

There's no time to waste, acknowledged Sen. James Cowan, a member of the Senate Liberal caucus.

"We obviously have a very limited time frame to do anything," Cowan said.

"It seems to me that it is important that we decide early on what are the key issues we want to address. We can't sort of start from scratch and assume nobody has ever looked at this before."

The Supreme Court decision last February recognized the right of consenting adults enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to end their lives with a doctor's help.

The court suspended its decision for a year to allow Parliament and provincial legislatures to respond, should they choose, by bringing in legislation consistent with the constitutional parameters laid out in the ruling.

On Friday, the court gave the federal government four additional months to produce a new law, but also allowed an exemption for anyone who wants to ask a judge to end their life sooner.

The Liberal government had argued it needed the original deadline extended by six months in order to have time to craft a proper law.

Conservative MP and committee member Mark Warawa said he wishes there was more time to explore the issue, but said the committee would work hard within the established time frame.