Physician-assisted dying legislation should apply to all Canadians, Commons-Senate committee hears

A special Commons-Senate committee met in Ottawa today to discuss the issue of doctor-assisted dying, with the view to help the federal government draft new legislation by the end of June.

Quebec may have to update its own end-of-life care legislation, lawyer Jean-Pierre Ménard says

A special joint Commons-Senate committee on physician-assisted dying has until Feb. 26 to hold public consultations and report back to the government with recommendations. (AFP/Getty Images)

A special Commons-Senate committee heard from expert witnesses in Ottawa today who said new physician-assisted dying legislation should apply to all Canadians.

The special committee has until Feb. 26 to hold public consultations and report back to the government with recommendations.

Five senators and 11 MPs — including six Liberals, three Conservatives and two New Democrats — form the committee.

Parliamentarians heard from Peter Hogg, a constitutional lawyer, who said the federal government should draft a law that would cover all Canadians even if their home province or territory doesn't enact its own legislation,

Hogg cautioned the government not to focus too much on federal-provincial jurisdiction, but rather ensure that safeguards are in place that would protect the rights of all Canadians.

"Agonizing over the exact boundaries between provincial and federal power ... is not really necessary," said Hogg, a scholar in residence with the Toronto business law firm of Blake, Cassels & Graydon.

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Quebec is the only province that has enacted end-of-life care legislation.

"It's very important to recognize that there's no guarantee that all provinces will enact statutes. So you have to design a law that can be effective throughout the country even on the assumption that there is no provincial law or territorial law in part of the country," Hogg said on Monday.

"If Parliament does not enact a law that could be operated in a province where there is no law, the people in that province could be denied physician-assisted dying which the Supreme Court has said they have."

"What you have to do is design a set of safeguards that could work even if a province did nothing," Hogg said.

Quebec law called 'restrictive'

Lawyer Jean-Pierre Ménard said that Quebec may have to update its legislation which the province enacted before the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Carter v. Canada.

"The law in Quebec is more restrictive than what the Supreme Court allows under Carter," Ménard said in French when he appeared by videoconference before the joint committee.

"It's clear that Quebec will have to review its law to ensure that it's in perfect alignment with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the principles under Carter," he said.

In an interview Monday on CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Liberal MP Robert Oliphant, joint chair of the committee, spoke about the testimony the committee heard today.

"We don't think right now the Quebec legislation may even be enough to meet the Supreme Court's threshold. There may be some revision in that law to make sure it meets that threshold."

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Oliphant acknowledged there is some pressure on parliamentarians to be thorough and complete their work on time.

"There are also Canadians who want us to hurry. They're facing the end of their life and they're attempting to find a way to ensure they die with integrity and dignity. So the pressure is on us to get our work done."

The joint committee was appointed by the Liberals to review the final report by the external panel on options for a legislative response to Carter v. Canada.

The report was made public on Jan. 18, following six months of work by members of the panel, which the previous government appointed in July.

Avoid creating a 'patchwork approach'

Parliamentarians also heard from the federal Department of Health who supported previous reports calling on the government to avoid creating "patchwork approach" when drafting new physician-assisted dying legislation.

"From a federal perspective, a reasonable degree of consistency across provinces and territories would support the underlying values of the Canada Health Act, that is that all Canadians should have comparable access to needed healthcare services without barriers associated with financial means or geography," said Abby Hoffman, assistant deputy minister of strategic policy with the Department of Health.

"A uniform regime would also provide greater certainty for providers and help to avoid people seeking physician-assisted dying in another jurisdiction because it is not available or only available under more restrictive conditions in their own home province or territory.

"More importantly, it would provide reassurance to eligible Canadians that no matter what their means or where they live, the option of physician-assisted dying is available to them," Hoffman said.

Monday's special joint committee also heard from:

  • Sharon Harper, manager with the chronic and continuing care division of the Department of Health.
  • Marc Sauvé, director of research and legislation services with the Quebec Bar.

The committee is scheduled to meet behind closed doors Monday evening, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Tuesday's public hearings are scheduled for 5:30 p.m.