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Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada David Lametti responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Dec. 8, 2020 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Justice Minister David Lametti is questioning the sincerity of Conservatives who contend they’re holding up a bill on assisted dying because it doesn’t do enough to protect vulnerable people with disabilities.

Despite a looming, court-imposed deadline of Dec. 18, the Conservatives have been talking out the clock on Bill C-7, which would expand access to medically assisted death to people who are suffering intolerably but not near death.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has argued that protecting people with disabilities from being coerced or pressured by a lack of supports into an assisted death is more important than meeting the deadline.

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But if they prevent the bill from being passed in time, Lametti argued Wednesday it will create a legal void in Quebec, where people who are not near death will be able to receive medical help to end their lives without any safeguards at all.

“I want to say that given their expressed concerns around safeguards, I do not understand the frankly irresponsible actions the Conservatives are taking in delaying this legislation, knowing full well the risks that could result in Quebec from a legal void,” Lametti told the House of Commons.

“If we reach the court deadline and nothing has changed, there will be no adequate safeguards in Quebec for those whose death is not reasonably foreseeable … I am unsure how the Conservatives can accept that as a possible outcome if their main concern is safeguards.”

Lametti disputed O’Toole’s claim that Conservatives simply want to improve the bill.

“Unfortunately, the Conservatives have made it clear that they are not interested in improving the bill. They want to stop it from moving forward, all this while people continue to suffer across the country,” he said.

The bill is intended to bring the law into compliance with a Quebec Superior Court ruling last fall which struck down a provision allowing medical assistance in dying (MAID) only for those whose natural death is reasonably foreseeable.

It would drop the foreseeable death requirement but would set out more stringent conditions for those who are not near death, while relaxing the rules somewhat for those who are.

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At the current pace, it is unlikely that the bill will be adopted by both houses of Parliament by Dec. 18.

The Commons is to take an extended break for the holidays, starting Friday. If the government should manage to get it to a vote in the Commons before then, it would still need to be dealt with by the Senate, which could yet amend the bill and send it back to the Commons.

The minority Liberal government could try to cut off debate on the bill in the Commons but would need the support of one of the major opposition parties to do so. While both the Bloc Quebecois and NDP support the bill, their respective leaders said Wednesday that they would not support imposing closure on the debate.

That leaves Lametti with only one option: to request another extension of the deadline from the court, which has extended it twice already.

However, he stressed Wednesday: “There is absolutely no assurance that a Quebec court will further grant extensions to the current suspension of invalidity.”

Conservatives have pointed out that every national disability rights organization in the country is vehemently opposed to the bill, believing that it sends a message that life is not worth living with a disability.

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Lametti said he listened to those groups before the bill was drafted. But he said he also listened to individuals with disabilities “who believe that limiting medical access in dying to those who are dying is a violation of their rights and self-determination.”

That includes people like Jean Truchon and Nicole Gladu, the two Quebeckers who successfully challenged the foreseeable death restriction. And, he said, it includes Julia Lamb, the British Columbian who initiated her own challenge to the law and made it clear that “she spoke for herself and that the leadership of the disability community did not speak for her.”

Lametti called the bill an “important and prudent step forward in ensuring greater respect for autonomy of a broader category of Canadians who are suffering intolerably” and maintained it “carefully balances competing interests and values.”

He contends that the Conservatives’ “obstructionism” will mean people who are near death and approved for MAID but fear losing the mental capacity to consent a second time immediately before receiving the procedure – as currently required in the law – will continue having to make the “awful choice” to end their lives prematurely.

“Still others who are experiencing intolerable suffering and who have received all the necessary medical diagnoses will remain ineligible as a direct result of the Conservatives’ delay tactics,” he said.

At one point, Lametti suggested the delaying tactics are a result of O’Toole being unable to control the “religious right” in his caucus.

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That prompted Conservative MP Garnett Genuis to accuse him of “bigotry” towards people of faith. Lametti countered that he is himself a person of faith.

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