Skip to main content

Good morning! It’s James Keller in Calgary.

When a United Conservative Party backbencher put forward a private-member’s bill last fall to expand conscience rights in Alberta, he stepped into a debate about how to balance the rights of doctors and patients when it comes to contentious procedures such as abortion and medically assisted dying.

The piece of legislation, known as Bill 207, was prompted by an Ontario court ruling that said doctors who object to such procedures must provide “effective referrals” to willing physicians. The UCP MLA, Dan Williams, said he wanted to ensure such a rule could not be implemented in Alberta.

Bill 207 was immediately controversial and was voted down by a legislative committee, including by several UCP members. And it ultimately died on the order paper, meaning the bill – or a version of it – would need to be tabled again for it to have any chance of becoming law.

Christina Frangou looked at the debate through the eyes of doctors and patients, some of whom say the procedures at the heart of the debate are already difficult for many Albertans to access, particularly in rural areas. Expanding doctors’ ability to say no, they argue, would make that situation worse.

She spoke to Dr. Jillian Demontigny, who runs a family practice in Taber, where she keeps a rainbow bracelet wrapped around her stethoscope as a signal to LGBTQ patients that they are welcome. She says Bill 207 would have made it "even harder on patients and they will have no recourse.”

Danielle Rose Gallant, a transgender woman in the northern Alberta hamlet of Fort Vermilion, recalls visiting the hospital for mental-health reasons and being told to call or visit physicians in Edmonton, nearly 800 kilometres away.

But Kiely Williams, a family doctor in Calgary, said the private member’s bill would have protected Alberta physicians from becoming complicit in procedures they have deeply held moral objections to. She warned that some physicians in Alberta might leave the province or reduce their scope of practice if they have to make referrals for things such as assisted dying or abortion.

Doctors in Alberta already have conscience rights. Under the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta’s rules, doctors who have moral objections must either provide a referral or point patients to information about where they can go.

Bill 207, as initially proposed, would have enshrined those rights into law and expanded them, preventing the college from putting any requirement on a doctor on what to say to a patient in such a circumstance. It also would have prevented the college from looking into any complaints on issues related to conscience rights. Mr. Williams proposed amendments that would have watered down some of those provisions.

Legal experts have previously warned that a law such as the one proposed by Mr. Williams would almost certainly trigger a court challenge, which may be where this issue is headed in the long run. The Ontario case wasn’t appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which means there isn’t a national consensus on how to strike a balance between patients and doctors when moral objections are raised.

Those answers may be coming.

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.

Around the West:

MENG WANZHOU: When Meng Wanzhou makes her latest court appearance on Monday, it will be more than a year since she was first escorted into Courtroom 20. Inside the high-tech, high-security fortress in the basement of the B.C. Supreme Court, a packed gallery of curious supporters and media from around the world studied her face through bulletproof glass.

OPIOID VENDING MACHINE: There are just a handful of doctors in Canada who allow patients to take hydromorphone tablets home for the purposes of treating opioid-use disorder. Of those, Dr. Tyndall is even more of a rarity: He does not require any sort of continuing clinical care. He says his program is not addiction treatment, rather an alternative to the contaminated drug supply. The introduction of technology – a device that looks like a cross between an ATM and a vending machine, but functions closer to a safety-deposit box – makes his program a curious anomaly.

TRANS MOUNTAIN: The Supreme Court of Canada has unanimously dismissed British Columbia’s bid to control the amount of heavy oil shipped across the province, eliminating the provincial government’s opposition to the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline as an obstacle to the project.

IRAN CRASH: It was only a few years ago that Shaho Shahbazpanahi remembers moving his friend Razgar Rahimi and his young family into their home. He’s now trying to figure out what to do without them, not only in terms of grieving their loss, but how to take care of everything they left behind in Stouffville, north of Toronto.

HOW COLD IS IT? It is so cold in Calgary that the zoo’s penguins cannot go outside. It is so cold in Edmonton that an ice-castle attraction is closed until at least Saturday. It is so cold in Saskatoon that a local yarn shop reported a 30-per-cent increase in sales as knitters prepared for a long stretch inside. In Vancouver, a city unaccustomed to the worst of winter’s weather, buses are getting stuck in the snow and commuters are pushing them out. The city’s SkyTrain doors are freezing shut.

ROYALS: The Premiers of B.C. and Ontario both say they would welcome the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to live in their provinces once they fulfill their wish to reside in Canada part-time. B.C. Premier John Horgan’s office also said Thursday the question of costs is a matter for the federal government and the Royal Family. No matter where the couple live, their decision amounts to “uncharted territory,” a B.C.-based historian says.

UNIVERSITY SPENDING: Alberta’s advanced-education minister says postsecondary schools are going over budget and he’s urging them to immediately freeze hiring and stop spending on travel and hosting.

POLICE CRITICIZED: The family of an Indigenous woman found unclothed and injured in a train yard is criticizing how Winnipeg police investigated her death. Police said Jaeda Vanderwal, 22, died from blunt-force injury with hypothermia as a contributing factor after being struck by two trains on Jan. 5. The family alleges there was evidence pointing to physical and sexual trauma and police moved too quickly when they decided her death was not criminal.


Adrienne Tanner on police response to the arrest of an Indigenous man and granddaughter at BMO: “Mr. Stewart should be taking a harder look inward. Perhaps in addition to a policy review, he could recommend an Indigenous-awareness refresher course for his chief.”

Gary Mason on Donald Trump: “Don’t get me wrong. I think Mr. Trump is one of the most unsavoury characters to ever hold the office of president. All mankind would be better off if he were to be defeated next November. All I’m saying is don’t count on it. He’s on a roll.”

Anser Daud on the incalculable loss from Flight 752: “Mohammad Asadi-Lari was just one of the many brilliant people whose promise and trajectories – along with the better worlds they could have helped create – were brought to an abrupt end. With each life lost, society also lost their goodness, their energy and their future contributions to our world.”

Eddie Goldenberg on Meng Wanzhou: “Former prime minister Jean Chrétien once said that when one is painted into a corner, the way out is to just walk on the paint. The Trump administration painted us into a corner, and it is now time for Ottawa to walk on the paint. Therefore, for humanitarian reasons, Canada should release Ms. Meng in return for the freedom of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor.”

John Carpay on free speech: “The Alberta Court of Appeal has ruled against the University of Alberta for charging a $17,500 security fee to a small student pro-life club in 2016. This is a clear victory for free speech on campus, no matter how unpopular the opinion being expressed – and other universities should take note.”

Kelly Cryderman on childcare in Alberta: “But the UCP might be wise to pay attention to data that show universal child-care plans are a boost to economies. On the other side of the legislature, NDP critic Rakhi Pancholi points to data that show Quebec’s famous program – where parents now pay $8.25 a day, for each child, no matter their income – has increased the labour participation rate for women, and increased employment and GDP growth.”