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B.C. Civil Liberties Association lawyer Alison Latimer, centre, speaks to the media outside the B.C. Court of Appeal in Vancouver on Oct. 10, 2013, after the court reversed a lower court ruling that said Canada's assisted-suicide ban violated the charter rights of gravely ill Canadians.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A solid majority of Canadians approve of euthanasia, putting public opinion firmly on one side of the debate as it gains traction in the courts and the political sphere, a new poll suggests.

In a survey of 1,002 people to be released Friday by the Environics Institute, 68 per cent of respondents said those who help seriously ill people commit suicide should not be charged with a crime. Conversely, just 16 per cent of those polled were in favour of laying charges. A separate question, on support for euthanasia more generally, found similar results, with nearly seven in 10 people in favour and 20 per cent against.

Those numbers have remained relatively steady since 1992, when Environics found 64 per cent of people approved of euthanasia.

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"The basic story is that there's been relatively little change over the past 20 years in peoples' views about this," said Keith Neuman, executive director of the Environics Institute, a not-for-profit research group.

That consistency may have to do with the fact that the discussion is most often had around the dinner table. "This is an issue that's not in the news that often," Mr. Neuman said. "It's also a question, in a sense, that's about values rather than policy."

This year, however, the debate on assisted suicide has been squarely in the public eye. The Quebec government introduced a bill in the spring that would allow physicians to help patients die in certain circumstances, and provincial health ministers talked about the matter at a summit last week. A video by Donald Low, a high-ranking Ontario medical official calling on the country to legalize euthanasia, went viral last month shortly after he died of cancer. And on Thursday, a court in British Columbia upheld the prohibition against euthanasia.

The Environics poll found majority support for euthanasia among every age group and in every region of the country. But there was some variation, with backing highest in Quebec (79 per cent) and B.C. (76 per cent), and lowest in Saskatchewan and Manitoba (62 per cent).

Older Canadians were more likely to support the practice than their younger cohorts – a reversal of roles from the 1990s. The exact reason for this last variation is not clear, but Mr. Neuman suggested it could have to do with peoples' opinions changing as they grow older. It could also indicate a generational shift as boomers age.

Environics says the overall survey results are considered accurate within plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, with higher margins of error for the age and regional sub-groups. The poll was conducted by live telephone interviews via land lines, between Oct. 1 and 7.

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