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The Liberal government’s time-sensitive doctor-assisted dying bill risks being held up by senators who say they are more concerned about drafting a bill that is accessible to a greater number of Canadians than meeting the Supreme Court’s June 6 deadline.iStockphoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Liberal government's time-sensitive doctor-assisted dying bill risks being held up by senators who say they are more concerned about drafting a bill that is accessible to a greater number of Canadians than meeting the Supreme Court's June 6 deadline.

What's more, some of the Senate Liberals are the ones leading the charge, an added complication after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau removed them from caucus more than two years ago.

"It's not the end of the world if the bill doesn't pass by [June 6]," Senate Liberal leader James Cowan told The Globe and Mail on Sunday. "I would rather take whatever time it is to get the right legislation in place than rush something through which we know is flawed."

While House Leader Dominic LeBlanc has said he will extend debate hours to ensure all parties get a chance to speak about the bill in the House of Commons, he's also signalled he'll invoke time allocation to move the legislation along if necessary.

The Senate Liberals have no such requirements and it's not entirely clear how the new government representative in the Senate, Senator Peter Harder, will control a caucus that now considers itself independent from the government. Mr. Harder was not available for an interview on Sunday. All parties have said they'll allow a free vote on the bill.

Conservative Senate leader Claude Carignan, whose caucus now makes up just under half of the upper chamber when the Liberals and independent senators are combined, said the outcome is "impossible to foresee."

The Supreme Court has given Parliament until June 6 to come up with a new law after it unanimously struck down last year the Criminal Code ban on physicians who help patients end their own lives.

If no new law is passed by June 6, the only federal regulation for doctor-assisted dying would be the broad parameters set out by the court: that it applies to competent adults with a "grievous and irremediable" medical condition, causing enduring suffering and who clearly consent to end their own life.

The government's Bill C-14 goes further, defining a patient's "grievous and irremediable" medical condition as a serious and incurable illness, disease or disability, in an "advanced state of irreversible decline," and adding that "natural death has become reasonably foreseeable."

The legislation also includes safeguards such as written consent from the patient in front of two witnesses, two medical opinions and a 15-day reflection period.

Mr. Cowan said he was disappointed with how "narrow and restrictive" the bill turned out to be, and said the inclusion of the "foreseeable death" term is confusing to Canadians.

"It's not clear, and I would have thought that above all, what we would be trying to achieve here as legislators is clarity," he said.

Senator Serge Joyal, another Senate Liberal who is also a constitutional expert, questioned whether the government's bill even complies with the court's ruling. "The government has added some other criteria which, in my opinion, go much beyond what the Supreme Court has stated," he said.

Both Mr. Joyal and Mr. Cowan sat on a joint parliamentary committee that made recommendations to the government, including advanced directives for patients with dementia and the gradual inclusion of mature minors under 18, both of which were put off, along with the subject of mental illness, for further study.

Mr. Cowan said the Senate's legal and constitutional affairs committee, which also includes Mr. Joyal, will soon be doing a preliminary study of the bill while it makes its way through the Commons to determine whether any changes should be made.

If the Senate does introduce amendments after the legislation arrives in the upper chamber, it has to go back to the House of Commons, casting into doubt whether it would pass before the June 6 deadline.

Conservative Senator Nancy Ruth, who also sat on the joint parliamentary committee, said she's particularly upset the government left out advanced directives for people who wish to end their lives in the future, as well as those with mental illness.

"This was the most uncourageous bill I've ever seen. … Why did they even waste our time?" she said, adding that she's in "no rush" to pass the bill if amendments can be made in the Senate.

"I don't think medical doctors … are going to go out and start murdering the population. Is that the implication of not getting it done by June 6?"

Mr. LeBlanc said in an e-mail on Sunday that he hopes the Senate prestudies the bill and proposes its amendments before it reaches final reading in the House of Commons.

"The Senate has considerable expertise in this area of law, senators contributed very constructively to the joint committee process, and we hope they will work with us to ensure there is a national legislative framework in place by June 6, when the old Criminal Code provisions are struck down," he wrote.

The government is also expected to release an explanatory paper next week to show how the bill complies with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Both opposition parties say they want to see a law in place by June 6.

"If no legislation is passed, it leaves a vacuum, it creates significant uncertainty – uncertainty for patients, uncertainty for physicians and no safeguards for the vulnerable," Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who hasn't yet decided if he'll support the bill, said in an interview.

Still, he added, "it would be far better to have this legislation than nothing at all."

NDP MP Murray Rankin said he hopes MPs and senators can collaborate on any changes to get the bill through in time.

"I want to resolve it by June, but I also want to make sure we get it right," he said.