For two decades, federal politicians held away the thorny issue of assisted dying with a figurative 10-foot pole and a palpable feeling of unease. Now, it's come down to a rush-rush paper chase to push a bill through before a court-imposed deadline. Tick tock.
Last week, at the Commons justice committee, MPs waded through 146 pages of proposed amendments. Just keeping it all straight was a big task. Amendments were withdrawn, or combined, reworded, defeated and passed. A quick vote, then on to the next.
In one amendment, Liberal MPs, with the support of a New Democrat, shortened the waiting period from 15 days to 10. MPs hammered out wording for the right of doctors to opt out. When MPs disagreed on a section of the bill about recording assisted dying on death certificates, chair Anthony Housefather offered new wording on the fly, and it was done.
Some proposed amendments were thrown out by the bushel. Conservative MP Arnold Viersen had several – many aimed at requiring licensing for professionals assisting a death, which was deemed provincial, not federal jurisdiction – ruled out of order. Mr. Viersen said MPs were suddenly given a day to submit amendments, so he had to just throw what he had at the committee.
Now it is back to the full Commons. On Friday, the government tried unsuccessfully to extend Commons hours so the bill could be debated all night, as they push for a vote by Thursday. (Conservative MP Scott Reid, who sent ballots to his riding so residents could vote on what he deemed a matter of conscience, now won't get them back before the vote.) Then the bill will go to the Senate, that chamber of sober second thought, for rush hearings and votes, aimed at passing it before the court-imposed deadline June 6.
You have to think there's a better way. This is literally a matter of life and death, a change to criminal law to deal with the difficult issues of grievous suffering and end of life. But collectively, parliamentarians have shown they tend to dodge these uncomfortable, divisive issues.
New Democratic MP Svend Robinson took on the cause of Sue Rodriguez, whose 1993 Supreme Court challenge failed to overturn assisted-dying prohibitions. MPs have tried to raise it from time to time since.
Former Conservative MP Steven Fletcher, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a car accident at the age of 23, proposed a new bill in 2014, warning that the Supreme Court would soon strike down the existing law. But there was no debate. When the court struck down the law in February, 2015, giving Parliament a year to replace it, a version of Mr. Fletcher's bill then before the Senate was still ignored.
There was and is opposition to changing the bill, of course. Many people, and several MPs, believe assisted dying sends a message that the state is devaluing life. New Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette worries it will send the wrong signal to young indigenous people. But there was also discomfort among MPs who weren't adamantly opposed. End-of-life issues are uncomfortable. Debating them might be a thankless task. Political parties, especially, would rather avoid it.
But Mr. Fletcher, now a Manitoba MLA, was right. MPs should have seen it coming. That's not just because the courts were shifting, but because public attitudes changed. Most Canadians, according to polls, had come to believe that at least some suffering individuals should have access to physician-assisted dying, though with restrictions. That was a job for Parliament. But even when the courts ordered change, the Conservatives stalled through an election year.
When Justin Trudeau's Liberals came to power, they got a four-month extension from the courts. They convened an all-party committee of MPs, but then ignored much of its recommendations to produce a more-restrictive bill in April. Under pressure, they wanted to carefully thread the needle of support from the public, and in the Commons: Some Liberal MPs deem the bill too restrictive; several MPs, mostly Conservatives, oppose it as too permissive. But they left only three months to pass the law.
It's a lesson to MPs to heed the warnings of individuals like Mr. Fletcher about addressing uncomfortable, evolving, morality-laden debates. Instead, two decades of debate in the country has come down to a rush in Parliament.