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Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose addresses a press conference as Quebec Health Minister Réjean Hébert (far right), Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne and Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews (left) look on following a meeting of Provincial and Territorial Ministers of Health Oct 4, 2013 in Toronto.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

The federal government will not legalize euthanasia, leaving the matter to the provinces – and possibly the courts – to sort out.

Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose discussed assisted suicide with her provincial counterparts on Friday, including a proposal by Quebec's Réjean Hébert that would allow physicians to help terminally ill patients die in certain circumstances. Ms. Ambrose reiterated that her government does not plan to change the Criminal Code to make the practice national, but said the provinces are free to debate the issue.

"Provincial health ministers have every right to discuss this – whether they do that in their legislature through legislation, like Minister Hébert is doing in Quebec, or with their populations," she said, adding later: "Quebec is going through the motions of a debate in their legislature. Should that pass, then obviously we would look to see what we do with that. If it ends up in court, then the courts would decide about the jurisdiction."

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The federal government last considered the matter in 2010, when Parliament voted down a private member's bill that would have legalized it.

"In Parliament, we discuss things when they come forward as a piece of legislation, like we did in 2010 … and we have nothing before us," Ms. Ambrose said. "In 2010, the vote was taken and that is our position. We do not support this issue."

Quebec contends that doctor-assisted death is a medical matter and, therefore, the province can legalize it without federal approval. If it becomes law, the province would instruct its Crown attorneys not to lay charges. The bill also sets out criteria for when euthanasia would be permitted. Patients would have to be in unbearable pain for which treatment has failed, and would need the approval of two doctors.

The particulars of Quebec's bill were the subject of much discussion at the meeting. But for now, the other provinces are content to take the public's pulse rather than taking action.

"Good public policy begins with honest and open dialogue … often unstructured dialogue among people. And that includes, certainly, questions about resources and criteria, but it also is rooted in a sound understanding of the values of Canadians," Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne said. "We certainly had an opportunity to get together and chat informally. I think that Canadians would be less than impressed if we were to come forward and say that we had all the answers on an issue that is so complex and is so near and dear to people at the most personal level."

All the ministers appeared receptive to a discussion on the issue, and some acknowledged politicians were simply catching up to the public. Assisted suicide has been hotly debated among Canadians for years, with polls showing consistent support for it. And in light of Quebec's plans – and a video plea from Donald Low, a respected Ontario medical official who called for legalized euthanasia shortly before he died of cancer last month – the talk has intensified.

"I can tell you that at kitchen tables across the country, families are having conversations that they were not having two weeks ago. That is exactly what should be happening right now," Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews said. "We sure do encourage people to really think about the issue."

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