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Politics New senators want to see amendments to assisted-dying bill

Several recently appointed senators find the terms of the proposed legislation too restrictive.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

After more than a month of debate, delay and increasing animosity in the House of Commons, the Liberal government's doctor-assisted dying bill is finally set to arrive in the Red Chamber next week – where it will run up against another transformative Trudeau initiative: Senate reform.

Bill C-14 is expected to pass in the House of Commons on Tuesday, although at least three Liberal MPs – Robert-Falcon Ouellette, Robert Oliphant and Nathaniel Erskine-Smith – have said they are prepared to vote against it, for different reasons.

For weeks, Liberal cabinet ministers have struggled to stave off suggestions that the bill is both unconstitutional in its limitations and irresponsibly broad. It is all unfolding as the government faces a deadline from the Supreme Court of Canada, which gave Parliament until June 6 to come up with a new law governing physician-assisted dying.

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After that date, if no law is in place, the court's pre-existing decision that the procedure should be available to consenting adults with "a grievous and irremediable" medical condition, who face enduring and intolerable suffering, stands – although regulatory bodies in many provinces and territories have set out their own interim guidelines about how the medical community should proceed.

But when the bill makes its way to the Red Chamber, its long-term future is less clear. And that's because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's own Senate reform plan has made the legislation's passage impossible to predict.

The Red Chamber is now split into three groups: 42 Conservatives, 23 independents and 21 Senate Liberals, who are no longer part of the government's caucus after Mr. Trudeau kicked them out more than two years ago to make the Senate less partisan. But that partisanship came with a guarantee: government legislation would pass.

Several of Mr. Trudeau's seven recent Senate selections, who were recommended by an independent advisory board, now say they want to see the government's bill amended. If enough of their colleagues in the Red Chamber agree, that means the legislation would have to go back to the House of Commons for another vote. And if those changes are shot down by MPs, it could be stalled indefinitely when it returns to the Senate.

The sense among the newly appointed independent senators is that by thinking for themselves, they are doing their jobs.

"I owe nothing to the Trudeau government," independent senator André Pratte, a journalist, told the Globe and Mail. "I was honoured to be appointed, and thankful to Mr. Trudeau for doing it. But once I was appointed, I was very clear that I did not owe Mr. Trudeau anything."

Mr. Pratte, like several senators in the Liberal and Conservative camps, finds the bill too restrictive. He wants it amended to exclude that a patient's natural death "has become reasonably foreseeable" to qualify for medical aid in dying.

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"The way the bill is written presently deprives some people of a fundamental right, because it limits, in practical terms, the right to medical assistance in dying to people who are sick with a terminal illness," Mr. Pratte said.

He said if the bill is amended by a majority of senators and sent back to the House, but the changes are rejected by MPs, he would then vote against it. "Then I guess there would be no bill," he said.

Fellow independent senator Frances Lankin, a former Ontario NDP minister, also wants the foreseeable death line removed. She further believes patients with mental illness who meet all of the other criteria should be able to access the procedure. "Those two things seem to be problematic in the way C-14 is constructed," she said.

Still, Ms. Lankin said she is struggling with whether she would vote against the bill if the elected MPs rejected the unelected senators' amendments. "I didn't think I'd have to deal with this as a new senator," she said.

Another recently appointed independent, Senator Ratna Omidvar, says she still wants to hear from experts about the bill before making up her mind. But in talking to her colleagues, she predicts there will be amendments.

"This is an issue where independence is really called into play," Ms. Omidvar, a well-known diversity expert, said. "I don't believe that our mandate is to simply accept what the House of Commons sends over."

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On Friday, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould told an audience at the Liberal convention in Winnipeg, where some delegates are pushing for a less restrictive law, "this is what we believe is the best approach for our country at this point in time." She said her government considered referring the bill to the Supreme Court, but decided against it. "I fundamentally believe that our honourable justices would say, 'Do your job,'" she said.

The government's representative in the Senate, Peter Harder, says he is working with the Conservative and Liberal leaders to extend the sitting hours next week, although he admits June 6 is an "very ambitious" deadline. In the end, he says he has no control over how senators choose to vote.

"They're not asked to rubber stamp. I have no carrots and no sticks," Mr. Harder said. "What I do have is an obligation to treat senators with respect and civility and to ensure that they exercise their judgment in the face of legislation that comes to this chamber, recognizing that we are not an elected chamber."

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