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A parliamentary review of Canada’s law on medical assistance in dying, which is already 18 months overdue.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

The federal Liberal government appears to be in no hurry to complete a legally required parliamentary review of Canada’s law on medical assistance in dying, which is already 18 months overdue.

Repeated delays have led some critics to conclude that the government would rather wait for court rulings to force its hand, rather than plunge into the potentially politically explosive questions the parliamentary review was supposed to explore.

Those questions include whether mature minors or Canadians suffering solely from mental illnesses should be eligible for assisted dying and whether people with dementia and other competence-eroding conditions should be able to make advance requests for the procedure while they still have the mental capacity to consent.

The review by a joint parliamentary committee of MPs and senators was supposed to start in June 2020 but the committee was not formed until last spring.

It held just three meetings – two of them purely organizational meetings – before Parliament broke for the summer and the committee was then disbanded in August due to the federal election call.

While all other House of Commons committees were quickly reconstituted post-election and are back in business, the joint committee on assisted dying has still not been re-established, even though it is theoretically supposed to issue its report in May.

A spokesman for government House leader Mark Holland said the government looks forward to the committee “being reconstituted in the upcoming session of the House” which resumes on Jan. 31, “so it can move quickly to do its work in the coming months.”

But even if the committee is struck immediately, Sen. Pamela Wallin, who was to represent the Canadian Senators Group on the committee, predicts there’s no way it will get through its complex and emotionally charged work in just four months.

“You’d have to really want that to happen in order for it to happen,” she said in an interview, adding she gets no sense the government is interested in moving expeditiously.

Wallin said the five senators named to the committee last May are all ready to get started but have received no explanation for the delay in appointing MPs. The 10 MPs who were named to the committee last spring were all re-elected on Sept. 20 and could presumably be reappointed without difficulty.

“It’s just frustrating for all of us,” she said, attributing the delay to the government’s “general reluctance” to get ahead of the courts on the issue of access to assisted dying.

“I think it’s going to be in the long run as it has always been on this issue: the courts will lead,” said Wallin, who has championed the issue of advance requests.

The government’s approach puts a heavy financial and physical burden on already severely ill people who are forced to engage in lengthy legal battles to gain access to medical assistance in dying, she said. For people with dementia, who don’t have years to spend on court challenges, “it’s denying them this very, very basic choice” to die with dignity.

In addition to the questions surrounding mature minors, mental illness and advance requests, the committee is also supposed to study a host of associated issues, such as the state of palliative care in Canada and the protection of Canadians with disabilities.

When assisted dying was legalized in Canada in 2016, the legislation included a commitment to a five-year parliamentary review of the new law, which restricted the procedure to individuals whose natural death was “reasonably foreseeable.”

The Liberals faced criticism last year for proceeding with amendments to the law – in response to a Quebec court ruling, which struck down the foreseeable death requirement – without having even launched the promised review. But there is no apparent legal consequence for ignoring such statutory commitments or deadlines.

As part of Bill C-7 passed last March, the government promised to finally get the parliamentary committee underway within 30 days (a deadline it missed by about a week) and to have it report back within a year of its first meeting, which was held in May. It made no allowance for a disruption of the committee’s work by an election.

Although the committee is supposed to study the issue of expanding access to assisted dying to people suffering solely from mental illnesses, the government has already agreed in C-7 to lift the current ban on that in 2023 and has set up a separate committee of experts to advise on the rules that should apply in those cases.

Those experts have been proceeding on schedule and are expected to issue their report by March 17, according to Justice Minister David Lametti’s office.

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