The federal government is launching public consultations to renew its assisted dying law, with an eye to tabling legislation in the spring to loosen some of the rules governing the practice across Canada.
The Quebec Superior Court forced the government to amend the federal law last September by striking down a portion that limited access to terminally ill patients whose natural deaths were deemed to be “reasonably foreseeable.”
Starting on Monday, Justice Minister David Lametti and Health Minister Patty Hajdu will attend round tables with experts and oversee an online consultation with Canadians on the best way to amend the law. They will also engage with opposition parties, whose support will be essential to adopting new legislation in a minority Parliament, as well as provincial and territorial governments.
In an interview, Mr. Lametti said the government could adopt a two-step process to modernize the legislation. The first portion would be responding to the Quebec ruling and addressing issues on which there is a broad agreement, to be followed by a mandatory review of the legislation in June by a parliamentary committee.
“What we have to do, as a matter of law and commitment, is to conform to the [Quebec Superior Court ruling],” he said, adding the parliamentary review later this year could be useful to deal with “issues where there is less consensus.”
Over all, Ottawa is looking to address three contentious issues: cases in which mental illness is the sole reason for requesting an assisted death; cases in which patients want to make an advance, written request for assisted death before they lose the capacity to consent; and cases involving patients under the age of 18 who are deemed capable of making their own medical decisions.
Four months ago, Quebec Superior Court Justice Christine Baudouin said the law was unconstitutional because it forced two Quebeckers with incurable conditions – Jean Truchon and Nicole Gladu – to keep living in great pain. Justice Baudouin gave Ottawa until March to amend the law.
The federal government is expected to table legislation before the deadline, but could ask the court for an extension to allow its adoption by Parliament.
The inclusion of the “reasonably foreseeable” requirement by the Liberal government prompted much criticism in 2016, with legal experts warning it was out of step with the Supreme Court of Canada ruling that paved the way for medically assisted dying.
A professor of law at McGill University before he entered politics, Mr. Lametti voted against the legislation in 2016, stating at the time he felt it was “at serious risk of being found to be unconstitutional.”
During the most recent election campaign, the Liberals promised to abide by the ruling of the Quebec Superior Court.
James Cowan, the chair of Dying With Dignity Canada, said he agrees with a two-step process to review the law. Still, he hopes the government will quickly address the issue raised by Audrey Parker, a Halifax woman who received an assisted death earlier than she would have liked in 2018 because she feared her cancer would prevent her from providing “late-stage consent” on the day of her death.
“We would like to see what we refer to as ‘Audrey’s amendment’ [to deal] with somebody who has been assessed and approved but is fearful they might lose capacity before the date they would like to receive medically assisted death,” said Mr. Cowan, who will participate in a round table in Halifax on Monday.
Pauline Tardif, chief executive officer of the Alzheimer Society of Canada, said there is a “sense of urgency” for the government to engage with Canadians on the possibility of allowing dementia patients to make advance requests for the procedure.
Still, she urged the government to “take the necessary time to reflect” on the results of its consultations before amending the law. “It’s a delicate balance,” said Ms. Tardif, who will attend a round table in Toronto on Wednesday.
Sandy Buchman, president of the Canadian Medical Association, says he hopes the process will ultimately provide “clarity" as to when it is appropriate for members of the medical profession to raise and discuss assisted death with patients.