House Committee considers but votes down CLF proposals, Bill C-14 proceeds to Senate

At the Committee stage in the House, the Committee co-chair moved for certain amendments to Bill C-14 proposed by CLF to be adopted by the Committee. These were voted down.

CLF has been engaged in the legislative process in the hope of persuading Members of Parliament to improve the bill—especially members of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, the Committee that reviewed the bill and considered various proposed amendments. CLF’s presentation to the Standing Committee can be viewed here.

At the Committee stage in the House (which follows second reading of the bill in the House), Committee vice-chair Ted Falk moved for certain amendments proposed by CLF to be adopted by the Committee. Mr. Falk moved that the following statements, as CLF proposed in its brief, be added to the bill’s preamble:

“Whereas respect for the sanctity of life is one of our most fundamental societal principles, as expressed in section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the Parliament of Canada has a responsibility to uphold this principle;” and

“Whereas suicide prevention is an important public policy goal supported by the Parliament of Canada, in part because suicide is a significant public health issue”.

While the explicit recognition of the importance of upholding the sanctity of life and preventing suicide is significant in itself, CLF also wanted these objectives stated in the preamble to provide clarity in the event of judicial review. By signalling to a reviewing court that part of the motivation for restricting access to assisted suicide and euthanasia is to uphold fundamental societal principles and to avoid undermining other policy goals, Parliament may attract greater deference from the court. Courts do not have expertise in how various fundamental societal principles and competing policy goals should be balanced, nor is that their responsibility. Sadly, the Committee voted 6-3 against adopting either of the above statements.

However, one Committee member explained that the government opposed the amendment because, in its view, the bill already protects the sanctity of life by recognizing the “inherent and equal value of every person’s life” and already acknowledges the importance of suicide prevention. This member spoke in order to put the government’s position on the record, and while it would be better to have these points stated in the bill itself, there is some value in having them on the Committee record.

Mr. Falk also moved that the following statement be added to the preamble: “Whereas it is not against the public interest to hold and publicly express diverse views about medical assistance in dying, including the view that participating in a person's death is intrinsically morally and legally wrong;”

CLF had recommended the addition of the above statement to the bill out of a concern for organizations that are committed to preventing suicide (assisted or not)—to clarify that their work will not be considered contrary to public policy and that their registered charitable status not be affected by the legalization of assisted suicide. The Committee also voted 6-3 against adopting this change to the bill.

On the issue of the freedom of conscience of individual health care workers, CLF had proposed a robust provision that would have made it an offence to pressure anyone to participate in assisted suicide or euthanasia, but this measure was not adopted. The bill has, however, been amended to say, “For greater certainty, nothing in this section [241.2, on eligibility for assistance in dying] compels an individual to provide or assist in providing medical assistance in dying.” The preamble has also been amended to say that nothing in the Act affects freedom of conscience and religion. However, while it may be true that nothing in the bill compels an individual to participate, nothing in the bill expressly protects an individual from being pressured to participate by an employer or even by a provincial regulatory authority, such physicians’ colleges (although such individuals would still have protections under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as CLF has explained elsewhere).

The bill was also amended to include, in the preamble, a commitment by the Government of Canada to “working with provinces, territories and civil society to facilitate access to palliative and end-of-life care, care and services for individuals living with Alzheimer’s and dementia, appropriate mental health supports and services and culturally and spiritually appropriate end-of-life care for Indigenous patients”. Provided this commitment is honoured, it is a positive addition to the bill.

Other amendments to the bill are cause for concern, however. For example, the bill has been amended to state that “no psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, medical practitioner, nurse practitioner or other health care professional commits an offence if they provide information to a person on the lawful provision of medical assistance in dying.” Depending on the circumstances and manner in which such information is provided, however, it could have the effect of counselling or encouraging a person to seek medical assistance in dying. The bill does not legalize counselling or abetting a person to commit suicide, but it does allow for telling a person how to go about committing assisted suicide. CLF had called for a clarification here in the opposite direction—namely that counselling, encouraging, or pressuring a person to seek medical aid in dying be made explicitly illegal.

The bill as passed by the House of Commons is available here.

CLF remains opposed to the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide and is convinced that Parliament has the constitutional authority to continue to prohibit both. While continuing to make its position known, CLF will continue to participate in the legislative process with the hope of improving the law in whatever way it can.

CLF was one of the few organizations to intervene in all levels of court in Carter, including the post-judgment motion for a further extension of time at the Supreme Court earlier this year. CLF also intervened in both levels of court in D’Amico c. Québec (Procureure générale) concerning the constitutionality of Quebec's assisted suicide legislation. CLF participated, by invitation, in the consultations of the federal External Panel on Options for a Legislative Response to Carter v Canada and the Provincial/ Territorial Expert Advisory Group on Physician-Assisted Dying. CLF also participated in the consultations of the medical Colleges of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and New Brunswick on this issue. CLF filed detailed legal submissions to the Ontario and Alberta governments in response to their consultation on the issue of assisted suicide and euthanasia. CLF made written submissions to the Parliamentary Special Joint Committee on Physician Assisted Dying. Last month (May 3, 2016), CLF presented to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights on Bill C-14.