Commons to debate Senate changes to assisted dying bill days before deadline

The House of Commons will wait until Tuesday to debate whether to accept or reject Senate amendments to a bill that would expand access to medical assistance in dying.

That leaves just three days before the court-imposed deadline for bringing the law into compliance with a 2019 Quebec Superior Court ruling that concluded it’s unconstitutional to allow assisted dying only for people who are already nearing the natural ends of their lives.

And it runs the risk of missing that deadline, which has already been extended three times.

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As originally drafted, Bill C-7 would expand access to assisted dying to intolerably suffering individuals who are not already near death.

Senators have approved five amendments to the bill, including two that would expand access even further than proposed by the government.

One would allow advance requests by people who fear losing mental capacity and the other would put an 18-month time limit on the bill’s proposed ban on assisted dying for people suffering solely from mental illnesses.

Justice Minister David Lametti thanked senators Thursday for their “thorough and thoughtful work” on Bill C-7 but said the government is still evaluating their amendments.

“I am aware of the deadlines that are upcoming and, as always, I will leave no stone unturned in order to get to the (Feb. 26) date with the final conclusion,” Lametti said.

However, it’s not entirely up to the Liberals, who hold only a minority of seats in the Commons, to determine the fates of the amendments or the timetable for debating them. At least one opposition party will have to support whatever the government decides for the Liberals to go ahead.

Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez later announced that the Commons will debate the Senate amendments on Tuesday.

That means the government will have to give notice of a motion by Monday night indicating whether it accepts, rejects or wants to modify each of the five amendments. Opposition parties will be able to propose changes to the motion and debate could go on at length, barring the imposition of closure, which at least one opposition party would also have to support.

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Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole signalled Thursday that his caucus, which was largely opposed to the original bill, does not intend to be rushed into a decision on the amendments.

“We have concerns about the inclusion of mental health on its own within a state-run assisted-death regime,” he said.

“There’s been a lot of concerns that the most vulnerable are being not heard in this legislation. The Senate has made several amendments. We’re ready to sit at night, on the weekend to try to get this right for Canadians.”

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said his MPs want to study the details but “believe that the Senate has come with something that is based on compassion” and that “the basic ideas (in the amendments) are good,” albeit coming from an unelected institution that his party considers illegitimate.

Blanchet said his party is “comfortable,” in principle, with the proposed 18-month sunset clause on the exclusion of people suffering solely from mental illnesses. But he was warier of the amendment on advance requests, saying the issue requires “finesse and sensitivity” and suggesting Parliament shouldn’t rush into it.

He professed confidence that Parliament will be able to conclude deliberations on C-7 before next Friday’s deadline. Still, Blanchet conceded he’s worried that the Conservatives will try to drag out debate on the amendments, as they did when the original bill was debated in the Commons.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said his caucus will look closely at the amendments. But he reiterated that his party, which has long supported abolition of the Senate, isn’t keen on accepting amendments proposed by it.

“In principle, we believe that on an issue as complex as medical assistance in dying, an unelected body like the Senate should not be expanding the legislation,” Singh said in a statement.

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“Those who are accountable to Canadians are elected members of Parliament. It is concerning when decisions that will directly affect the lives of Canadian families and their loved ones are being made by an unelected and unaccountable Senate.”

If the Commons rejects any or all of the amendments, senators will then have to decide whether to defer to the elected chamber’s decision or dig in their heels.

Theoretically, the bill could bounce repeatedly between the two chambers until they reach a resolution.

Sen. Stan Kutcher, a psychiatrist and a member of the Independent Senators Group who proposed the 18-month time limit on the mental illness exclusion, said he expects senators would take into account the reasons given by the government for rejecting any of the amendments and any compromises it might have to make to win the support of at least one opposition party.

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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