Ontario premier conflicted on assisted suicide, supports national debate

TORONTO – Canadians need to have a debate on whether or not to legalize assisted suicide, whether the federal government wants to deal with the issue or not, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said Thursday.

The video from the late Dr. Donald Low pleading with Canada to do a better job in dealing with end-of-life issues has sparked debate on a topic on the minds of many, added Wynne.

“I think Dr. Low raised, in a very powerful and personal way, an issue that is on the minds of many people across the country,” she said.

“I think this is a national discussion that every one of us as citizens of this country is going to have to think about. It’s about human beings deciding what kinds of choices they believe that they should have.”

Wynne said she had heard the audio but had not viewed the video by Low, the calm public voice during Toronto’s SARS crisis in 2003, which was taped just eight days before he died from a brain tumour last week at age 68.

Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay said in Winnipeg Thursday that the Conservative government has no desire to change the Criminal Code to legalize assisted suicide.

“It is my considered opinion that the federal government should not open up this debate as it pertains to changes to the current laws in this country that are there to protect people,” said MacKay.

“I know that there are a variety of opinions and deeply held moral opinions about this, but we are not going there. We are not going to open up a debate.”

Wynne scoffed at the federal reaction, and said the Conservatives can’t ignore the fact that people are talking about what she calls a very challenging ethical issue, in part because of Dr. Low’s video pleading with opponents of assisted suicide to reconsider.

“A federal government may decide that it doesn’t want to have the discussion, but the fact is that human beings are going to be having this discussion, and that is what Donald Low has put on the table,” she said.

“So it will be, I believe, a national discussion.”

The premier said she “hasn’t landed” yet and is still having an internal debate on assisted suicide, and suspects most other Canadians are as well.

“For me personally, it is a debate within myself about choice, and safety and how do we empower the medical community or not, and that is a very challenging ethical and human discussion that’s going to have to happen across the country,” said Wynne.

“I think probably my own conflicted view of the whole discussion reflects the public discourse on it.”

Aging baby boomers want more control over end-of-life issues and the country needs to engage in a debate to see if the law banning assisted suicide should be changed, added Wynne.

“I’m a baby boomer and I know that this generation has wanted to have a lot of control, and so that’s why I think this is going to be a very conflicted and difficult discussion, but one I think everyone in the country is going to have to pay attention to,” she said.

Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews said the issue of assisted suicide is not on the agenda for a meeting with her federal and provincial counterparts next week, but she “would be surprised” if it doesn’t come up.

“I’m not pushing for any legislative change, but I am pushing for a discussion,” said Matthews.

The Quebec government is already holding public hearings on its legislation which would outline the conditions necessary for someone to get medical assistance to die. The federal government plans to review it.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.