OTTAWA – Doug Eyolfson did not love the physician-assisted dying bill at first, but he ended up supporting it.
The Winnipeg emergency room doctor and Liberal MP was concerned the Trudeau government’s proposed legislation would not allow patients to decide in advance they would like to end their lives with the help of a physician once they reached a certain point.
“It’s something that I would personally want for myself and something I would like to see, at some point, provided to patients as an option,” Eyolfson said.
The deeply personal played a major role in the decisions of individual Liberals when it came to their votes on Bill C-14, the federal government’s response to the Supreme Court ruling that did away with the ban on physician-assisted suicide.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kept his promise to give his caucus a free vote on this matter of conscience, while ensuring his Liberal government avoided embarrassment on a major piece of legislation which could, for better or worse, end up being an important part of its legacy.
The political victory could be short-lived, as C-14 is getting a serious grilling in the far-less-predictable Senate, but the moves to quell opposition debate in the House of Commons and the lengthy discussions with caucus offer a glimpse at how the government will handle other thorny issues it will face during its mandate.
A senior government source acknowledged that the key was to help those in caucus who felt the bill did not go far enough to understand that the cabinet took a cautious approach, because it would be easier to expand a program later, if necessary, than to restrict one that was later seen to have gone too far.
There were late-night information sessions, one-on-one conversations with Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould or Health Minister Jane Philpott and well-timed telephone calls to those sitting on the fence or showing signs of shifting from one side to the other.
Eyolfson said it was Philpott who personally made the case to him why the government chose to keep the question of advance requests out of the bill, even though it meant ignoring a major recommendation from the special joint committee the Liberals struck to provide input.
He said she explained to him that the Netherlands is the only jurisdiction that allows advance requests for patients who are not comatose and research has shown families and doctors are hesitant to actually comply with them.
“Once that part was explained to me, it made sense as a prudent measure,” said Eyolfson.
Winnipeg MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette voted against the bill from the outset out of concern for the impact it could have on indigenous communities, where an alarmingly high number of youth are turning to suicide. He said he felt no pressure to change his mind, but understood that more than personal convictions could come into play.
“I think some people are nervous, but they are really good team players and they want to play on the same team and play nice,” said Ouellette.
Andrew Leslie, the chief government whip, said getting the numbers right on C-14 involved more than his usual role.
Not only did he have to keep track of whether Liberal MPs were close enough to make it to the House of Commons for a vote on short notice, Leslie also had to gauge how they were feeling and thinking on any given day, never certain until each MP voted.
“You cannot guarantee the will of Parliament,” he said.
Right from the beginning, Leslie said, a handful of MPs had deeply personal stories that set them on one path or another, some telling him they were absolutely determined they could not support the government position.
There was little anyone could do about them, but there was another, much larger group of Liberals who either felt the government’s position had not gone far enough in meeting the ruling from the Supreme Court – including some with concerns about the constitutionality of the bill – or had gone too far.
Leslie said he referred those MPs to Philpott, Wilson-Raybould or others who could provide them with more information and arguments.
He said he also had to fulfil his basic job of tracking the numbers and that sometimes involved calling cabinet ministers back from overseas trips _ especially after an embarrassing near-miss when the New Democrats and Conservatives caught him off guard with a snap vote on an Air Canada bill. The ended in a 139-to-139 tie that Speaker Geoff Regan broke in favour of the government.
“We had to win,” Leslie said, but added that on such a personal issue, another factor came into play.
“This is the time to stand and be counted, one way or the other,” Leslie said.
Montreal-area Liberal MP Alexandra Mendes had planned on doing just that.
She was one of those who told Leslie right away that she could not support C-14 unless it was amended to include advance directives, an opinion she held to firmly after watching both her grandmothers slip away slowly due to Alzheimer’s.
But when the final vote came Wednesday night, Mendes said she got a few minutes behind in a seminar she was giving a couple of blocks south of Parliament Hill and then could not run fast enough in her heels to reach the Commons on time.
She missed the deadline by seven minutes and was so disappointed and angry with herself that she hid in Leslie’s office for half an hour until she calmed down.
“So, for the most prosaic of reasons, I ended up missing a vote that was so significant for me on a personal level,” Mendes wrote in an email.