The fate and timeline for assisted death bill comes into question

With the House consumed with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's conduct, cabinet refuses to acknowledge that they could miss a looming deadline

(Fred Chartrand/CP)

(Fred Chartrand/CP)

OTTAWA – The fate of the government’s controversial assisted death legislation and whether it can pass through Parliament by the Supreme Court’s deadline of June 6 is now very much in question.

In fact, it might be mathematically impossible — a circumstance Liberal cabinet ministers refused to acknowledge Thursday.

When pressed on the timeline outside the Commons, Health Minister Jane Philpott would only say she looks forward to discussing the matter with Liberal House leader Dominic LeBlanc and other colleagues.

“We look forward to exploring a process by which this can be done,” Philpott said.

The legislation has had a rough time already, and it only got rougher on Thursday.

The Federation of Medical Regulatory Authorities of Canada said it believes neither Bill C-14 nor the recommendations tabled on Tuesday by a Senate committee provide adequate clarity on patient eligibility.

The federation represents Canada’s 13 provincial and territorial medical regulatory authorities.

“This is legal language that is far too vague for physicians,” president Dr. Gus Grant said in a statement. “If it remains, physicians will be unable to confidently determine eligibility for some suffering patients.”

The time crunch facing the government, which needs a law in place before the Supreme Court’s ruling on assisted death takes effect next month, worsened Wednesday after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s controversial collision with an NDP MP on the floor of the House of Commons.

Trudeau found himself in hot water after he inadvertently elbowed Ruth Ellen Brosseau while trying to hurry Conservative whip Gord Brown to his seat in order to proceed with a vote aimed at curtailing debate on the bill.

The controversy dominated the agenda in the Commons Wednesday night and Thursday, ensuring MPs — who are going into a break week next week, due to the long weekend — won’t be able to address the bill again until the end of May.

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Government whip Andrew Leslie insisted Thursday that the legislation, known as C-14, is still very much on the agenda.

“We will deal with that after our hardworking MPs return to their constituents and come back a week from Monday,” he said.

For NDP justice critic and public law expert Murray Rankin, the government’s timeline simply does not add up.

“I think it is hard to believe (the government will meet the deadline) if one factors in the existence of the Senate and what they are going to do,” Rankin said. “It seems difficult to square.”

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Some senators have already signalled they are sharpening their legislative scalpels in anticipation of the bill, which has already come under heavy fire from a number of constitutional experts and groups, including the Canadian Bar Association.

For its part, the government remains committed to getting the bill passed by the court’s deadline of June 6, LeBlanc said.

“We have consistently said that we think it would be irresponsible to go beyond the deadline the Supreme Court gave Parliament and not have the appropriate pan-Canadian legislative framework in place,” he said.

“That continues to be our belief.”

It is better that Canada has a bill in place that works and is constitutional rather than ramming through deeply flawed legislation, Rankin added.

“The government would seem to suggest somehow there would be legislative chaos,” he said.

“I want to be clear. It would certainly be preferable to have a law in place. But to have a flawed law, an unconstitutional law, in place doesn’t seem to answer the needs of Canadians.”

The Alberta Court of Appeal ruled earlier this week that the legislation does not comply with the letter of the high court’s landmark decision.

The judgment, handed down on Tuesday, noted the top court did not “require the applicant to be terminally ill to qualify.”

“The decision itself is clear,” the ruling said. “No words in it suggest otherwise. If the court had wanted it to be thus, they would have said so clearly and unequivocally. They did not.”

In the absence of federal legislation, the Supreme Court ruling will effectively become the law of the land when it comes to assisted dying, according to legal experts.

That means that if a patient has a “grievous and irremediable condition” causing enduring and intolerable suffering, it would not be against the law for a physician to provide them with medical assistance in dying.

Advocates have said that in the absence of a federal law, doctor-assisted death would likely end up being regulated by the professional colleges that govern the medical profession in the provinces and territories.