National Column: Provinces can fill Bill C-14 void

by Chantal Hébert

The sky won’t fall if Parliament fails to pass legislation on assisted death by the court-imposed deadline of June 6. It was always going to be no longer a criminal act after that date for a medical practitioner to help a patient who wanted to end their life. Plans for a federal law were never meant to do more than circumscribe this new reality.

Faced with a national legal vacuum, the provinces would step in. When it comes to running the health-care system the buck stops with them. Presumably every province has done due diligence on the issue. If they have not, they have been negligent.

It has been more than a year since a Supreme Court ruling voided the Criminal Code prohibition on assisted death on charter grounds. Over that period Parliament has been in flux as the result of a regime-changing election. But the same is not true of most provincial legislatures.

If Quebec found a way to regulate access to physician-assisted death on its own, there is no reason why other provinces cannot do the same, especially since they have a template in hand. They might actually find it easier to adapt the Quebec template to the top court’s prescriptions absent the federal legislation introduced last week.

Bill C-14 was expected to chart a common path for the provinces. But it was also expected to align with the court’s guidelines. Inasmuch as the legislation barely meets the Supreme Court’s threshold (if at all), it has the potential to make life more complicated for the provinces than if they were guided solely by the ruling.

Pre-emptively filling a legal vacuum with a bill that fails to pre-emptively address predictable court challenges is not exactly a recipe for legal clarity or, as it happens, for ensuring a parliamentary consensus.

Based on the initial reactions to the Liberal bill, it is likely headed for relatively smooth sailing in the House of Commons. But safe passage is anything but assured in the Senate. For the MPs whose top-of-mind consideration is a looming legal vacuum, and for many of those who are only reluctantly coming to terms with having to sign off on an assisted death law, this bill is as good as it can get.

It is hard to see how a federal government of any stripe could have come up with more restrictive legislation than Bill C-14 and still have been able to claim with a straight face that it was responding to the charter ruling.

By the same token, at least some of the MPs who would have wished for a less restrictive regime stand to be swayed by the government’s promise of a loosening of the criteria for qualifying for assisted death at some unspecified point down the road.

But the government’s restrictive approach to assisted death – even as it stands to facilitate the bill’s adoption in the Commons – could sink it in the Senate.

Earlier this year, all Senate members of a joint parliamentary committee struck to advise the government on the way forward signed off on a majority report that recommended a significantly more permissive law than Bill C-14. On that occasion the Conservative senators broke ranks with their House of Commons colleagues.

There is more than just senatorial independence at play here. In contrast with the Commons, the upper house has been looking into end-of-life issues such as euthanasia, assisted death and palliative care for more than two decades. The only group in Parliament that can claim to have done any homework on this file sits in the Senate.

Cabinet ministers and the newly appointed government representative in the upper house, Peter Harder, are bound to support the bill at every step of the legislative way. All other parliamentarians will be free to vote as they see fit.

No one, including the Conservative and Liberal house leaders in the Senate, will give odds as to the likelihood that a majority of their colleagues will support Bill C-14 and/or do so in time for the June 6 deadline. It is possible there will not be enough common ground between the two houses for a federal law to see the light of day. Worse things could probably happen.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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