National Column: Historic debate on death is silenced

by Tim Harper

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould was telling a Senate committee this week that her government’s assisted-dying legislation was a “transformational shift” in this country. But she had to excuse herself.

She was needed down the hall in the House of Commons to explain why debate had to be cut off on this transformational shift.

There is a lot of role-playing in our Parliament. Memories are short and roles can quickly be reversed.

Majority governments are always accused of “ramming” through legislation and opposition members can reasonably be relied upon to rail about jackboot tactics.

While in opposition, the Liberals reliably joined with the New Democrats to accuse Stephen Harper’s government of doing this time and again. This week, it was the Conservatives who accused the Liberals of doing the same.

But on a matter of life-and-death, the red flags that have been raised about this legislation and the emotions it engenders among Canadian voters made shutting down debate precipitously just plain wrong.

The Liberals say they had to cut debate to have it pass second reading and refer it to committee for potential amendments.

This may be procedurally correct, but there can be no higher moral debate than that dealing with life and death.

MPs had been debating Bill C-14 in good faith. They have heard the most personal stories from constituents about deaths of family members. They were opening themselves up in ways rarely – if ever – seen in the House of Commons.

Liberal Arnold Chan (Scarborough-Agincourt) is dealing with cancer, but returned to the Commons to deal with the bill as a Parliamentarian.

“I may in fact be someone who may have to, potentially, depending on how treatment goes, avail myself of this option,” he said.

“It is not one I would like to contemplate, not one that I think is a choice I would like to make, but it is a practical reality of something I might have to face.”

Quebec New Democrat Robert Aubin spoke of the pain he saw in his parents, both of whom died of cancer. Manitoba Conservative Candice Bergen spoke of losing her daughter to cancer nine years ago.

And then along came a government that essentially said, all right, that was fine, but enough of that. We’re shutting you down after 2 1/2 days of debate.

Nathan Cullen, a British Columbia New Democrat and former House leader, said there was no reason for the Liberals to shut down debate on such an emotional issue and such a move threatens to unleash a backlash against the government which halted what had been a model show of nonpartisanship.

Yes, the government is up against a June 6 deadline for legislation as deemed by the Supreme Court, but the Justin Trudeau government is acting as if the world will fall apart if that deadline lapses.

Would it? Sen. George Baker asked that very question in committee Thursday and was told by witness Dianne Pothier, a law professor emeritus at Dalhousie University, that it would be irresponsible of the government to let the deadline lapse and that all government safeguards
would be lost.

Wilson-Raybould agrees that the safeguards the government badly wants would be forfeited if the deadline was not met and there would be a legal vacuum, but it would hardly turn Canada into a wild west on assisted suicide.

The law would be the Supreme Court ruling, not the more restrictive Liberal legislation.

Provincial governments and regulatory bodies would fill the vacuum until federal legislation passed.

This was an issue that no legislator wanted to touch, but now that we are on deadline and there is legislation being considered, everyone wants to talk about it.

That we as a country are under such deadlines in the first place is the parliamentary torpor in the wake of the Feb. 6, 2015 court ruling and a subsequent election. Conservatives claiming now they didn’t have time to properly contemplate this bill shut down a Trudeau proposal in February 2015 to have the matter sent to committee.

There is a fear Liberals are racing toward passage of a bill that is simply going to be challenged in court, again putting those who are already suffering through further agony.

The Liberals may fear passing legislation after the June 6 deadline opens them up to court challenges.

Either way, this mushy-middle bill is vulnerable and two-thirds of opposition MPs have been denied the opportunity to be heard on a historic bill, and that means their constituents have been gagged.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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