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With cross-party support in Quebec’s National Assembly, the legislature was scheduled to pass Canada’s first legislation aimed at permitting assisted dying. The bill as it stood would have permitted assisted dying in very carefully circumscribed circumstances. To be eligible, patients must suffer from an incurable illness and be in an advanced stage of irreversible decline, there must be no prospect of an improvement of their condition, they must also suffer from constant and unbearable physical or psychological pain, and they must be legally competent when they ask for assistance. Oh, and, given that a large majority of Canadians support such legislation, they also added the proviso that you would have to be insured in Quebec, presumably to prevent us folks living in provinces run by church-controlled parliamentarians from driving over to Quebec when we have decided that our time has come.
No doubt, Mr. Harper’s attorney general stood at the ready; he would have taken this legislation to the Supreme Court of Canada. After all, while health care is a provincial matter, there’s also the federal Code criminalizing assisted dying. Quebec’s legislators in Bill 52 asserted loud and clear their authority over matters health care. Quebec’s attorney general would have been ordered to cease prosecuting health-care professionals who assist Quebecers in their dying, provided they adhered to the criteria laid out in the legislation. Mr. Harper’s government, having so far thrown not too much meat in the direction of the Conservatives’ evangelical voter base, would not have let this opportunity pass to represent the religious right’s interests in this matter.
Would have been, could have?
It didn’t happen, courtesy of Quebec’s Liberal party. Before I get to that, though, let’s take a step back and look briefly at the history of Quebec’s cross-party effort aimed at passing legislation that permits assisted dying in the province. Support for such legislation among Quebecers runs these days above 80%, so this particular legislative effort did not take a lot of political guts to put into motion. It all began with the province’s former Liberal premier Jean Charest installing a Committee on Dying with Dignity. After his defeat at the hands of the PQ, this cross-party supported initiative continued under the leadership of the PQ. Eventually Bill 52 was produced, again with support of all factions in the National Assembly. It took no less than four years of public hearings, expert testimony and parliamentary debate. In the end, the document produced was very much in sync with what you can describe as best European practice on this matter. That said, if you’re opposed for religious reasons to assisted dying, you won’t like it, no matter what. If you belong to the majority of Canadians who want such legislation to come about, the safeguards put in place to prevent abuse of the vulnerable would likely have swayed you to support this bill.
The last reading of this bill in the National Assembly this week was expected by most observers to be a mere formality. After all, the Liberals in the province started it all, the PQ continued the process. How often do these two parties, in Quebec of all places, agree on anything of substance?
Much to the horror of the Liberals in the National Assembly, the PQ currently enjoys an all-time high in opinion poll after opinion poll. They are well on course to form a majority government if an election were held today. The Liberals? Well, not so much.
There must have been some hope among Liberal party strategists that the budget the PQ planned to introduce would have permitted the Liberals to inflict some damage on the province’s governing party. They wanted to ensure the document could be properly debated after the two-week recess the National Assembly began at the close of business on Thursday. So they tried hard to drag out the debate on Bill 52 to prevent the PQ from introducing the budget this week.
The PQ, on the other hand, seems determined to call an election during the recess. Of course, the Liberals aren’t terribly keen on an election campaign in Quebec at this point in time. Their current leader, Philippe Couillard, is proving to be a vote destroyer not dissimilar to what Michael Ignatieff and Stephane Dion were for the federal Liberals. And now Couillard added another nail in the coffin of Quebec’s Liberal party. By means of procedural shenanigans, he prevented a vote on Bill 52. He claims, disingenuously, that there just wasn’t enough time to debate this bill properly. Unlike the PQ and the two other smaller parties in the National Assembly, the Coalition Avenir Quebec and Quebec Solidaire, the Liberals were not willing to stay long enough to permit a vote on Bill 52. As a result, Bill 52 died on the order table.
Remarkably, Couillard was quick to declare that if the Liberals form the next Quebec government, they would reintroduce Bill 52 unchanged. Now, you got to ask yourself three questions here: First, as the PQ’s Stephane Bedard pointed out, what exactly do the Liberals think hasn’t been discussed during the last four years of hearings and deliberations? Second, why would the Liberals, in the unlikely event that they form the next provincial government, introduce exactly the same bill that they could not support this last week? Surely they must have issues with the bill that worry them. Finally, if they don’t have serious problems with Bill 52, why didn’t they permit a vote on it?
It is pretty clear that the Liberals in Quebec sacrificed Bill 52 for purely election strategic reasons. Given the popularity of the bill in Quebec, let me predict that the PQ will hammer them in their election campaign also on this issue. It’s going to be a vote winner for them.
Udo Schuklenk holds the Ontario Research Chair in Bioethics and Public Policy at Queen’s University, between 2009 an 2011 he chaired an international expert panel drafting a report on end-of-life issues in Canada on behalf of the Royal Society of Canada. He tweets @schuklenk.