Madam Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-268, the protection of freedom of conscience act.
This bill proposes to create two new offences to protect the freedom of conscience of health care professionals in the context of medical assistance in dying, or MAID. The first offence would prohibit using violence or threats of violence, coercion or any other form of intimidation to compel a health care professional to take part in MAID. The second offence proposed would criminalize persons who refuse to employ or dismiss from employment health care professionals because they refuse to take part in MAID.
Protecting the freedom of conscience of our health care professionals is obviously a laudable goal. We have all recently debated Bill C-7, which amended the Criminal Code's MAID regime to remove the reasonably foreseeable death criterion. Some Canadians are very much in favour of MAID for anyone with decision-making capacity, others are profoundly opposed to it in any circumstance and many have opinions that fall somewhere in between those two positions. Many of my constituents in Parkdale—High Park, for example, are largely in favour of MAID, in favour of providing autonomy to Canadians and to empowering them with the tools to reduce suffering, with important safeguards being put in place to protect those who are vulnerable.
Our government understands that medical assistance in dying is deeply complex and personal. We were proud to have passed Bill C-7 in March of this year, which responded to the Superior Court of Quebec's September 2019 Truchon ruling and to the emerging societal consensus on the specific issues relating to MAID. We remain committed as a government to protecting vulnerable individuals and the equality rights of all Canadians, while supporting the autonomy of eligible persons to seek medical assistance in dying. We are working with the provinces and territories to implement the changes in Bill C-7 and ensure adequate access to health care support services and medical assistance in dying to all Canadians who wish to seek it.
This range of views also exists among health care professionals who are the ones directly involved in MAID, whether it be providing MAID, assessing a person's eligibility, dispensing the substances, being consulted or supporting the patient. Clearly there are practitioners who do not want to be involved in MAID at all and there are others who find meaning in responding to the wishes of their patients who are suffering by providing MAID.
Let us get to the heart of what is being moved by the member opposite. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects freedom of conscience and religion from government interference. That is subsection 2(a) of Canada's charter. That freedom is subject to reasonable limits prescribed by law that can be justified in a free and democratic society. It is important to keep in mind that the charter, not the Criminal Code, is the source of that constitutional protection for freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.
I also think it is critical to underscore that the Criminal Code does not in any way compel anyone's participation in MAID. Let me be crystal clear on this point, because it was raised by the member opposite. Concerns about conscience protection also arose in 2016 when she and I were both members of this House, when we enacted Canada's first MAID regime. In order to be abundantly clear, while the preamble already articulated this, our government supported an amendment to Bill C-14, which added to the Criminal Code. I am going to read it for the purposes of clarity. This amendment was to subsection 9 of section 241.2, which states, “For greater certainty, nothing in this section compels an individual to provide or assist in providing medical assistance in dying.” We have the charter, we have the preamble and now we have subsection 9.
This provision exists to protect the conscience rights of medical practitioners, but it will not stop there. The entire MAID regime was prompted by the Supreme Court's decision in Carter. I will read from paragraph 132 of the decision of the court, which said, “In our view, nothing in the declaration of invalidity which we propose to issue would compel physicians to provide assistance in dying.” The court itself has been crystal clear on this issue.
When I asked the member, in the context of the debate this evening, whether there is any evidence of criminal prosecutions against institutions that are compelling physicians or nurses to provide MAID, instances of a wrongful dismissal suit or a human rights complaint, the member was not able to provide a single instance of such a situation arising, which begs the question whether there is actually an acute problem that the member is trying to address or whether, apropos of the question posed by my Bloc colleague, this legislation is simply an attempt to address a broader concern about MAID generally that perhaps is held by the member opposite and members of her caucus.
While there may be requirements for practitioners to participate in MAID in some form, it is at the level of regulation of these practitioners as professionals. That was raised by the member for Esquimalt—Saanich—Sooke. For example, in Ontario, The College of Physicians and Surgeons has an effective referral policy for MAID. It requires that practitioners refer their patients in good faith to a non-objecting, available and accessible physician or agency if they do not personally want to participate in medical assistance in dying. That policy was challenged in court under subsection 2(a) of the charter, the very provision that I put to members in this chamber. In 2019, the Court of Appeal for Ontario upheld the policy and that policy was never taken to any higher level of court afterward. That is the highest example of a court ruling in this country on whether effective referral violates the charter. It does not, according to Canadian jurisprudence.
This is one example of an effective referral policy from a regulatory body created by provincial legislation that aims to reconcile patient access to MAID with physicians' freedom to refuse participating in MAID. As the Ontario Court of Appeal noted, it is a solution that is neither perfect for the patients nor perfect for the practitioners, when questions like MAID raise difficult moral issues that are hard to reconcile with absolute perfection.
I would also note that neither of the offences the bill proposes would have an impact on an effective referral policy from a regulatory body. Such policies are not using violence, threats or intimidation to compel participation in MAID and the colleges that would issue them are not the health care professionals' employers. The offences proposed in this bill are not aligned with that particular objective of the bill.
I also have some questions about the proposed offences. The offence of intimidation reflects an opinion that I think we all hold. Health care professionals should not be the victims of violence, threats of violence or intimidation, whether it is to force them to provide medical assistance in dying or for any other reason. That is such a fundamental principle that the Criminal Code already sets out offences that prohibit such behaviour, regardless of who the victim is and regardless of the objective of the violence, threats or intimidation.
What is more, we have not heard about any doctors being forced by threats, violence or intimidation to provide medical assistance in dying, or MAID. Although the offence of intimidation set out in Bill C-268 may send a message regarding the importance of not engaging in such behaviour to force a health care professional to provide MAID, it would duplicate the offences currently set out in the Criminal Code, such as assault, uttering threats, extortion and intimidation. In fact, it would not provide any additional protection and seems to target a problem that we have no proof even exists.
The employment sanctions offence raises questions about the appropriateness of using the criminal law, which is a very blunt tool that brings about significant consequences, including the deprivation of liberty to punishing employers who refuse to hire or who would fire health care professionals because they did not want to take part in MAID.
Again, I think many of us would agree that practitioners should not face employment consequences if they object to participate in medical assistance in dying, but this seems to me like an improper use of the criminal law to try and push feelings of conscience and religion in the workplace.
I reiterate that our government is committed to the protection of health care workers, now more than ever, given how much they have worked for Canadians during this pandemic. As well, we are committed to ensuring that all Canadians have access to the right of medical assistance in dying. Our government is proud of what we have achieved in Bill C-14 in the last Parliament, and Bill C-7 in this Parliament.
I look forward to working with the Special Joint Committee on Medical Assistance in Dying to review where medical assistance in dying in Canada will be going with respect to the laws on MAID in Canada and recommending any necessary changes.
I urge all members to keep these things in mind as we continue our study of Bill C-268, a private member's bill.