Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to participate in the consideration of the amendments proposed by the Senate to Bill C-7, which seeks to amend the Criminal Code provisions on medical assistance in dying.
Our colleagues did a lot of work on Bill C-7 and proposed reasoned amendments following careful deliberations. The Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs heard from a variety of witnesses as part of two different studies. I followed the debate at second and third reading and thought that the speeches given in the Senate reflected the range of perspectives shared by the many witnesses.
It is therefore with great respect for the work of the Senate that we are examining the amendments it is proposing to Bill C-7. As the minister explained, there are three amendments that we plan to support, with some adjustments.
The first relates to the collection and analysis of data about the race of persons seeking MAID. Let me say here that we have heard extensively in the House of Commons and the Senate about the need for better and more robust data collection with respect to MAID. That data has been collected since MAID first entered into the legislative landscape, but certainly improvements can be made.
It is important now, especially during Black History Month, to note that one of the Senate amendments proposes tracking the analysis of data on the race of persons who are accessing MAID. This is important because we have clearly seen a light shone on the important issue of systemic racism in Canada, North America and around the planet. We need to understand how racialized persons, because of their inherent vulnerability, may be disproportionately impacted by MAID and address that vulnerability with our legislative response.
I would say, however, as articulated by previous speakers, including the minister, that the amendment the government proposes to make to this portion of what the Senate is suggesting would make it more inclusive in light of all of the witness testimony given in both the House and the Senate. By that I mean in addition to race-based data, data about disability and indigenous identity would be collected and analyzed. This, of course, is important, especially and specifically as we broaden the MAID regime to circumstances where death is not reasonably foreseeable, in response to the Truchon decision, which creates the real possibility that people will seek and obtain MAID because of vulnerabilities in their lives as opposed to their health conditions. I am grateful to the Senate for proposing this important legislative change.
The second Senate amendment the government supports, with some adjustments, is the sunset clause that attaches to the mental illness exclusion. We heard extensively about this from the previous speaker and in other interventions that have been made. The Senate amendment proposes a sunset clause of 18 months. The government is suggesting that the sunset clause be extended to 24 months.
Second, and very importantly, we are requiring that the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Health ask a group of experts to make recommendations on safeguards, protocols and guidance for MAID on the basis of mental illness alone. Those experts would be required to report back to the ministers within one year, which would leave an additional year for the government to consider what safeguards should be legislated and for Parliament to consider things when enacting any subsequent legislation.
I want to give some context surrounding the sunset clause because it is obviously a pressing matter for today's debate and a pressing issue for all parliamentarians.
The government's position is that it needs more time to consider and enact safeguards for the population of people whose sole underlying condition is a mental illness. The Minister of Justice was always clear that the questions of whether MAID for mental illness should be allowed and, if so, what safeguards were needed would be studied in the course of an upcoming parliamentary review.
What the sunset clause would do, in combination with a requirement for an expert review, is commit to a definite timeline for eligibility of persons whose only medical condition is mental illness. This would reduce the risk that some Canadians would feel the need to challenge the exclusion before the courts should they believe it is unconstitutional. It would also provide them with the certainty that two years following royal assent of Bill C-7, eligibility on the basis of mental illness would be considered with the requisite safeguards attached.
This point about potential constitutional challenges is not an academic point alone. We know this is a complicated issue that balances competing constitutional rights. Obviously we know from the Truchon decision that there has been litigation with respect to the old Bill C-14, and virtually all observers recognize that there is very likely to be constitutional challenges related to the current bill, Bill C-7, should it be enacted. In fact, we heard testimony about this at a House of Commons standing committee. Some witnesses said the exclusion of mental illness alone could perhaps give rise to a section 15 challenge. We are trying to ensure that Canadians who are concerned about this exclusion would have a remedy that is not via the court process, but rather through the task force of experts and the parliamentary study that would follow therefrom.
We heard a lot from the previous member about evidence and whether the government believes in evidence-based approaches. I would reiterate for the record that absolutely we do, and some of that evidence relates to a very specific document in the submissions that were made by the Association des médecins psychiatres du Québec.
In November 2020, the Quebec association of psychiatrists, or AMPQ, published a very informative discussion paper on access to medical assistance in dying for people with mental illness, which underscores the reasons that the government believes that a 24-month sunset clause is needed.
The work of this association will no doubt be foundational to the expert review of this issue. It points to some possible solutions, but they are fairly complex. That is why we need to carefully consider solutions that could work nationally.
The association is of the view that whether a mental illness is incurable or not can “only be determined at the end of a long process, after attempting several treatments and assessing their effects”. The association further notes that before coming to a conclusion on eligibility a psychiatrist “should explore other aspects that shape the patient’s life experience and consider strategies to improve the social circumstances that add to the suffering”. This dovetails exactly with some of the interventions made in the last portion of the debate by members of the NDP, who talked about supports that surround a person's life circumstances, such as income security, housing security and so on.
Going back to the submission from the association, it notes, “Psychiatrists must be involved as both the first and second assessors”, and also notes, “access to psychiatric care varies significantly from one region to the next.”
In light of all of these considerations, the Association des médecins psychiatres du Québec suggests that we create a new administrative body with regional offices dedicated to MAID on the basis of mental illness that would coordinate such requests, identify MAID assessors and providers, and ensure access to psychiatrists. It also suggest that such an administrative body could monitor the assessment process in real time instead of after the fact.
I highlight this in some detail because I believe the association's discussion paper is focal to why we as a government believe that a 24-month sunset clause is needed. The work of the association will no doubt be foundational to the expert review of this issue. The paper points to possible solutions, some of which are fairly complex in nature, which underscores the need for careful consideration of what could work nationally. Further, I underscore that government and Parliament will need time to make decisions about which safeguards should be codified in federal MAID legislation as a matter of criminal law relating to mandatory access across the country.
I will now turn to the third amendment.
The third amendment being proposed by the Senate, which the government proposes to support with some modifications, relates to the notion of the parliamentary review. The government has repeatedly committed to facilitating the start of the parliamentary review required by Bill C-14 as soon as possible following the adoption of the current Bill C-7. Our proposed adjustments to the amendment proposed by the Senate would ensure that all of the relevant issues are front and centre for the joint parliamentary committee that would undertake this work. I underscore the notion that it is joint, because it would be a combined study by the Senate and the House of Commons, similar to what we saw prior to the advent of the original Bill C-14. Its mandate would look at things that were contemplated by the original intended review of Bill C-14, such as requests by mature minors and issues that relate to advance directives.
In addition, we would include palliative care and safeguards for persons with disabilities within the scope of that mandatory joint parliamentary review by the Senate and the House. We also proposed to adjust the timelines, so they are both realistic in a pandemic environment but still ambitious, given the seriousness of the issues at hand. These are important features we feel would enable us to move forward in a collaborative manner involving the work of both Houses of Parliament, as well as the work of all legislators from various parties.
I would note parenthetically that, obviously, the member for Esquimalt—Saanich—Sooke has been very instrumental in leading the charge and a call for a study in Parliament of the previous bill, Bill C-14. Some of what we are proposing incorporates his views on the scope of what that review should look like.
Finally, there are two Senate amendments that, in the government's view, cannot be supported.
The first is the amendment to the mental illness exclusion itself. While I appreciate that some have advocated for greater clarity around what mental illness means in this context, the government is concerned that this particular amendment, as drafted by the Senate, implies that neurocognitive disorders are ordinarily understood as being mental illnesses, which, in fact, may not be the case. The federal government will work with its provincial and territorial counterparts to ensure a consistent application of the mental illness exclusion until it sunsets.
The second Senate amendment we propose to reject is the amendment to expand the waiver of final consent. Providing MAID in the absence of final consent is extraordinary and carries risks, and we acknowledge that. The Senate amendment goes beyond the scope and principle of Bill C-7, which would permit the waiver of final consent only in narrow circumstances that present the fewest risks. Any expansion of advance consent or proposal for advance requests, which are sometimes called advance directives, will involve greater risks and should be the object of careful consideration by the parliamentary review.
It has always been the notion that the issue of advance directives should be contemplated only after consideration by the broader parliamentary review. This was the case with the previous Bill C-14, and it is certainly the case now with what we are proposing as a government with respect to the parliamentary review that should ensue herefrom.
In the time I have remaining here, I would like to canvass a couple of points.
One is the notion that has arisen during the discourse of today's debate that somehow the government and de facto the Senate are somehow pursuing a route that is putting undue focus on facilitating an end of suffering, including facilitating the passing of an individual, as opposed to making the condition of life more viable and also more supported. That assertion is categorically false. The government's record over the last five and a half to six years speaks for itself in terms of the supports we have put in place, whether they are in long-term care, home care or supports for mental illness.
It relates to, as the previous member mentioned, a unanimous consent motion being passed regarding a suicide hotline. The supports we have put in place, such as the Canada health and social transfer, and a few intensive efforts to address home care and palliative care, are significant investments. We are ensuring that people are making such significant decisions based on the full understanding of what options are available to them and what supports are available to them. Can more be done? Of course, more can be done. I think that is what is important about what arises from a debate such as this.
The second thing I want to underscore is something that arose many times when Bill C-7 was in our chamber the first time, meaning its second and third readings prior to being sent to the Senate, which has again arisen today in the context of today's debate, and that is this idea that persons with disabilities are somehow being victimized, targeted or unfairly treated by this particular bill. I will raise a couple of important points, which I think are really important for all members of Parliament to understand. I have raised these points before, but I will reiterate them.
What we are talking about here is autonomy and the autonomy of individuals to make choices about the end of their lives and their passing, and that butts up against the need to protect vulnerable people. It is an important balance, and that is what is at the heart of this. This makes it probably the most difficult issue any of us have dealt with, at least it has been for me in my five and a half years as as parliamentarian. That being said, people need to understand that the case that was brought before the courts that we are responding to now was brought by two individuals: Monsieur Truchon and Madame Gladu.
Both suffered from disabilities, but because they were not near the end of their lives, they were prevented from accessing the MAID regime under Bill C-14. This is because it was, at that point and even now, until the law is potentially changed, an end-of-life only regime.
I want to read for members what the court analyzed with respect to that, because we have heard a lot in this discussion that somehow what we are trying to do in Bill C-7 is discriminatory of persons with disabilities. The notion of discrimination under section 15 was squarely in front of the court in the Truchon case, and what the court said is quite the opposite. I am quoting from paragraph 678 of the Truchon decision. The court said:
The requirement at issue reveals a legislative regime within which suffering takes a back seat to the temporal connection with death. Where natural death is not reasonably foreseeable, the consent in suffering of the disabled are worthy only of the sympathy of Parliament, which has adopted a protectionist policy toward every such person, regardless of his or her personal situation. As soon as death approaches, however, the state is prepared to recognize the right to autonomy. This is a flagrant contradiction of the fundamental principles concerning respect for the autonomy of competent people, and it is this unequal recognition of the right to autonomy and dignity that is discriminatory in this case.
The judge went on, in paragraph 681:
By seeking to counter only one of the stereotypes that the disabled face—vulnerability—the challenge provision perhaps perpetuates another probably more pernicious stereotype: the inability to consent fully to medical assistance in dying. Yet the evidence amply establishes that Mr. Truchon is fully capable of exercising fundamental choices concerning his life and his death. As a consequence, he is deprived of the exercise of these choices essential to his dignity as a human being, due to his personal characteristics that the challenged provision does not consider. He can neither commit suicide by a method of his choosing nor legally request this assistance.
I read this into the record to remind parliamentarians that discriminating against anyone in Canada should not be countenanced. However, what was squarely before the court was whether the old regime was discriminatory against persons with disabilities who want to make autonomous choices about their passing, but were not near the end of their lives. The court found, conclusively, that the old regime was discriminatory. That is what prompted this and other changes to the legislation.
I think it is very important to understand that. When I, and others, talk about the heterogeneity among people with disabilities, that is what we are driving at. It is not for Parliament, in my respectful view, to impede, limit or curtail the competence and autonomy of persons, including persons with disabilities, who want to make significant choices about how and in what manner to end their suffering.
I think a compassionate response by this Parliament, a response that entrenches dignity, requires us to do the opposite. I know it is difficult. I know it is moral. I know it is an issue fraught with a lot of personal conviction, and that it is a difficult task for many of us, but that is the task before us as parliamentarians. As somebody who is familiar with discrimination law, I wanted to correct the record, in terms of what I have heard in today's debate and previous debates, about how discrimination plays into the analysis.