Madam Speaker, I am very pleased to participate in this important debate about conscience rights. It is an honour to follow my friend, the member for Cypress Hills—Grasslands. I want to, particularly, salute the great work done on this motion by the member for Peace River—Westlock, someone who is making a great contribution here, not just with his clever S.O. 31 rhymes but also with his substantive contributions at other times.
I think we have had a good debate today, but at the same time, as much as our conventions are to take a liberal view of topicality, there has been a lot of discussion about aspects of Bill C-14 that do not directly relate to conscience. Maybe that underlines the fact that there actually should have been more discussion of Bill C-14 at second reading. I hope there will not be closure on it at third reading.
I want to focus my comments today on this specific opposition day motion on the issues of conscience.
First of all, right off the bat, I want to underline what we are talking about here. The government has talked about an amendment that was brought in at committee to the legislation that discussed conscience rights. I say, “discussed conscience rights”, but it did not protect conscience rights.
I want to read that amendment so members know exactly what we are talking about. It is on page 8 of the reprinted bill, lines 32 to 34:
For greater certainty, nothing in this section compels an individual to provide or assist in providing medical assistance in dying.
Let us be clear about what that section says, “nothing in this section compels an individual”, etc. The concern was never that this section compelled individuals, but rather, that the interaction of this legislation and policies at the provincial level, which are pre-existing, which we know exist, without the protections in this legislation will have the effect of a violation of conscience protection.
It is sleight of hand for the government to say there is nothing in the legislation by itself. It is precisely the interaction of the legislation with existing policies that causes the problem.
The government has quite correctly pointed out that Conservative members supported this amendment, because it was a very small step in the right direction. However, on the many substantive problems to the legislation, which we proposed amendments about, we did not see any support from government members. We proposed robust, serious conscience protection, things that would not just reference conscience but would actually protect conscience. We proposed those amendments. The member for St. Albert—Edmonton and others did an excellent job of presenting and advocating those, but unfortunately, to no avail.
That is what we are talking about, whether or not the legislation should contain robust, meaningful protection of conscience.
For all those members who have, today, paid lip service to the idea of conscience, I ask, “Why, then, did the members in the committee not support things that would take the necessary action to protect conscience?”
We have heard a number of different arguments about this issue. We have heard that conscience rights are already protected in the charter, so we do not have to worry about them because they are already part of our underlying laws. Yes, it is correct to say that conscience rights are in the charter, but it is not at all sufficient to say that we do not need policies and legislation that ensure those charter principles are actually implemented.
Why is this important?
First, courts are going to show some degree of deference to the legislature when they are interpreting the exact application of these rights. It is important for the legislature to be clear about the importance of conscience rights to us and how we would like to see it operationalized in particular situations.
It also provides certainty. Without the certainty of guaranteeing positive conscience protection in the legislation, people will have their conscience rights violated, at least in the interim, and will be forced to go to the court to seek a remedy.
I am of the view that the current College of Physicians and Surgeons' policy in Ontario does violate section 2 provisions around conscience in the charter, but this now requires what is happening now, which is a legal challenge. For the time being, it creates a great deal of problems and uncertainty. It prevents many medical practitioners from participating effectively in serving their patients.
It is not enough to just say we have these guarantees in the charter so we do not need to think about them. No. We need to ensure that the rights of conscience are protected in policies and in legislation. That is why we want to see positive conscience rights protection here.
There has been some discussion, as well, about this jurisdictional question. It is curious that the government says, on the one hand, “We've provided conscience protection in the legislation”, and then it says, on the other hand, “Conscience protection is not something we can provide; it's at the provincial level”.
Which is it? Its arguments against the motion are in fact mutually exclusive.
Let us be very clear. This legislation does not provide positive conscience protection, but given that the legislation, Bill C-14, is describing the contours of an exception to the Criminal Code, it is very much within our rights, as the legislature, to say that the exception we are creating in the Criminal Code has conditions and exceptions within it.
There is no principle problem with doing that. Again, as has been discussed, this is something that has been done before when the federal government is involved in areas describing the contours of those exceptions and ensuring conscience protection.
We often talk here about the importance of pluralism, about the value of Canadian multiculturalism. Protection of conscience is an essential part of our fabric as a multicultural nation. People come here from other places, people who have lived here for a long time. They have different kinds of traditions, different kinds of values. Multiculturalism is not just that we look different and eat different food but that we can have substantive different perspectives on what constitutes the good life, and that we can live out those conceptions in our lives and that we can have respectful discussions with each other about those different conceptions of the good life.
However, it is important to have that meaningful robust concept of multiculturalism, of pluralism existing, and that we do protect rights of conscience and religion. It is not enough to just pay lip service to these concepts, like pluralism, they need to be protected. Conscience rights provide the foundation on which a well-functioning pluralistic and multicultural society is built.
I want to underline as well that conscience rights are a right of non-interference. They are not a demand to interfere in someone else's life. An expectation of the protection of a conscience right is simply the expression of someone saying, “Just leave me alone. Just let me do my own thing with my own medical practice. I am not going to interfere with someone else, but just let me do what I wish to do within my own sphere.” That is all those who are seeking conscience protection are asking for.
Therefore, why will the government not ensure that the doctors who want to provide good service to their patients, who want to provide palliative care and other necessary services, and who may have a different conception of the good life or of some of these moral questions than others do are left alone? They are not asking for anything special. They are asking to be left alone so that they can continue to do the good work that they want to do.
One of the counter-arguments we hear is that health care is public, so given that there is some degree of public involvement the state should somehow be able to dictate the terms of health care up to the point of taking away individual conscience rights. Is it not curious that as soon as the state is partially involved in something there is this automatic assertion that conscience rights and the rights of the individuals involved go out the window?
Given that health care is, in practice, provided as a partnership between state funding and individuals who are acting within that system who are motivated not just by the funding that comes from the state but by values, compassion, and a desire to serve their patients, and given that health care is a partnership between community groups, volunteer donors, those who fundraise for local hospitals, as well as the state, why not protect the conscience rights of individuals and of institutions so that they can continue to provide services that reflect their values?
We have talked a lot here about law, theory, and principles of rights. Let us bring this back to something very concrete and practical.
I have mentioned Dr. Nancy Naylor before, who is a palliative care physician in Strathroy, Ontario. I have not spent a lot of time in Strathroy, but I do not suspect that there are a very large number of palliative care physicians there. She is leaving the practice of palliative care because she is concerned that her conscience rights will be infringed as a palliative care physician.
We can talk back and forth about the theory of the rights that are at play here, but never mind the doctor and her career, what is the cost to this doctor's patients, the many people who do not want to die and who just want access to good quality palliative care? What about them? Every time a doctor is forced to leave a jurisdiction because of an infringement on their conscience rights that affects those patients who lose access to that family doctor or palliative care physician. That affects far more patients than the doctor or the doctor's family.
Whatever members think about this arguably important theory of conscience rights, they should think about the impact on patients and about the impact on our already woefully inadequate system of palliative care.
I ask members to support this important motion.