Last year, just days before the Supreme Court decision striking down the law against assisted suicide, 16×9 spoke to families making end-of-life decisions.
More than a year later, we went back to visit Elayne Shapray in her home in Vancouver.
“On February 6 when I heard that we won unanimously at the Supreme Court level, I was elated and I said, ‘I didn’t think I’d live to see this day,’” she said.
Shapray suffers from multiple sclerosis (MS) and was part of the landmark Supreme Court case – fighting for her right to die with dignity.
“Many people say, ‘It’s not so bad,’ or ‘If I were in your position, I wouldn’t want to die,’ they have no idea at all how I feel,” she said.
“I think only the individual can decide when enough is enough. And I think it gives you peace of mind knowing that when enough is enough, there’s a doctor out there who will help you.”
When the Supreme Court of Canada stuck down the law in February 2015, it also suspended its decision for a year, giving the federal government time to come up with legislation that would allow assisted dying. During that time, the law preventing assisted suicide was still in place.
“In this case, articles of the Criminal Code are unconstitutional and therefore cannot survive. They do not pass constitutional muster, and yet we’re keeping them alive for the government’s convenience,” Karen Elits, a constitutional lawyer and professor at the University of Ottawa said.
But a year after the historic decision, a new law still isn’t in place. In January, the Supreme Court granted the federal government a four-month extension.
“Now, it just seems like it’s dragging on a bit,” Shapray said. “As waiting time continues, I keep trying to fight this battle.”
There are exceptions to the extension – those who are suffering can apply to a Superior Court in their province to end their life with the assistance of a doctor – as long as they meet the criteria set out in the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“The Supreme Court granted it an extension that has been the object of quite some criticism,” Eltis said.
“Think of terminally ill individuals in terrible suffering – do they have the resources, both emotional, physical, let alone financial – pursuing a case is quite difficult – to ask for that exemption?”
But while most Canadians continue to wait, Quebec doctors are already helping people to die. On Dec. 10, 2015, Quebec’s end-of-life law came into effect.
“Quebec has passed a law, has addressed the health-care aspect of assisted suicide and end-of-life care,” Eltis said.
Earlier this year, the Quebec government confirmed at least one person has died with the assistance of a doctor – a Canadian legal first.
But while Quebec moves forward, the rest of Canada is left wondering what a new law might look like.
“I’m hoping that the Parliament will come up with rules that will make assisted dying very – not acceptable – very available, that they won’t put barriers in the way, that the most they will do is need someone to have two doctors’ consent,” Shapray said.
We sat down with Canada’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to find out what the new legislation will look like.
“We haven’t pre-determined an outcome … we have formed a special committee that has members from the Senate and the House of Commons,” she said. “At the heart of the work that we’re doing is ensuring that we hear all voices and put together a framework that is balanced.”
Despite the fact the government has not begun to draft legislation, Wilson-Raybould says she is committed to meeting the Supreme Court’s deadline this summer.
“We need to do this quickly, we need to be respectful and responsible and we need to ensure that we meet that deadline of June 6, which we’re working extremely hard to do,” she said.
Meanwhile, Shapray won’t say what her exact end-of-life plans are, but she remains hopeful for others in the years to come.
“As I say, ‘it’s not over til the fat lady sings,’ but I think I feel hopeful that the right to assisted dying is going to happen, it’s just how easily and when.”
16×9’s “Waiting for the Right to Die” airs Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016 at 7pm.
UPDATE: Feb. 25, 2016
A week after we sat down with Canada’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Jody Wilson-Raybould, the report of the special joint committee on physician-assisted dying was released.