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Collaboration between House of Commons, Senate on assisted dying bill praised by senator

The Senate of Canada building and Senate Chamber are pictured in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Senators were urged Monday to accept a revised version of a bill to expand access to medical assistance in dying, even though their amendments were rejected or modified by the House of Commons.

Sen. Marc Gold, the government’s representative in the Senate, argued that the revised Bill C-7 represents a historic example of collaboration between the two parliamentary chambers, resulting in better legislation.

Read more: House passes revised assisted dying bill with Liberal, Bloc Quebecois support

“I would suggest that the process that has unfolded to date represents the very best of the interaction and legislative dialogue that is possible between the two houses of Parliament,” Gold told the Senate.

“And I would go even further that it is an example of the Parliament of Canada at its very best.”

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Gold said the government responded respectfully and thoughtfully to the Senate’s amendments, rejecting two but building on three others.

“For the government of the day to not only accept but to build upon Senate amendments and to have that passed in the other place by a minority Parliament is an achievement that is as significant as it is historically quite rare,” he said.

“It’s now time for us to demonstrate the same respect to the other place that they have shown to us and pass the C-7 message.”

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Most senators who spoke Monday said they’ll support the revised version of the bill, despite disappointment that not all their amendments were accepted. Sen. Pierre Dalphond, a former judge and member of the Progressive Senate Group, was among those who argued that appointed senators have done their job to recommend improvements and must now defer to the will of the elected Commons.

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“To do otherwise would be an illegitimate over-reach,” Dalphond said.

However, senators are constitutionally entitled to dig in their heels, reject the government’s response to their amendments and send the bill back to the Commons once more.

Conservative Sen. Claude Carignan urged them to do just that, expressing outrage over the government’s rejection of a Senate amendment that would have allowed people who fear losing mental competence to make advance requests for assisted dying.

Sen. Pamela Wallin, a member of the Independent Senators Group who authored the advance request amendment, similarly deplored the government’s insistence that more time is needed to study the matter.

Read more: Feds gets another month to expand access to assisted dying as bill stalls in the Commons

“How many more years of anguish and fear and disqualification for those who have or are expecting a diagnosis of dementia?” she asked.

Wallin speculated that those who want more time to study the issue haven’t yet personally experienced what it’s like to care for someone with dementia.

“Perhaps they have not locked their loved ones behind closed doors or restrained them by tying their frail arms to a bed rail, perhaps they have not cleaned up the sickening messes or looked into vacant, fear-filled eyes of a parent as you try to force-feed them, prying their mouths open because their body has forgotten how to do these very basic things,” she said.

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“And to what end? They’re not hungry, they don’t know you, they don’t know where they are and they don’t know who they once were.”

The bill would expand access to assisted dying to intolerably suffering individuals who are not approaching the natural end of their lives, in compliance with a 2019 Quebec Superior Court ruling.

The government has sought and received four extensions to the court-imposed deadline for complying with the ruling. The latest — and very likely the last extension, the court has warned — expires March 26.

In response to the Senate amendments, the government has revised the bill to put a two-year time limit on the originally proposed blanket ban on assisted dying for people suffering solely from mental illnesses. The Senate proposed an 18-month time limit but the government has extended that to two years.

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The government further revised the bill to require the creation of an expert panel to conduct an independent review of the mental illness exclusion and, within one year, recommend the “protocols, guidance and safeguards” that should apply to requests for assisted dying from people suffering solely from mental illnesses.

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The government rejected a Senate amendment that would have clarified that mental illness does not include neurocognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, as it did the advance request amendment.

But it expanded on another amendment to address those issues and other unresolved matters through a joint Commons-Senate committee that is, within 30 days of royal assent, to finally launch the legally required parliamentary review of the assisted dying regime in Canada, which was supposed to have begun last June. That committee is to report back with any recommended changes to the law within one year.

It also expanded on another Senate amendment to require the collection of disaggregated data on who is requesting and receiving medical assistance in dying, including data on people with disabilities. The data is to be used to determine if there is “the presence of any inequality — including systemic inequality — or disadvantage based on race, Indigenous identity, disability or other characteristics.”

Read more: Canadians with mental illness should be eligible for assisted death, feds agree

Some senators questioned what will happen to the parliamentary review should Parliament be prorogued or dissolved for an election, which could theoretically come at any time given that the Liberals hold only a minority of seats in the Commons.

Conservative Senate Leader Don Plett noted that it’s possible an election could be called before the committee even gets off the ground.

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Sen. Scott Tannas, leader of the Canadian Senators Group, noted that the Senate amendment had spelled out timelines for restarting the review after prorogation or an election but that the government’s revised version does not.

Sen. Chantal Petitclerc, a member of the Independent Senators Groups and sponsor of the bill in the Senate, could not explain why the government removed those timelines. But she said the review would have to be resumed, “as prescribed by law,” once Parliament was back in session.

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