Editor’s Note:This article is the second in a series leading up to the Oct. 21 federal election which will examine Justin Trudeau’s record as Liberal leader and Prime Minister. In the May edition, we examined “The Trudeau record: legalizing marijuana.”
At the Liberal policy convention in early 2014, nearly a year after Justin Trudeau became the party leader, the Grits passed a resolution calling for the legalization of euthanasia. The young party leader was not present in the hall when the vote was taken and in interviews after the resolution passed refused to tell journalists where he stood on assisted suicide, insisting he wanted to wait to see what the Supreme Court had to say on the matter. It was expected that the Carter case would be heard by the Court later that fall. Indeed, in October, the Supreme Court heard arguments from the families of Kay Carter, who had degenerative spinal stenosis, and Gloria Taylor, who had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and intervenors, asking it to rule on whether the Criminal Code prohibition on euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. On Feb. 6, 2015, the Court ruled unanimously that outlawing euthanasia violated the Charter, but it suspended its decision for 12 months to permit Parliament time to consider the issue and pass a law regulating the practice.
The Harper government did not introduce any legislation on euthanasia before the Oct. 19, 2015 federal election, choosing instead to ask a panel to study the topic and recommend a legislative response in December 2015. Despite the fact the next Parliament would be forced to consider the matter, euthanasia was barely mentioned during the election campaign. Considering Trudeau’s enthusiasm for other socially liberal causes such as abortion, same-sex “marriage,” and decriminalizing marijuana, it was not surprising that he supported euthanasia, but he did not promote it with the same gusto as he did other social issues. Trudeau and the Liberals won a majority in October and it would be they who would determine what the legalization of euthanasia would look like. With the defeat of the Conservatives, so was the hope that the federal government would invoke the notwithstanding clause to override the Carter decision.
After his cabinet was sworn into office, Trudeau released his mandate letters to his ministers. The mandate letter to Justice Minister Joy Wilson-Raybould instructed her to “lead a process, supported by the Health Minister, to work with the provinces and territories to respond to the Supreme Court decision regarding physician-assisted death.” (Interestingly, no such mandate was given to Health Minister Joy Philpott to address assisted-suicide.)
On the same day the mandate letter was made public, Wilson-Raybould and Philpott sent a letter to the “External Panel on Options for a Legislative Response to Carter v. Canada” that the Harper government created to study the issue. The Liberal cabinet ministers altered the terms of reference to allow the panel to share its research on euthanasia but it would no longer present a legislative proposal based on that research. At least two of the three panel members were skeptical or opposed to legalizing euthanasia. Euthanasia Prevention Coalition executive director Alex Shadenberg described the move as partisan politics because the government was not obliged to follow through with the recommendations.
As the 12-month deadline was about to expire in February 2016 and it had yet to draft legislation, the Trudeau government petitioned the Supreme Court for a six-month extension to pass a law; it was given four months.
The hastily assembled Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying of MPs and senators submitted a report to Parliament in February advising the government to “take an empathetic approach” to permitting euthanasia, favouring “the autonomy of the individuals” seeking medically induced death over the conscience rights of medical professionals or protecting people vulnerable to euthanasia. It advised a broad euthanasia license, including allowing doctors to kill so-called “mature minors” and allow people with degenerative diseases to request assisted-suicide through an advance directive. The Conservative minority on the committee dissented from these recommendations and offered a narrower reading of what the Carterdecision required in a new euthanasia law. Wilson-Raybould welcomed the report and said the government would not be rushed to write or pass a law. Meanwhile, Liberal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc sent mixed signals on whether the government would allow a free vote on the issue before finally agreeing to let backbench Liberals vote their conscience; cabinet ministers would be required to support the government’s legislation.
When the government finally introduced C-14, the Medical Assistance in Dying bill, it did not include the most contentious items suggested by the select committee, such as allowing children to be euthanized and permitting advanced directives. But as a sop to those who wanted a more permissive law, the government agreed to study euthanasia within three years. To get the law passed before the June deadline imposed by the Supreme Court, the government invoked closure to shut off debate. The Senate offered several sets of amendments, and after some negotiation amongst the Senate, House of Commons, and government, a bill fairly similar to the government’s passed and received Royal Assent on June 17, 2016. Court challenges to the supposed restrictiveness of the new law were filed immediately and are currently making their way through the court system and could be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada as early as next year.
The feds left the details of implementing euthanasia to the provinces because it was considered a health issue. No province allows medical professionals to opt out of the procedure even if it violates their conscience.
Months after C-14 was passed, the government asked the Council of Canadian Academies to study three possible scenarios to expand euthanasia: for mature minors, for psychiatric reasons, and to allow advance directives. The Council submitted their inconclusive studies in December 2018. In January 2019, new Justice Minister David Lametti said the government had no intention of expanding criteria for euthanasia before the federal election later this year, leaving the door wide open to further liberalization of the law if the Trudeau Liberals win a second mandate.
Euthanasia and assisted-suicide quickly became normalized in Canada. According to the Fourth Interim Report on Medical Assistance in Dying, there were at least 2,614 medically assisted deaths between January 1 and October 31, 2018 (the latest period for which statistics are available). That is an annual rate of more than 3,000 Canadians. Over the ten months covered by the report, euthanasia accounted for 1.12 per cent of all Canadian deaths. Since euthanasia became legal in June 2016 through October 2018, there were a total of 6,749 euthanasia and assisted-suicide deaths. Wesley Smith noted in National Review Onlinethat there are 58 euthanasia deaths in Canada every week or about one every three hours. As Michael Cook of Mercatornet observed, the numbers provide “an astonishing insight into how quickly euthanasia … can take hold once legal roadblocks have been removed.”