Bloc Québécois MPs join Liberals to cut off debate on assisted-dying bill

·4 min read

OTTAWA — With the support of the Bloc Québécois, the minority Liberal government moved to ensure a bill to expand access to medical assistance in dying is put to a final vote Thursday in the House of Commons.

Bloc MPs joined Liberals to pass a closure motion that will see debate on the bill cut off later Thursday, followed immediately by a vote in the House of Commons.

The Bloc took the unusual move of supporting closure out of frustration with Conservative stalling tactics in the face of a looming court-ordered March 26 deadline.

Bloc House leader Alain Therrien said his party took the "extremely rare" move out of "compassion."

"There are people suffering. There are people waiting for us to do our work and it is time for us, after all of this debate, to act and be compassionate towards them," he told the Commons.

The bill has been stuck at its next-to-last hurdle for several weeks as Conservatives repeatedly talked out the clock or refused evening sittings of the Commons to finish dealing with it.

The bill was approved last month by the Senate but with some substantive amendments, including allowing advance requests for assisted deaths and imposing an 18-month time limit on the bill's proposed blanket ban for people suffering solely from mental illnesses.

The government has been trying since then to get the Commons to agree to a motion laying out its response to the Senate changes, which includes rejecting advance requests and agreeing to a two-year time limit on the mental illness exclusion.

Justice Minister David Lametti said 139 MPs have spoken for nearly 45 hours on the bill since it was introduced just over a year ago. He noted that the Conservatives three times rejected government proposals to extend sitting hours to allow more debate specifically on the Senate amendments.

"They don't want more time … they just want to stop it altogether," he told the Commons.

But Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said the use of closure was "quite unprecedented" on a topic that is so sensitive. He argued that hundreds of thousands of Canadians have concerns about the bill, particularly about the Senate-triggered change to include people suffering solely from mental illnesses.

"Why would the government limit reasonable questions of concern, particularly when it comes to mental health, and use closure in this way on C-7?"

Green and New Democrat MPs also spoke and voted against closure.

NDP MP Don Davies said he personally supports medical assistance in dying "but I also know a flawed bill when I see one."

He noted that disability rights groups have condemned the bill, arguing that it devalues the lives of people with disabilities who may be pressured — either directly or indirectly through societal attitudes and a lack of support services — into ending their lives prematurely.

Disability rights groups have been opposed to the bill since the outset but New Democrats nevertheless supported the original version.

Earlier Thursday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said his party will vote against the revised bill on the grounds that unelected senators should not rewrite legislation passed by MPs.

"We don’t believe that the Senate should be doing the work of elected officials," he said.

Once passed by the Commons, the revised bill must still go back to the Senate next week, where senators will have to decide whether to accept or reject the verdict of the elected chamber.

Lametti said he's "pretty confident" that senators will accept the modifications the government has made to the Senate amendments.

The bill is a response to a 2019 Quebec Superior Court ruling that struck down a provision in the law that allows assisted dying only for intolerably suffering individuals whose natural death is "reasonably foreseeable."

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

The bill would expand assisted dying to intolerably suffering individuals who are not approaching the natural end of their lives. It would also relax eligibility rules for people who are near death but set out more restrictive rules for those who are not.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2021.

Joan Bryden and Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press