OTTAWA — Wrangling in the Senate over who will co-chair a special joint committee is holding up the start of a long-awaited, legally required, parliamentary review of Canada's assisted dying regime.
The various parties in the House of Commons have chosen 10 MPs to sit on the committee, which is to examine whether medical assistance in dying should be expanded to include mature minors and advance requests, among other important issues.
Four senators have been chosen to sit on the committee by three of the four Senate groups.
But they're all waiting for the Conservative Senate caucus to name its single member, despite a unanimously passed motion requiring all Senate groups to choose their members by the end of the day last Friday.
The delay revolves around a dispute over who the Senate's committee co-chair should be.
Sen. Pierre Dalphond, a former judge chosen to represent the Progressive Senate Group on the committee, says Conservative Senate Leader Don Plett is refusing to name the Tory senator unless there's a guarantee that person will also be named committee co-chair — an assurance other Senate groups are not prepared to give.
"He wants a blank cheque, which I'm not ready to give," Dalphond said in an interview.
"There's so much to do and we're talking about serious issues and they prevent senators and MPs who are eager to do the work," he said. "The ego of one man is preventing the system to work, which I find is close to showing contempt for Parliament."
But Plett said Dalphond's accusation is "absolutely false" and questioned his authority to speak on confidential negotiations that have been going on among the leaders of the various Senate groups about the committee's make-up.
"He's a nothing, He's a nobody ... I shouldn't say nobody. He's a regular senator but he has no leadership role," Plett said angrily in an interview.
Plett said convention dictates that because an MP from the governing Liberals will be one co-chair, the Senate's co-chair should represent the official Opposition. That is what occurred with a previous special joint committee on assisted dying in 2016, he noted.
He said all Senate caucus leaders unanimously agreed to this during telephone negotiations, including the leader of Dalphond's Progressive Senate Group, Sen. Jane Cordy. He said Dalphond was on that call and raised no objections at the time.
However, Plett said Cordy and the Independent Senators Group leadership subsequently reneged on that agreement, proposing instead that the Senate's co-chair be elected by senators on the committee.
All Senate caucus leaders must sign off on a letter naming the committee members but Plett said the government's representative in the Senate, Sen. Marc Gold, has not yet sent out such a letter because negotiations are ongoing.
"I want to get this committee going. We've never tried to stall this committee," he said.
Gold's office said in a statement that he is "keen" to get the committee launched. In accordance with the Senate's "consensus-based approach" to the make-up of committees, he "stands ready to sign the required letter as soon as he is notified that the other leaders have reached an agreement on membership.”
The committee is to examine issues related to mature minors, advance requests, mental illness, the state of palliative care in Canada and the protection of Canadians with disabilities. It is to report back with any recommended changes to the assisted dying regime within one year.
The five-year parliamentary review of Canada's assisted-dying law was supposed to start last June but never materialized.
Last month, the House of Commons and Senate passed Bill C-7 to expand assisted dying to people suffering intolerably but not near the natural end of their lives, in compliance with a 2019 Quebec Superior Court ruling.
At the urging of senators, the bill was amended to specifically require that a joint committee begin the overdue parliamentary review within 30 days of the legislation going into force.
Those 30 days came and went last week, with the Conservative senator still unnamed.
Plett "is showing complete disregard and disrespect for the Senate, for the House of Commons and for the bill that provides for a committee to be set up as soon as possible," Dalphond said.
"It's really taking the Senate hostage, the House of Commons hostage."
The Conservatives, with 20 senators, are the last remaining unabashedly partisan group in the 105-seat Senate.
Dalphond said they don't seem to appreciate that the other Senate groups are independent and non-partisan and their representatives on the committee can't be whipped by their leaders into automatically accepting a Conservative senator at the helm. They'll vote independently for whomever they believe will make the best co-chair.
Dalphond said any of the other senators chosen to sit on the committee so far would make a fine co-chair.
The Canadian Senators Group has chosen Sen. Pamela Wallin, a passionate advocate of advance requests. The Independent Senators Group, the largest caucus in the Senate, has chosen two members to sit on the committee: Sen. Stan Kutcher, a psychiatrist who championed including people suffering solely from mental illnesses in Bill C-7, and Sen. Marie-Francoise Megie, a former family doctor and pioneer in palliative care.
Sen. Yuen Pau Woo, facilitator of the Independent Senators Group, agreed that the Conservatives "are holding up the work of a very important committee."
"The House has done its job in appointing its 10 members. The CSG, the PSG and the ISG have appointed their members, four out of the five (senators)," he said in an interview.
"Apparently, the Conservatives missed the deadline and we are stuck."
Woo declined to go into the reasons for the Conservative holdup, saying only that it's up to them to explain.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2021.
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled the name of Sen. Yuen Pau Woo.