Canadians agree on assisted suicide. Why isn’t Ottawa listening?

Though the vast majority of Canadians support doctor-assisted dying, the Conservative government has set up a policy review process that’s built to ignore them.

Ottawa recently announced an expert panel who will consult with Canadians on doctor-assisted dying. This panel will guide the government in how to respond to the Supreme Court’s ruling in February that if you’re enduring intolerable pain or mental anguish, you can ask a doctor to end your life.

On the surface, the expert panel, the consultations and the reporting all sound laudable.

But here, death is in the details.

First the panel: there’s no doubt they’re all experts. In fact, psychiatry professor Harvey Max Chochinov, law professor Benoit Pelletier, and disability advocate Catherine Frazee all have peerless reputations in their fields.

Unfortunately, not only are two of these three — Chochinov and Frazee — outspoken opponents of the right to die with dignity; they were the very witnesses who argued in the Supreme Court on Ottawa’s behalf, against the right to assisted dying.

Visions of foxes in henhouses dance in my head. Imagine how comfortable you’d feel in putting forth your model for assisted suicide to these panel members.

Actually, you won’t get that opportunity with the assisted suicide panel. Because there will be no conversations allowed, let alone debate between the panels and the public — unless you intervened in the Supreme Court proceedings or are a medical group like the Canadian Medical Association.

I believe for the first time in Canadian history, all ideas will be limited to an online forum. I can see why Ottawa did this: assisted suicide is a hugely emotional issue, and what better way to tamp down those emotions than to forbid face-to-face contact and force everyone to the medium that strips emotion clean.

But before you can get on to the panel’s website and offer up your opinion, you’ll need to qualify first. Here’s what the website says: “In the coming weeks, the panel will launch a series of online tools, including an interactive questionnaire. Through these tools, participants will be able to learn more about euthanasia and assisted suicide, as well as palliative care, and consider key perspectives and issues, before providing their input to the panel.”

It seems the panel knows how outrageous this is when they ask in their own FAQs: “Why is the list of those individuals and organizations who will be directly consulted so limited?”

Their answer?

“The panel’s terms of reference state that all consultation activities, both direct and online must cease during the election period. Organizations that could not be invited for direct consultations because of the panel’s time constraints are encouraged to make a submission to the panel through the online consultation tool.”

So, to be clear: The Supreme Court decision came down on February 6. It took Ottawa 161 days to set up their panel. The federal election is on October 19 and the official election period must begin at least 36 days before the vote, i.e. September 13. That means they have at most 58 days from July 17, the day the panel was announced, to consult with the thimbleful of organizations who are allowed to speak with them, and to read through all those online submissions (including from First Nations, Inuit and Métis people who will also not be allowed to speak directly to the panel and who know a thing or two about suicide in all its forms).

The panel will submit its report to Ottawa “in the fall,” safely after the federal election.

Will the report be made public? No one really knows.

Will Ottawa be required to act on the panel’s recommendations? Of course not.

Now we may rail that Ottawa’s tactics are undemocratic, partisan, nasty, vindictive and worse. But such complaints are as water off a duck’s back.

My complaint is different.

I’m angry at Ottawa for the perverse politics of its approach to this crucial moral issue.

After all, a nationwide Ipsos Reid poll taken late last year revealed that 84 per cent of Canadians are in favour of assisted suicide.

That leaves the Tories appealing to a “base” of 16 per cent of Canadians, not nearly enough to win them a majority, let alone a minority in the upcoming election.

Worse still, this “most comprehensive Canadian survey ever undertaken on the public’s perception of dying with dignity,” also revealed that 85 per cent of health-care professionals support assisted suicide (no surprise), and that 85 per cent of members of the disabled community support it (big surprise), and that 83 per cent of Roman Catholics support it (huge surprise).

But the biggest surprise of all is in the support for assisted suicide from among Conservative voters:

77 per cent of them are in favour of it.


Bob Ramsay is a Toronto communications consultant and founder of the RamsayTalks. His wife, Dr. Jean Marmoreo, is on the medical advisory committee of Dying With Dignity.

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