Liberals delay expansion of assisted dying eligibility until 2027

The federal government is pushing back the expansion of assisted dying for those who suffer from mental illness for several years. Cormac Mac Sweeney with the reasons for the delay and the accusations that constitutional rights are being violated.

By Stephanie Taylor and Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

The Liberal government is legislating a three-year delay to its controversial plan to expand eligibility for assisted dying to include those whose sole underlying condition is a mental illness.

Health Minister Mark Holland introduced legislation Thursday morning that would postpone the change until March 17, 2027, just over six weeks before it was scheduled to take effect.

That pushes the expansion until past the next federal election, which must take place by October 2025. 

Both Holland and Justice Minister Arif Virani say they agree with a parliamentary committee’s conclusion that Canada simply wasn’t ready. 

The committee of MPs and senators reported earlier this week that questions remain about how clinicians could differentiate between someone experiencing suicidal thoughts and requesting an assisted death. 

The bill calls for another joint committee to study the issue again within the next two years. If the committee has any changes to recommend, it must table a report before both houses of Parliament.

Holland said the delay is the result of his most recent meeting with his provincial and territorial counterparts in October, where he heard they were not prepared to move forward. 

“In order to get to that state, they were going to need a significant amount of time,” Holland said at a press conference outside the House of Commons on Thursday. 

Nearly all provinces and territories asked the federal government for an “indefinite pause” on the expansion in a letter this week, following the release of the committee report.

Holland said he’s already spoken with his provincial counterparts about the plan.

“Their response was very favourable,” he said. “They really do feel that they need more time.”

Holland said he set the new three-year deadline instead of creating an indefinite delay because there must be an imperative to move forward, or else it might not happen at all. 

“It’s an indication that the systems need to move toward readiness,” Holland said. 

Parliament must move quickly to pass the new bill before the expansion automatically takes effect on March 17.

The Opposition Conservatives have been demanding that the government scrap the expansion altogether, but have said they would still support a delay.

The bill may have a rougher ride in the Senate.

“There are historical precedents in the Senate for addressing some of these issues different than the House addresses them,” Independent Sen. Stan Kutcher said at a news conference Thursday morning.

He sat on the joint committee that recommended a delay, and vehemently dissented with the majority’s findings. 

“The Senate, one of the reasons it was created was to protect against the tyranny of the majority,” he said. 

Kutcher and two other senators on the committee, Pamela Wallin, and Marie-Françoise Mégie, take issue with the way the committee conducted its investigation, as well as the government’s decision not to move forward with the eligibility expansion.

“There has been an about-face on the part of the government on this issue, or perhaps they were disingenuous from the beginning,” Wallin said Thursday. 

While the joint committee was tasked with assessing Canada’s readiness to move forward with the expansion, that was supposed to be based on strict criteria outlined by the government, the three senators argue.

Those requirements were that an accredited training program and practice standards be created and made available to clinicians, that regulations be developed to govern how data about assisted dying is collected and that an expert panel issue a report.

All those criteria have been satisfied, the senators said.

While the majority of parliamentarians on the committee concluded that the medical system in Canada is not ready, Kutcher said the committee did not actually study the medical system in Canada.

Kutcher said the recommendation to delay discriminates against people with mental disorders and deprives them of fundamental rights. 

The pause is informed by feedback from doctors, nurses and psychiatric professionals, the justice minister said Thursday.

For the protection of the vulnerable, Virani said, “we need to ensure that those safeguards are in place, that those safeguards are understood and ready to be implemented by the health care system.”

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