Madam Speaker, it is with great humility that I rise in the House today to speak to Bill C-7, an act to amend the Criminal Code with regard to medical assistance in dying.
Many MPs have very personal stories about the end of life of one of their loved ones. As the Bloc Québécois critic for seniors, it goes without saying that I have heard my share. Therefore, in my speech, I will recall the work done by the Bloc on this issue, the sensitivity that exists in Quebec regarding medical assistance in dying and, finally, the position of certain groups of seniors and women who have come to meet with me.
First, let me go over the context again. In September 2019, the Quebec Superior Court ruled in favour of Nicole Gladu and Jean Truchon, both suffering from a serious degenerative disease, stating that one of the eligibility criteria for medical assistance in dying is too restrictive. This criterion, that of “reasonably foreseeable natural death”, is found in the federal government's Act to amend the Criminal Code and to make related amendments to other Acts with regard to medical assistance in dying, and the provincial government's Act respecting end-of-life care.
Justice Christine Baudoin said it well in her ruling when she wrote: “The Court has no hesitation in concluding that the reasonably foreseeable natural death requirement infringes Mr. Truchon and Ms. Gladu’s rights to liberty and security, protected by section 7 of the Charter.” Those two individuals had argued that they were being denied medical assistance in dying because their deaths were not imminent.
Let me now remind the House of the Bloc Québécois's position and highlight the outstanding work of the member for Montcalm, to whom I offer my deepest sympathies. I want to thank him for the work he has done on this file because, as he quite rightly pointed out, legislators did not do their job properly with Bill C-14. As a result, issues of a social and political nature are being brought before the courts. We need to make sure that people who have serious, irreversible illnesses are not forced to go to court to access MAID. That would be terrible, and yet that is what will happen if we cannot figure out a way to cover degenerative cognitive diseases.
However, we believe that it is important to be very cautious before making any decisions on questions related to mental health. That is why we are relieved that the bill does not address eligibility for MAID for individuals suffering solely from a mental illness. Indeed, this issue requires further reflection, study and consultation, which will be completed at the Standing Committee on Health as soon as the motion moved by my colleague from Montcalm is adopted.
For the second part of my speech, I would like to talk about Quebec's sentiments on this whole issue. Quebec was the first jurisdiction in Canada to pass legislation on medical assistance in dying. Wanda Morris, a representative of a B.C. group that advocates for the right to die with dignity, pointed out that the committee studying the issue had the unanimous support of all the parties in the National Assembly. This should be a model for the rest of Canada.
Ms. Morris said she felt confident after seeing how it would work in Quebec and seeing that people were pleased to have the option of dying with dignity. The Quebec legislation, which was spearheaded by Véronique Hivon, was the result of years of research and consultation with physicians, patients and the public. It has been reported that 79% of Quebeckers support medical assistance in dying, compared to 68% in the rest of Canada.
In 2015, when the political parties in the National Assembly unanimously applauded the Supreme Court ruling on MAID, Véronique Hivon stated:
Today is truly a great day for people who are ill, for people who are at the end of their lives, for Quebec and for all Quebeckers who participated in...this profoundly democratic debate that the National Assembly had the courage to initiate in 2009....I believe that, collectively, Quebec has really paved the way, and we have done so in the best possible way, in a non-partisan, totally democratic way.
For the third part of my speech, I would like to tell you about a meeting I had with the Association féminine d'éducation et d'action sociale, or AFEAS, in my role as critic for seniors and status of women. During the meeting, the AFEAS shared with me its concerns with MAID. I will quote the AFEAS 2018-19 issue guide:
Is medical assistance in dying a quality of life issue? For those individuals who can no longer endure life and who meet the many criteria for obtaining this assistance, the opportunity to express their last wishes is undoubtedly welcome. This glimmer of autonomy can be reassuring and make it possible to face death more calmly....As the process for obtaining medical assistance in dying is very restrictive, those who use it probably do so for a very simple reason: they have lost all hope....This process cannot be accessed by individuals who are not at the end of life....People with degenerative diseases, who are suffering physically and mentally, do not have access to medical assistance in dying.
Many people are not eligible for MAID because of the federal law governing the practice, which was imposed by a court ruling in February 2015. Four years after Carter, individuals whose quality of life is severely compromised by degenerative diseases are still being forced to ask the courts for permission to end their suffering.
In February 2015, the Supreme Court even struck down two sections of the Criminal Code prohibiting Canadian doctors from administering MAID. In Carter, the highest court in the land stated that a competent adult who clearly consents to the termination of life is eligible for MAID if that person “has a grievous and irremediable medical condition...that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual in the circumstances of his or her condition”.
According to the AFEAS, the Supreme Court's criteria were very broad. In drafting the MAID eligibility criteria, the Government of Canada included the concept of reasonably foreseeable natural death only for people at the end of life, which excludes a significant number of people who are experiencing intolerable physical and mental suffering.
The entire process is based on the intensity of the suffering as assessed by a doctor and a panel of experts. The sick person's own assessment is not always taken into account. There are no compassionate criteria among the requirements for obtaining MAID. A person may be at the end of their life and be unable to make the request themselves because they cannot communicate. The law applies only to people who are able to give their free and informed consent up until the very end, which could be terribly traumatic and even cruel to those who have been suffering for years.
With regard to advance consent, the AFEAS spoke about the case of Audrey Parker, a woman from Halifax who died with medical assistance on November 1, 2018. She made a video three days before her death. In that three-minute video, she said that she would like nothing more than to make it to Christmas, but that if she became incompetent along the way, she would lose out on her choice of a beautiful, peaceful and, best of all, pain-free death.
The Barreau du Québec believes that the law should be amended to comply with the criteria set out in Carter and thus prevent court challenges from being filed by people who should not have to carry such a burden.
A panel of experts has studied this issue and recommends, under certain conditions, ending the suffering of patients who have previously expressed their wish to receive medical assistance in dying, but who subsequently become incapable of expressing their consent, in particular people with various forms of dementia or cognitive loss such as Alzheimer's disease. This is why AFEAS is asking, with respect to human rights, that the process of medical assistance in dying be based more on the rights of individuals and on respect for their wishes.
With respect to reasonably foreseeable natural death, it requested that the reference to “reasonably foreseeable natural death” be removed from the eligibility criteria. With respect to advance consent, it asked that the person's informed consent be respected and that it be given in advance. Also on the subject of advance consent, it asked that the consent anticipated, stated and recorded by the person be recognized.
In conclusion, today's debate demonstrates the need to act so that people suffering from degenerative and incurable diseases are no longer forced to go before the courts to challenge the terms and conditions surrounding eligibility for medical assistance in dying, and so that we can ensure the best possible continuum of care.
Let's take action so that everyone can die with dignity.