Madam Speaker, it is an honour to speak today to Bill C-7 regarding medical assistance in dying. This is the second time, the first being in the last Parliament, that I have had the opportunity to take part in the debate on this absolutely essential legislation on such a difficult subject.
This bill represents a major improvement and reflects some of the amendments that I made but that failed in the House, in the 42nd Parliament. Some of those amendments, in fact, were picked up and approved by the Senate.
I want to stop and reflect on the trajectory of this issue in Canada.
As identified when I rose in my place, I am a member of Parliament for Saanich—Gulf Islands and I believe that Saanich—Gulf Islands may have more constituents concerned with and calling for medical assistance in dying than perhaps any other riding in Canada. There are two active death-with-dignity groups within my community, one on Salt Spring Island and one on the Saanich Peninsula, and I think it is for a very simple reason.
Feelings run high, and honestly, my constituents persuaded me in 2011 and 2012 that I had to stand up for ensuring that there was access to medical assistance in dying and stand up for removing the Criminal Code punishments for people who, motivated by compassion and basic human dignity, assisted someone who was dealing with unbearable suffering in their last days and weeks.
The reason that my community is so very implicated in this issue is that Sue Rodriguez was a resident of North Saanich. She was unable to take her own life due to the effects of ALS, but she was able to find a doctor, who remains anonymous to this day, who assisted her in ending her own life.
This is about helping to alleviate suffering through medical assistance in dying. This difficult and very serious situation is unfair to anyone.
Sue Rodriguez went to court, so it is also a trajectory of court cases. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1993 against Sue Rodriguez. She was suffering from ALS. ALS runs as a thread through what I want to talk about today. Sue was losing ability and had lost ability to speak, to swallow and to walk. We know the trajectory of ALS. She asked the court to change the law and she was unsuccessful. That was in 1993. By the way, it was a very close decision. It was five to four, a very close decision. She died a year later, on February 12, 1994.
Then we take it to 22 years later. That is how slowly the laws evolve. It takes a while. The Supreme Court of Canada and the laws of Canada evolve to meet the changing circumstances. I think part of the reason is that we also realize now, unlike 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago, that we can prolong lives and sufferings through miracle advancements in medical science, but before we passed this law in the 42nd Parliament, we were denying people death with dignity and the ability to control their own decision-making about the timing of their own death.
Along came the Carter decision, finally, in 2015. Twenty-two years after the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Rodriguez, we had the decision in Carter. I felt very strongly when we debated the bill for medical assistance in dying in this place in the last Parliament, the 42nd Parliament, that our legislative efforts fell far short of what the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Carter.
I felt quite sure, and said many times in this place, that the legislation we were passing, while an improvement, would not stand up to legal scrutiny and would be ruled unconstitutional by the courts. Now we have the decision that came out last September in the Truchon case, and again a court has given us a deadline to come up with an improvement. It is being called Audrey's amendment. Certainly a lot of people have identified with that situation, and their hearts have been broken by knowing that medical assistance in dying was out of the reach of people who were suffering gravely but feared they would not be able to form the required consent on the day of the procedure.
I think the bill before us is a substantial improvement, and it really reflects on how courts grapple with this issue and how society grapples with it.
I have to say that in the 42nd Parliament, I found the debate remarkably respectful. Across all parties, we recognized that these are serious matters of life and death, not to be trifled with and not to be turned into partisan debate. The reality is that in this legislation we do make amends for some mistakes in the previous bill.
I always find it rather odd that we have to find that a person's natural death is “reasonably foreseeable”. I do not think any of us in this place fancy ourselves immortal. All of our deaths are entirely foreseeable; we just do not know exactly the time and place in which they will occur.
Doctors of those who are suffering from a terminal illness are not even able to say the reasonably foreseeable date. What does it mean to be reasonably foreseeable? We put people in a stricture where even if they knew they had a terminal illness, such as ALS, they could not necessarily get aid from this legislation and they could not necessarily give advance consent to a doctor to indicate that they did not want to go through what they knew lay ahead of them.
One of my best friends emailed earlier today to ask me to stand up and fight this bill, because she is dying with ALS and she did not think the bill would cover her. I spoke to the Minister of Justice to confirm that I was reading the bill correctly and that, yes, they were thinking specifically of people with ALS.
Our friend who used to sit in that chair, Mauril Bélanger, was lost to us so quickly through ALS. My friend, who is losing the ability of speech, is in a chair and has tubes in her stomach that cause enormous pain. She knows that her lungs will give out, so she is emailing me while we are having this debate. I was really relieved to talk to the Minister of Justice and realize that I am reading the bill correctly, that my friend can get the help that is needed to be assessed and be able to say that she wants consent in advance.
However, I do think that there are some areas for amendments that should be made here, and I wish we had more time. I hope the court will give us the additional four months, but we do not know that.
Some of the bogeymen that have been raised here today I think are considered in the bill. We do have the requisite safeguards to keep vulnerable people safe. No one can give permission for medical assistance in dying other than the patients themselves. They still have to meet very tight criteria. They have to have a sworn witness. They have to have a doctor. The bill also provides that on the day of the procedure, if a person indicates that they have changed their mind, they are completely allowed and of course have the right to indicate that they have changed their mind through all sorts of gestures and words, but not through any involuntary gestures. I think the bill is drafted as well as it can be, but we will continue to consider it in the amendments at clause-by-clause consideration.
The bill does continue to ensure that the death is reasonably foreseeable, and there may be some complications there in the language. I note concerns from Dr. Jocelyn Downie at Dalhousie University, who is one of Canada's leading experts in this field, and I want to hear her evidence. I hope that she will be a witness, and I am sure she will be, as well as Dr. Stefanie Green, the president of the Canadian Association of MAID Assessors and Providers. We want to make sure we get the language right.
I will close by thanking the Minister of Justice and the government for following through and hearing the cries of Audrey, from Halifax, that her death be not in vain.