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Should a unanimous vote clarify anything?

Early in the evening last Wednesday (Nov 18) Members of Parliament voted 230 to 0 - with 78 members absent, but more on that later - in favour of Motion 388. M-388 was presented by Harold Albrecht, MP (Kitchener-Conestoga) to seek clarification of the provision in s. 241 of the Criminal Code which makes it a crime to encourage or assist someone to commit suicide.

The motion reads:

That, in the opinion of the House, for greater certainty, the government should take steps to ensure that counselling a person to commit suicide or aiding or abetting a person to commit suicide is an offence under section 241 of the Criminal Code, regardless of the means used to counsel or aid or abet including via telecommunications, the Internet or a computer system.

Albrecht was motivated by the tragic death of Carleton University student Nadia Kajouji who sought help on the internet but instead encountered a predator from the U.S. who has allegedly been engaged in encouraging several people to take their lives instead of seeking help to deal with life's issues. The predator has not been charged with counselling Kajouji's suicide.

In a matter of days, the House of Commons will be voting on the same issue, different initiative. Francine Lalonde, MP (La Pointe-de-I'lle) has introduced for the third time a proposal to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide, private members' bill C-384.

Lalonde was one of the 78 MPs absent from the House of Commons for the vote on M-388. Her absence, no doubt, contributed to the unanimous vote of those present as one could not logically expect that a proponent of assisted suicide would support a request to clarify and strengthen the law that makes assisting someone to take their life illegal in Canada.

The question is, what of the other 230? Will they vote with logical consistency and oppose Lalonde's bill? Several of those who voted for M-388 are members of Lalonde's party, including Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe. Will Duceppe and his seatmates vote with logical consistency?

The vote on C-384 will be worth watching to see if MPs make the logical connect or engage in an illogical disconnect.


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Euthanasia, Old Growth Forest & Joni Mitchell

Over the weekend, I had the privilege of attending a seminar on euthanasia. I was particularly struck by the words of two women, neither keynote speakers at the event, who shared public comment on their personal experience.

First, a doctor from British Columbia noted how the Hippocratic Oath had established a foundation for medical practice that has created centuries of trust for physicians. She described this as being like an old growth forest of trust. The proposition that physicians would abandon the commitments to "never do harm to anyone" and "not give a lethal drug to anyone if asked" would be like asking that a portion of the old growth be clear cut for the perceived benefit of one individual at a time. Of course, the experience in British Columbia - and generally - has been that the clear cutting of old growth forest results in the forest never returning, regardless of the effort made to restore it. For her, the resulting loss of patient/doctor trust that would occur as the result of legalizing doctor facilitated death (whether euthanasia or assisted suicide) would impact her ability to practice medicine even though she would not participate in euthanasia or assisted suicide.

The second woman spoke of having a healthy relationship with her family physician over an extended period of time. Her doctor signed a proposal requesting the legalization of euthanasia. Euthanasia was legalized in her home state. On her next visit to her doctor, the woman felt a strange sense of discomfort as the question nibbled at the edges of her mind as to whether she could still trust this person to be concerned about her life, rather than her death.

The private members' bill (C-384) currently before the House of Commons and the debate that is taking place in the traditional and new media are not just referencing a concept, they are about the values of a society and the impact on individuals. I'm old enough to remember Joni Mitchell's song 'Big Yellow Taxi' with it's line "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

Old growth forest and euthanasia. We have centuries of something valuable to a culture, society, nation and individuals. We need to recognize what we've got ... and not let it go.


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Where there's a will, is there a way? Towards a housing strategy for Canada

Tomorrow, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources will resume its’ study of Bill C-304, an act to ensure secure, adequate, accessible and affordable housing for all Canadians. Recently, the EFC and StreetLevel: The National Roundtable on Poverty and Homelessness appeared together before the Committee, to speak in strong support of the Bill.

Bill C-304 is relatively simple in its’ content. It calls on the federal government to work in consultation with the provinces, territories, municipalities and first nations’ communities to establish a national housing strategy, “designed to ensure that the cost of housing in Canada does not compromise an individual’s ability to meet other basic needs.”

Simple. And absolutely essential.

Housing is an issue that is generally viewed as being within the jurisdiction of the provincial governments, so federal involvement with it has typically been regarded as anything but simple. While the bill itself is simple, what it would obligate the government to would entail effort. It would require creativity, collaboration and commitment. And it would be worth it.

Bill C-304 is a private member’s bill, which means that it was not the initiative of the Conservative government. Private member’s bills are a means for Members of Parliament to put an issue they are passionate about on the parliamentary agenda. It is rare that a private member’s bill makes it to committee or that it will be passed and become legislation. But occasionally, with a lot of hard work and collective will, some of these important bills do make it into law.

Some recent examples of private members’ bills that have made it into law are Liberal MP John McKay’s Better Foreign Aid Bill and Conservative MP Joy Smith’s Human Trafficking Bill. Each of these, vital, both in what they accomplish and for the attention they brought to critical issues.

Bill C-304 is just as vital.

This bill was introduced by Vancouver MP Libby Davies, co-sponsored by Halifax MP Megan Leslie, both of the NDP. We have asked all MPs to support the bill and send it to committee for proper consideration and study. We have asked party leaders to allow their members to vote freely on the bill, i.e. not constrained by party politics.

We were pleased when this bill passed the vote in the House of Commons at Second Reading and was sent to the committee for study. But it faces an uphill battle yet.

As we told the committee, the time has come for collaborative, coordinated action in Canada on affordable housing. While there are good, necessary and valuable federal funds being directed to initiatives across the country, it is time to move beyond a piecemeal approach that has proven to be both inefficient and insufficient.

It is simply unacceptable for the federal government to not take action on the grounds that housing is not the federal government’s jurisdiction. This is an issue that affects all Canadians, across municipalities, provinces, territories and throughout our first nations’ communities. There is a need for a strategy that crosses these boundaries.

To be effective, strategy development must be inclusive of all stakeholders, including the faith and community-based agencies that are already actively engaged in providing housing solutions. We have learned from experience what works and what doesn’t. And we have learned what it takes to move individuals from street to housing to home.

Canadians are waiting for a sense of vision from our government on issues like housing affordability and adequacy, and poverty reduction. Bill C-304 offers an excellent opportunity to show this kind of vision and leadership in initiating the development of a national housing strategy. It would indeed be a shame if that opportunity were to go unrealized.

We are hopeful that there is sufficient political will to move beyond excuses, beyond jurisdictional challenges, and bring all levels of government together with the faith communities and a range of other stakeholders to do what is essential, and right, for vulnerable Canadians in need of housing.




How Assisted Suicide Would Change Canada’s Legal Landscape

Many persuasive arguments have been made against physician-assisted suicide since Bill C-384, which seeks to decriminalize assisted suicide, was first introduced in the House of Commons in the spring.

Concern has been expressed about the slippery slope effect that will lead to ‘involuntary suicides,’ as has occurred in other jurisdictions where assisted suicide has been legalized. Various groups have argued that legalization of assisted suicide will put pressure on the elderly or disabled to prematurely end their lives. Still others, that it will put pressure on physicians to balance the budget by freeing up hospital beds.  Several contend that  the very concept disregards the sanctity and dignity of human life.

I share these concerns. In the process of objection, few have commented about the impact this proposed bill will have on Canadian law, if passed. Whether that has been an oversight or whether it is a concern that is taken for granted, it’s an important point to consider, and one for policy-makers to understand before they vote for or against this bill on December 2.

The right to assisted suicide must lead, in practice and in law, to an obligation on the part of one party to kill another. This turns the life affirming principles of Canadian law on their collective head.

Canada’s Criminal Code is a testimony to this life affirming ethos; causing bodily harm with wanton or reckless disregard for the life or safety of another – or intentionally –  is a punishable offence under the law. This is why we have provincial and federal laws in place to regulate highway speeds, environmental, health and safety matters as well as personal treatment of others. Assisted suicide is contrary to Canada’s social, moral and philosophical traditions.

The government (through the action of the military or police) does  retain the power, in very specific and limited circumstances, to use lethal force, and only when required in order to protect life. And the use of “deadly force” is documented and investigated when used by these law enforcement bodies.

Given this foundational respect for life, the moment that the right to end a life is granted to parties other than law enforcement agencies, our country and its legal system will be dramatically and irrevocably changed forever. According to Leon Kass, former Chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics,

First, the right to die, especially as it comes to embrace a right to aid-in-dying or assisted suicide, or euthanasia, will translate into an obligation on the part of others to kill or help kill. Even if we refuse to impose such a duty but merely allow those to practice it who are freely willing, our society would be dramatically altered.

Many groups, including the Law Reform Commission of Canada, recognize the grave danger of introducing such a principle into Canadian law that would only serve to “indirectly condone murder”.

Once accepted into Canadian law that killing is permissible in certain circumstances, this principle will be used to justify other murders. This is the way common law, “judge-made law”, evolves – a judge is required to follow the decisions of previous judges. When a judge is faced with a circumstance that is similar to another, he or she is required to render a similar decision. This is intended to ensure that justice is applied equally to all.

Had assisted suicide been decriminalized when Robert Latimer killed his disabled daughter, Tracy, it’s very possible  the Supreme Court of Canada would have acquitted him of  this murder. It would have been logical to apply the principle that a third party can kill a terminally ill patient to give Mr. Latimer an acceptable defence to the charge of murdering  his severely disabled daughter.

Further, there is no right to commit suicide that can be found in human rights or constitutional law. While many claim such a right does or should exist, it would fly in the face of the life affirming principles of section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which seeks to guarantee the protection of life, liberty and security of the person. What we have in Canada is a compassionate response to those who have attempted suicide by no criminalization of their efforts. At the same time, we do criminalize the efforts of others to encourage or assist someone in ending their life.

Further still, if the right to self-determination to the point of death did in fact exist in Canadian law, how could we justify that it be extended to require another person to end a life? How can we mandate another person to deal with the potential consequences (be they psychological or emotional) of taking another person’s life? This argument stretches the boundaries of reason and logic.

In today’s Canada, it is perfectly lawful for a person to end their medical treatment and to refuse life support in order to die naturally. Euthanasia and assisted suicide occur when human intervention intentionally leads to an unnatural or pre-natural death.

Should this bill be passed, Canadians will be left to live in a society that endorses private killings between its citizens. Killing another person would become a matter of personal contract rather than a rarely called upon measure undertaken by the state in extraordinary circumstances. Life and death would be spelled out by means of a written agreement.

Assisted suicide advocates cannot claim that this is simply a private, personal decision. It implicates every citizen and every Canadian institution of government and health care. It requires substantive changes to our legal philosophy. It transforms the Canadian concept of the dignity of human life.

In the words of Thomas G. Daily, to decriminalize assisted suicide “is to give away precisely what makes us human, our freedom and life, and to give another that which they should not have, power over the freedom and life of another.”


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Liberals, Nice Guys and New Thinkers

Glen Pearson, MP (London North Centre) is a Liberal and a nice guy. Former volunteer director of the London Food Bank, human rights and development activist for the Darfur region of Sudan, along with his wife an adoptive parent of three children from the Sudan, and recipient of several major "nice guy" awards, Glen Pearson is ... a nice guy.

You might remember Pearson as the MP who garnered headlines when he refused to be unnecessarily critical of fellow MPs, regardless of their party, and set an example of civility in the House of Commons when it appeared there might be more  a need for referees and linesmen than the services of the Speaker. It's nice to see a nice guy have a remarkably nice day (there's no sarcasm in repeatedly using the word nice, it just fits the occassion and the man). The Hill Times reports that when his wife and children were visiting Parliament Hill last week, MPs from all parties engaged both in kindness to his family and generally pleasant and cooperative discussion on a number of issues.

It's heartwarming to see a consistently nice guy at the centre of a day of encouragingly non-partisan civil behaviour.

In the same issue of The Hill Times, the Parliamentary Calendar notes that the Liberals are planning a "Thinkers" conference in January 2010. Given the recent report on Canadian Evangelical Voting Trends by Region, 1996-2008 notes that the Conservatives, from their Reform roots, have maintained space for religiously informed thinkers to contribute to policy and the NDP have historically provided similar opportunity for input while the Liberals have spent a decade closing that door, it will be interesting to see if the "thinkers" invited will reflect an openness to evangelical Canadians returning to (or visiting for the first time) the Liberal Party.

This brings me to some of my favourite legal writing, the decision of Mr. Justice Gonthier in Chamberlain v Surrey School District:

… nothing in the Charter, political or democratic theory, or a proper understanding of pluralism demands that atheistically based moral positions trump religiously based moral positions on matters of public policy. I note that the preamble to the Charter itself establishes that ‘… Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.’ According to Saunders J. [of the British Columbia Supreme Court where the case was heard at trial], if one’s moral view manifests from a religiously grounded faith, it is not to be heard in the public square, but if it does not, then it is publicly acceptable. The problem with this approach is that everyone has ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ in something, be it atheistic, agnostic or religious. To construe ‘secular’ as the realm of the ‘unbelief’ is therefore erroneous. Given this, why, then, should the religiously informed conscience be placed at public disadvantage or disqualification? To do so would be to distort liberal principles in an illiberal fashion and would provide only a feeble notion of pluralism. The key is that people will disagree about important issues, and such disagreement, where it does not imperil community living, must be capable of being accommodated at the core of modern pluralism.

To supplement Justice Gonthier’s thoughts – just as, if you will pardon the expression, the “faithfully” secularist should not be permitted to exclude the views of religion from the public square; neither should religion exclude the views of others. It is the very multiplicity of views that are brought into the public square for discourse that identifies and makes Canada an appealing example of democracy to so many in the rest of the world. This multiplicity of positions does not threaten our ability to make decisions, elect governments and determine public policy. It strengthens us as a nation.

And, when this multiplicity of views meets together in Parliament, it can make for a remarkably nice day.


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