The Liberal government is legislating a three-year delay in its controversial plan to expand eligibility for assisted dying to include those whose only underlying condition is mental illness.
Health Minister Mark Holland on Thursday morning introduced legislation that would postpone the change until March 17, 2027, just over six weeks before it came into effect.
That pushes the expansion until after the next federal election, which is due to take place in October 2025.
Both Holland and Justice Minister Arif Virani say they agree with a parliamentary committee’s conclusion that Canada was simply unprepared.
The committee of parliamentarians and senators reported earlier this week that questions remain about how doctors 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 report to both houses of Parliament.
Holland said the delay is a result of his most recent meeting with his provincial and territorial counterparts in October, where he heard they were not prepared to move forward.
“To get to that state, they were going to need a significant amount of time,” Holland said at a news conference outside the House of Commons on Thursday.
Almost all provinces and territories asked the federal government for an “indefinite pause” on expansion in a letter this week, following the release of the committee’s report.
Holland said he has already spoken to his provincial counterparts about the plan.
“Their response was very favorable,” he said. “They really feel like they need more time.”
Holland said he set the new deadline at three years rather than 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 systems need to move toward readiness,” Holland said.
Parliament must act quickly to pass the new bill before the extension automatically comes into force on March 17.
Opposition Conservatives have been demanding that the government scrap the expansion entirely, but have said they would still support a delay.
The bill may have a tougher ride in the Senate.
“There is historical precedent in the Senate for approaching some of these issues differently than the House approaches them,” independent Sen. Stan Kutcher said at a news conference Thursday morning.
He was part of the joint committee that recommended a delay and vehemently disagreed with the majority’s conclusions.
“One of the reasons the Senate 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 Megie, take issue with the way the committee conducted its investigation, as well as the government’s decision not to move forward with expanding eligibility.
“There has been a change of attitude on the part of the government on this issue, or perhaps they were not truthful from the beginning,” Wallin said Thursday.
While the joint committee was tasked with assessing Canada’s readiness to move forward with 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 physicians, that regulations be developed to govern how data on assisted dying is collected, and that a panel of experts issue a report.
All of those criteria have been met, the senators said.
While most MPs on the committee concluded that Canada’s medical system is not ready, Kutcher said the committee did not actually study Canada’s medical system.
Kutcher said the recommendation to delay the decision discriminates against people with mental disorders and deprives them of fundamental rights.
The pause is based on 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 are ready to be implemented by the health care system.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2024.