5 things about Ontario's town hall consultations on assisted dying

Ahead of the looming decriminalization of assisted dying in Canada, the Government of Ontario is hurriedly consulting its residents on the future of end-of-life choice in the province.

In addition to holding another round of online consultations — the first was launched in the summer — the government is hosting a series of assisted dying town halls in nine cities across the province.

A number of Dying With Dignity Canada staff and volunteers were in attendance at the Chelsea Hotel in downtown Toronto for the provincial capital’s stop on the tour. Conducted by staffers for the pollster Ipsos, the town hall was a mostly orderly affair, and it could provide a loose model for how other provinces could hold in-person consultations on assisted dying.

Here are five musings from Monday night’s session:  

1) Many more people registered to attend than showed up to participate. People who wished to attend were encouraged to register online in advance, and spots filled up quickly. As a result, several DWDC supporters who wanted to attend didn’t end up making the trip because they hadn’t been able to reserve seats.

Perhaps due to the steady snowfall on Monday evening — cue jokes about Torontonians’ mettle during the winter months — fewer than 150 people showed up to the Chelsea Hotel’s Chamberlain Ballroom on Monday night, leaving the room about half full. Similarly, supporters in other cities reported lots of empty seats at their town halls. So if you’re thinking about attending, but weren’t able to reserve a seat, it may be worthwhile to go anyway.

2) The vast majority of attendees supported the right to assisted dying. Each attendee was a given a handheld keypad in order to allow them to respond to a series of informal survey questions the moderators displayed on a big screen. The first question asked, “How likely are you to consider accessing physician assisted death, if you were eligible?” Answers ranged from "Very likely" to "Not at all Likely," and there was an option allowing respondents to indicate that they oppose assisted dying in all cases.

Well over 50 per cent responded “Very likely,” while only about 15 per cent expressed total opposition.

3) The discussion was civil, but emotions ran high. The primary stated goal of the town hall sessions was to consult Ontarians on the recommendations of the Provincial-Territorial Expert Advisory Group on physician assisted dying. As a result, some of the discussions, especially when the room broke up into small groups, were highly technical. The tone was respectful, and in general, speakers gave individuals with opposing viewpoints time to speak.

That said, the night wasn’t without emotional testimony from patients, caregivers and physicians alike. A middle-aged woman told the audience how her 95-year-old mother chose to starve herself to death because physician assisted dying wasn’t available to her. On the other side of the issue, a man who identified himself as a doctor referred, outrageously, to assisted dying as giving doctors a “licence to kill” and repeated one of American politician Rick Santorum’s bogus claims about the Netherlands’ system for choice at end of life.

4) There wasn’t nearly enough time discuss the issues in-depth. To say the discussion felt rushed would be a severe understatement. It would have taken mnay more than the allotted two hours to adequately tease out the recommendations made in the Expert Advisory Panel’s report.

5) The public consultations are but one way to Voice Your Choice in Ontario. Queen’s Park should be lauded for attempting to hold in-person consultations on physician assisted dying. However, the town hall tour is skipping over huge swaths of the province, likely due to time constraints, perceived or real.

Fortunately, the government’s online survey is open until Jan. 22, giving residents one more chance to weigh in on the future shape of assisted dying in the province of Ontario. This opportunity is not to be missed.

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