Election call creates hurdles for expert panel on assisted dying

Canada’s 2015 federal election campaign has officially kicked off, threatening to create delays for the government’s promised national public consultation on physician assisted dying.

On Sunday morning, Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Ottawa’s Rideau Hall to ask Governor General David Johnston to dissolve Parliament. He received the Governor General’s assent, triggering an election that will send Canadians to the polls on Oct. 19.

The early election call raises serious question about whether the national consultation on physician assisted dying will be completed in a timely manner. On July 17, the government revealed its plans to convene a panel of experts to probe Canadians’ views on end-of-life choice. The panel has been tasked with offering Parliament options for legislating a response to the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to strike down the Criminal Code ban on physician assisted dying.

However, the rules the government has set out forbids the panel from carrying out direct consultations during the election campaign. That means the panelists won’t be able to meet with or ask questions of key stakeholders until after Oct. 19. (According to the panel’s website, members of the public will still have the opportunity to voice their feedback through an online submissions portal, which has yet to be opened.)

Dying With Dignity Canada CEO Wanda Morris said she’s concerned that delaying the direct consultations will make it difficult for the panel to deliver its findings by the fall. “Canadians at end of life have had to suffer through delay after delay in the six months since the Supreme Court made its historic decision,” she said. “Now, they may be forced to wait even longer. People who have received a catastrophic diagnosis deserve the peace of mind that comes from knowing their right to a peaceful death will be recognized.

"Failing to meet the Supreme Court’s date to implement assisted dying is cruel and unnecessary," she added.

Morris also questioned the incumbent government’s stated commitment to engaging Canadians on the matter of end-of-life choice. “Why would the government announce its plans to hold a public consultation through the summer and then launch a 78-day election campaign two weeks later? How can we focus on having a meaningful national conversation on such a sensitive issue with the theatrics of an election campaign going on in the background?”

When the Supreme Court announced its decision in Carter v. Canada on Feb. 6, it gave Ottawa and the provinces one year to develop new assisted dying laws before the ruling comes into effect. However, nothing in the judgment requires the federal or provincial governments to pass new laws.

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