Outgoing senators Jim Cowan and Nancy Ruth join DWDC

Outgoing senators James Cowan and Nancy Ruth have a long history of standing up for the rights of Canadians.

And though their time in the Red Chamber has come to an end, their efforts to defend the end-of-life rights of suffering Canadians continue. We at Dying With Dignity Canada are thrilled to announce that Cowan has accepted a position on our board of directors, while Nancy Ruth has agreed to join our Patrons Council.

During his 12 years in the Senate, Cowan proposed legislation to improve how the country’s criminal justice system treats people who are mentally ill and he championed a bill that would make genetic discrimination illegal. He was also a member of the Parliamentary committee that laid out a vision for what a patient-centred national framework for assisted dying would look like.

“We are incredibly lucky to have Senator Cowan — with his leadership experience, his grasp of Canadian law and his commitment to the rights of Canadians — join our board,” DWDC CEO Shanaaz Gokool said. “With his support, we believe we are now better equipped than ever to work for an assisted dying framework that, once and for all, respects Canadians’ Charter rights.”

James Cowan and Nancy Ruth

James Cowan is a veteran lawyer and retired senator from Nova Scotia, while Nancy Ruth is a social activist and retired senator from Ontario. (Supplied)

He joins DWDC’s board of directors two years after the Supreme Court announced its landmark ruling in Carter v. Canada, which established assisted dying as a right for competent adult Canadians who are suffering intolerably from a grievous and irremediable medical condition. However, on June 17, 2016, Parliament passed Bill C-14, an assisted dying law that denies access to groups of suffering individuals who would have been eligible under the criteria laid out in the Carter decision.

“The Supreme Court of Canada has defined a right that is protected by our constitution,” said Cowan, a veteran lawyer. “Parliament has taken that right away for some individuals, and I think Canadians understand that.”

For example, Bill C-14 discriminates against individuals with chronic degenerative illnesses whose deaths are not “reasonably foreseeable,” including those Canadians suffering intolerably as the result of a mental illness who qualify for assisted dying according to the parameters laid out in the Supreme Court’s decision.

“There are precautions that we need to take, but we shouldn’t simply say that because you’re mentally ill, you don’t qualify for this right,” Cowan said.

Assisted dying through the prism of women's rights

By joining the DWDC’s Patrons Council, Nancy Ruth adds her name to a growing list of prominent Canadians who have taken a strong public stand for fair choice at end of life.

“Throughout her career, Nancy Ruth has been an unflinching champion for women’s rights and gender equality,” Gokool said. “Her insights as a social activist help us understand how the current assisted dying rules fail to uphold the rights of particular groups of Canadians, particularly senior women.”

Because Bill C-14 forbids Canadians from consenting to assisted dying in advance through a prior directive, it discriminates against individuals with dementia and other conditions that, as a matter of course, rob victims of their mental capacity. This exclusion disproportionately affects women, because senior women are more likely to develop dementia than men in the same age group.

Not allowing advanced consent for assisted dying discriminates against women, who not only face the possibility of their own dementia and chronic degenerative illness, but who are also the primary caregivers — paid and unpaid — for the sick and dying.

“It is women who not only deal with life, but they also deal with death,” said Nancy Ruth. “They see their parents out, they usually see their husbands out, then their friends, and lastly, themselves.”