Physician-Assisted Dying—First Report of Special Joint CommitteePublished on 10 March 2016 Hansard and Statements by Senator James Cowan (retired)
Hon. James S. Cowan (Leader of the Senate Liberals):
Colleagues, I would like to add a few words to those of Senator Ogilvie yesterday. I don’t propose to focus on the substance of the recommendations today. As mandated by this chamber, those recommendations were on a framework for a federal response to physician-assisted dying. In other words, and most unusually, they were recommendations from the committee directly to the government. We invite other colleagues to speak to the substance of the issue later, when the expected government bill arrives in this chamber.
But I did want to take this opportunity to speak briefly about the process that led to this report. As colleagues know, this was a report of a special joint committee, composed of members of this chamber and of the House of Commons. It has been close to 20 years since the last special joint committee of Parliament.
It is understandable that this is a rarely used vehicle — the Senate was deliberately established as a chamber of sober second thought, after all. But colleagues, I think everyone on the committee was impressed with how very well it worked for this important and challenging assignment.
I want to thank all members of the committee for the diligence with which they approached their work, but most especially my other Senate colleagues: Senators Joyal, Nancy Ruth, Seidman and of course Senator Ogilvie, because much of the credit goes to the co-chairs, Rob Oliphant and our colleague, Senator Ogilvie.
Senator Joyal: Hear, hear.
Senator Cowan: They were given a very difficult task. Few issues elicit as strong, impassioned and deeply held convictions across the full spectrum of opinions and issues as does the question of physician-assisted dying.
Furthermore, the timetable given to the committee was necessarily extremely tight. Our co-chairs managed to develop a work plan that, while intense, provided an opportunity for a full range of views to be heard on all the issues that committee members together agreed needed to be considered. I emphasize that: The issues to be considered were ones that were agreed to by all members of the committee. We didn’t all agree on the recommendations with respect to those issues, but we all agreed, under the guidance of our co-chairs, as to the issues the committee needed to consider.
This was an impressive accomplishment. As Senator Ogilvie mentioned yesterday, the committee held 16 meetings and heard 61 witnesses. In addition, the committee received over 100 written submissions. The quality of the submissions and the representations was, in my view, superb. Canadians came forward as individuals and as representatives of a wide range of organizations, from faith-based organizations to diverse healthcare practitioners, to legal and constitutional experts, to advocacy groups.
While it was unfortunate that the time had to be strictly limited — and I’m sure some witnesses felt they needed more time than they were accorded — I believe that each was given a fair opportunity to present their views. As a committee member, I felt well-informed as a result.
For this, as well, the co-chairs are to be applauded. I think Mr. Oliphant would support me in singling out the work of his co- chair, our colleague Senator Ogilvie. He was strict, as we found out. We had five minutes for the question and the answer, so the longer you took for the question, the less the witnesses had for the answer. He was strict but scrupulously fair, as he allocated the limited time among witnesses, and then among committee members.
I can tell you that I noticed members from the other place watching with admiration how he managed our often- impassioned hearings. And these were impassioned hearings, colleagues. These issues are literally matters of life and death. They raise the most profound questions of ethics and morality, of law and science. All of us were ever conscious of the overarching context; namely, the fundamental rights and freedoms of all Canadians as enshrined in the Charter.
There has been a lot of discussion in the media among Canadians and, indeed, in this chamber about the appropriate role of partisan politics in parliamentary work. This committee was an example of parliamentarians from across party lines, from both houses of Parliament, working together and grappling seriously with some of the most profound issues of our time to arrive at recommendations for the government.
The committee report that resulted was supported by parliamentarians from all parties and both chambers. There was, as colleagues may know, a minority dissenting report submitted by three committee members from the other place. That is part of how this process works, and it reflects the not unsurprising fact that Canadians are not unanimous in their views on these very important issues.
The combination of the different perspectives and experiences of members of both houses underscored I think for everyone the value of a bicameral Parliament.
We often like to point to the traditionally less-partisan nature of the Senate proceedings. This was very evident in the course of the committee hearings. I think it opened some eyes to the fact that this is possible and what is possible.
I will share one example, which was remarked upon by several members of the other place. Senator Joyal, as you might expect, was quickly recognized among committee members for his constitutional and legal expertise. On one occasion, Senator Seidman, interested in a witness’s views on an issue that she knew Senator Joyal would pursue, ceded her questioning time to him to give him expanded time, given the strict limitations imposed on each of us. I appreciated her generosity and valued the exchange with the witness that resulted. That kind of cross-party collegiality and support came as a surprise, perhaps even as a shock, to some members from the other place.
As all parliamentarians are trying to lower the partisan temperature in our deliberations, Senator Seidman’s example, which I suspect she didn’t think twice about, was a welcome example of how we can work together in pursuit of the common good.
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.
Senator Cowan: I want to thank the professional committee staff from both houses who assisted us in our work. The two clerks did an exceptional job organizing very complex hearings and then producing our lengthy report — all within a very tight timeline, as I said.
The joint committee clerk from the House of Commons was excellent, but allow me to single out the joint committee clerk from the Senate, Shaila Anwar. Her dedication to her work was clear to us all, as was demonstrated by the many emails she sent to us, often late at night, so we could have the best information as quickly as possible. Shaila truly went above and beyond in her determination to assist the committee in producing the best report possible.
Our staff from the Library of Parliament also deserve special mention. They were able to take the extensive testimony and the many additional briefs submitted to the committee, listen closely to the discussions and then to the instructions of committee members at a series of in camera meetings that went late into the night — and during a time when the city was shut down with a snowstorm — and provide, in a matter of days, a report that we collectively felt captured both what we had heard and what we, as a committee, agreed was our best advice for recommendations to the government for a framework of a federal response on physician-assisted dying.
Given the sensitivity of the issue we were all struggling with, it should surprise no one that our report has generated controversy. It has been both publicly supported and rejected, while others agree with certain recommendations while critiquing others. But it has certainly sparked debate and discussions around kitchen tables, in living rooms and in offices around the country. And that is how important national policies should be developed.
I am proud to have had the opportunity to participate in this very important process through this special joint committee. I look forward to watching and participating in the national conversation as it continues and moves forward; and then I look forward to joining with honourable colleagues here in examining the government’s proposed legislative response when it arrives in our chamber.
Colleagues, I know that there are and will be widely differing views in this chamber on the substance of the recommendations, as there are amongst members of the Canadian public. But when we bring these differing views forward, and debate them, and respectfully consider them all before arriving at our final conclusions, we are doing exactly what we should be doing as legislators in our Parliament, particularly on issues such as this one, which resonate so deeply inside so many Canadians.
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.