Senators ponder how far to go to protect charter rights in assisted-dying bill

“We have an opportunity maybe to straighten things up now. Why wait another one, two, three years? … People will be suffering during that period.”

The composition of the Senate has changed considerably over the past four years so it’s not yet possible to gauge whether the current crop of senators will go as far as — or further than — senators did in 2016 to protect charter rights. There are certainly many senators who are passionately opposed on moral grounds to any expanded access to assisted death, and especially opposed to extending it to people suffering solely from mental illnesses.

But senators with extensive legal backgrounds — both veterans like Carignan and more recent appointees like Dalphond — who grilled ministers last week during committee hearings on the bill all questioned its constitutionality.

The most recently appointed senator, Brent Cotter, a prominent legal ethicist and former senior public servant in Saskatchewan, pointedly asked Justice Minister David Lametti whether he believes senators have a duty to ensure legislation is constitutionally valid.

Lametti did not answer and Cotter concedes it’s a question he’s wrestling with himself.

“The nice thing about the Senate is, on the one hand, I do think we have to advance our viewpoint on the basis of principle and we have much more luxury to do that in a less partisan Senate,” says Cotter, a member of the Independent Senators Group.

“And on constitutionality, it’s quite possible that senators need to be firm … But at the same time I don’t think we have the right to overreach because we are involved in a role where we are appointed, we are not elected by constituents and we need to be respectful of the electoral process that leads to government according to law.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 29, 2020.

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