Speech – 2016.05.03 – C-14 – Medically Assisted Dying

MP Len Webber in the House of Commons


C-14 – Medically Assisted Dying

May 3, 2016


Mr. Len Webber (Calgary Confederation, CPC):

Mr. Speaker, today I rise in this House to speak to Bill C-14 and to the issue of medically assisted dying.

This is a complex issue for which there are strong opinions on both sides. Some of my comments may be new to this debate and some will echo those of others before me. However, they are all the voice of my constituents in Calgary Confederation.

As my constituent Brenda Robinson said to me in a letter, “There is no doubt that we are in a defining moment for our nation on this important issue. So many lives hang in the balance of how our leaders craft this legislation.”

As I said, there are many sides to this complex issue. The people watching this debate the last couple of days, those people in the galleries, or those watching CPAC on their computers are able to pick and choose the parts of this legislation that they do and do not like, but I and all of us in the House only have the option of a yea or a nay when it comes to a vote. We know that the legislation will pass. It has to pass because the court has said so.

Members may or may not know that I am a big proponent of palliative care. My constituency assistant Lou Winthers in Calgary was the founder and executive director of Hospice Calgary. My late father-in-law was the executive chef at the Rosedale Hospice in Calgary. He spent much of his long life career as an executive chef in many hotels throughout the country. He spent his final years cooking for the dying in the hospice in Calgary.

For many years, my family has volunteered with Hospice Calgary. Never would I have ever thought that I would be fighting for a bed for my wife one day. I saw then first-hand how critical it is that we have a good palliative care system here in Canada.

Through my experience with Hospice Calgary, I also saw first-hand how horribly underfunded this specialized care is within our current health care system. We need to improve palliative care both for the patients and their families. I cannot thank the staff enough at Agapé Hospice for the support they gave me and my family only a few years ago. I only wish that all Canadians had the access and support they need to get palliative care during one of the toughest times in one’s life. We need to do better, and we can do better, but we have a long way to go.

I have received more correspondence on this issue than any other issue since being elected or during my 10 years as an MLA in Alberta. Normally, we see letters either urging an MP to support or oppose legislation. However, the inevitability of this legislation has resulted in a different kind of response. My constituents are writing to suggest how things can be improved and to express concerns with respect to very specific parts. This has made for some very emotional and thoughtful reading.

Ken, a constituent in my riding, wrote to me saying, “Even though I am personally against all euthanasia on personal, moral, and faith grounds, I concede we will probably have to have a law that allows it in extreme circumstances. But many of the current recommendations go far beyond, and in effect could allow this to become an “on-demand service” that leaves many of the most vulnerable unprotected.”

Ken’s letter is one of many that raise concern for our most vulnerable.

Connie C., another constituent who wrote to me, is passionately against any form of suicide. She said, “My father’s death was a gradual decline that spanned a four month period, it was a difficult time for him and for the family. However, we shared some very meaningful time together during those four months and I have a new appreciation for the death process. It was painful and difficult for him, unfortunately struggle is part of the human experience…. Suicide cuts short the human experience and no physician should be asked to end a human life.” That is what Connie had to say.

On the other side of the issue, there are those who wish to have access to these medically assisted options.

Valerie wrote to me and said, “My father and others in my family have had dementia and I saw how they forgot to bathe and brush their teeth and refused to let others take care of them. My father lived his last 6 months in a nursing bed doing nothing but lay in bed. If I get dementia I know I do not want to live like that. If I do not have the option of physician assisted dying then I will opt to find a way to end my life while I am still able to make this decision. I beg you to please allow me a better option should I get dementia.”

Debra Lee wrote to me, and she wrote to the Minister of Justice as well, with a perspective that few have. She worked for over 40 years as a registered nurse. She said, “I saw my share of people die, many of them with good management of their symptoms but some who did suffer a great deal–from physical as well as emotional pain. Some people received intrusive treatments which had no hope of curing them or even easing their suffering. But for too long in my career, I observed a death denying culture–everyone from health providers, family members and individuals themselves having difficulty accepting death.”

As I stated earlier, this issue is complex.

Another constituent, Catherine G., focused on some of the specific parts of the proposed legislation that she felt needs to be improved. She expressed concerns that there is not enough protection for the vulnerable. She said, “I believe that physician assisted death will leave many elderly people open to the worse form of abuse. They may feel pressured to accept it since they feel themselves to be a burden to their loved ones. We must care for the sick and elderly; doctors must never kill.”

Many expressed concern for the most vulnerable in society, but some also wrote about their own vulnerability.

Tracey wrote, “Today my mother is slowly starving to death in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. Since my grandmother also had it, there is a good chance I will as well. Without assisted suicide I will be forced to commit suicide as soon as I am diagnosed because I won’t allow my children to go through what I have, nor do I wish to suffer as my mother has.”

Doug James, another constituent of mine, echoed my sentiments exactly when he said, “I suggest that we are better off having what some will call incomplete legislation, rather than no legislation at all, and trust that future legislation can be passed to address any deficiencies.”

It is for this reason alone that I will be supporting the bill. It is not about a vote of approval for the bill or the circumstances that brought it about. Rather, it is a vote that recognizes that when it comes to something as personal and sensitive as death, it is better to have options available, even if we do not like them, even if we do not believe in them. It is better to have some legal framework than none at all.

My decision will undoubtedly be welcomed by some and loathed by others, but I am confident that my constituents will look at my past, my experiences, and respect that in the absence of an overwhelming and clear direction from my constituents, I am voting for choice.

In closing, I want to also echo a deep concern expressed by David MacPhail, who wrote to me and said, “There should be clear conscience protections for health care workers and facilities in the legislation…. It is not right that people should be forced to participate against their deeply held convictions, either through referral or by doing the procedure. … It is not necessary to make dedicated physicians and healthcare workers put their careers on the line and open themselves to professional disciplinary action simply because they wish to follow their conscience.”

Finally, I want to reiterate my main concern with the dying process, and that is palliative care. I challenge all in this House to approach this issue with as much energy, urgency, and focus as we have seen on this bill.

I believe that when we all focus on a shared goal, we can achieve remarkable improvements in a very timely fashion. Let us hope that we see the same prioritization when it comes to addressing palliative care.


Mr. Robert Aubin (Trois-Rivières, NDP):

Mr. Speaker, I listened carefully to this speech.

I hope that, once this debate is over, we will remember how much we have in common in our humanity, something that we all too often forget in the political arena.

The member who just spoke will find that my support for palliative care is unconditional. I have a question for him. I am asking myself that question at the same time because in many of the speeches that we heard today, including my own, members have been talking about their own personal experiences with death.

I think that the bill before us today requires us to look at things from a different perspective and to put ourselves in the shoes of the person who is dying.

Just before my mother died, she was taking such high doses of morphine that she was almost completely unaware of what was happening around her, but those drugs prevented her from suffering. I am trying to put myself in her shoes and think about whether she would have liked to leave when she was conscious, surrounded by her loved ones, knowing that medical assistance in dying was available to her.


Mr. Len Webber:

Mr. Speaker, through my experience and through my family’s experience, it was very much a relief when my wife finally passed, because of the pain and suffering she went through. I cannot talk much about my experience because I will end up in tears here, and I said to myself that I would not do that.

We have all sat back over these last months and thought about the loved ones we have lost. I know all of us have a very difficult decision here, and I respect everyone’s decision. This just happens to be where I stand on it, and that is how I am going to vote.


Mr. Todd Doherty (Cariboo—Prince George, CPC):

Mr. Speaker, this is more of a comment than anything else.

I want to thank our hon. colleague from Calgary Confederation for stepping forward today and sharing with us in this discussion. The emotions are obviously very raw, and I want to thank our hon. colleague for his comments tonight.


Mr. Len Webber:

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the member for his kind comments.


Mr. Garnett Genuis (Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan, CPC):

Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleague for his remarks, and I want to ask the hon. member about the issue of advance review.

There are some attempts at safeguards in this legislation, but without any kind of legal process, any kind of review involving anyone with legal authority beforehand, there is no clear way of ensuring that the criteria will be followed. This is a big concern of mine.

I wonder if the member would agree that a simple change to this legislation that would institute some system of advance legal review, maybe replacing the role of one of the witnesses with someone with competent legal authority to make that assessment, maybe requiring a judicial hearing, would be an important substantive improvement to this legislation and go a long way to protecting vulnerable people.


Mr. Len Webber:

Mr. Speaker, I would agree that there is a lot of work with this legislation. It is just a matter of time before it ends up in the courts again, with particular people demanding certain changes to this legislation. It is going to take time. There is no doubt in my mind that the Supreme Court will have future decisions to make in this area.

Right now we have been told by the Supreme Court, by the Carter decision, that we must move ahead with this legislation. That is what we are doing.