Despite a stinging rebuke by Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet, Ottawa on Friday doubled down on its refusal to allow a Criminal Code amendment for Quebec so the province can expand its medical-assistance-in-dying (MAID) law.
Still, the office of federal Justice Minister Arif Virani extended an olive branch to Quebec, saying it is “committed to working with Quebec — and all provinces and territories — to carefully consider next steps,” including the prospect of permitting so-called advance MAID requests for those suffering from degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
In response to a Montreal Gazette story on Ottawa’s refusal, Blanchet on Friday afternoon accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, federal Health Minister Mark Holland and Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre of “seriously lacking compassion” for Quebec’s right to manage end-of-life care for its citizens.
“The Bloc Québécois has shown itself to be absolutely reasonable and moderate,” Blanchet said in a post on X.
“I proposed a solution (on MAID) that respects the will — or cowardice — of Messrs. Trudeau, Holland and Poilievre, who seriously lack compassion and (understanding of) Quebec’s competence on health matters. We were following up on a correct request from Quebec. They said No. They’re tough. We have so little in common with this Canada.”
On Wednesday, Quebec’s minister in charge of seniors, Sonia Bélanger, confirmed the province is seeking an amendment to the Criminal Code so it can forge ahead with its updated law on MAID that was adopted last June. Under the Quebec law, patients in the early stages of dementia would be able to make an advance directive for MAID, to take effect when they no longer have the mental capacity to do so.
Legally, this would require a change to the Criminal Code to ensure that medical practitioners are not charged with homicide for carrying out MAID under such a scenario.
On Thursday, a spokesperson for the federal justice minister suggested in a statement that the Coalition Avenir Québec government may not have fully thought through the potential consequences of its request for a Criminal Code amendment.
“The criminal law applies across Canada, ensuring consistent standards nationwide,” Chantalle Aubertin said. “This guarantees that individuals across the country must adhere to the same rules, regardless of location, leaving no room for evading consequences in different jurisdictions.”
Ottawa’s refusal sparked outrage among Quebec sovereignists, who accused the federal government of hamstringing the province. In 2015, Quebec became the first province to adopt MAID legislation, prompting Ottawa a year later to pass its own law that modified the Criminal Code.
In a second and lengthy statement sent to The Gazette Friday, Aubertin clarified Ottawa’s position on the matter.
“Our government appreciates that medical assistance in dying (MAID) is a deeply personal and complex issue,” Aubertin said.
“This issue can be even more complicated in the context of advance requests where people seek to decide whether to access MAID at a later point when they may no longer be competent to make the decision. With an increasing number of Canadians and their families dealing with devastating degenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, we understand why this issue is front of mind for many.
“It is important to understand that under our Constitution, the federal government is responsible for setting criminal laws,” Aubertin added.
“Canada has one national Criminal Code that applies to all provinces and territories. We do not have different criminal laws for different provinces. And for good reason. Criminal penalty, which can include the possibility of incarceration, is one of the strongest tools that the government wields over its citizens. Canadians deserve consistent standards and clarity about what is ‘criminal.’
“To that end, while we have deep respect for the critical and leading work Quebec has done on the important issue of advance requests, there is no ‘quick fix’ in the Criminal Code that we can safely pursue at this time,” she continued. “But that does not mean that the conversation ends here.
“We are committed to working with Quebec — and all provinces and territories — to carefully consider next steps. Given the significant life-or-death implications, our government has chosen a cautious approach to expanding MAID eligibility. This approach emphasizes the importance of reaching consensus through open dialogue and discussion.”
A week ago, Ottawa announced it was delaying plans to extend MAID to people whose only medical condition is a mental illness. Holland justified the delay by saying “the system needs to be ready. We need to get it right.”
In Quebec, the number of MAID deaths jumped by 42 per cent in 2022-23, the highest increase by far of any province, compelling the provincial government to set up a task force to look into the issue.