A majority of provinces and territories are asking the federal government to indefinitely pause its plans to expand eligibility for assisted dying.
A parliamentary committee reported Monday that the health system is not ready for the assisted dying regime to include people whose only condition is a mental illness.
That expansion was set to take effect in March, but Health Minister Mark Holland and Justice Minister Arif Virani say they agree it shouldn’t happen so soon.
Health and mental-health ministers from all three territories, along with Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, New Brunswick and British Columbia, asked Holland in a letter on Monday to give them more time to collaborate.
“It is critical that all jurisdictions, health authorities, regulators and (medical assistance in dying) practitioners have sufficient time to implement these safeguards and to address capacity concerns that are expected to result from the expansion,” it read.
The expansion date set for March doesn’t provide jurisdictions with enough time to get prepared, the letter said.
“Therefore, we encourage you and federal Justice Minister Virani to indefinitely pause the implementation of the expanded (medical assistance in dying) eligibility criteria to enable further collaboration between provinces, territories, and the federal government.”
Ministers from Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island said their provinces are more prepared for the changes, but nonetheless signed on to support their colleagues.
The federal Conservatives are calling on the Liberals to cancel plans for the expansion altogether. The New Democrats, who are supporting the Liberals on key parliamentary votes in exchange for progress on shared legislative priorities, say more mental-health supports need to be in place before the country forges ahead with an expansion.
Speaking to reporters on this way into the Liberals’ weekly cabinet meeting Tuesday morning, Holland said given that legislation is forthcoming, he is bound by parliamentary privilege and cannot yet detail how much more of a delay the Liberals are prepared to go with.
The federal government updated assisted dying law in 2021 to include eligibility for people suffering solely from mental illness, who were previously excluded from the regime.
That legislation included a two-year clock to allow practitioners and systems to get ready, meaning the change was scheduled to take effect in March 2023.
Health ministers from ON, AB, NB, NS, SK, PEI, BC, Yukon, NWT, and Nunavut are calling on Ottawa to “indefinitely pause” expanding MAID eligibility to mental illness.
— Colton Praill (@ColtonPraill) January 30, 2024
Last year, the government passed a bill to add another year to that timeline.
Former justice minister David Lametti, who introduced that legislation, recently told The Canadian Press that he believes the necessary preparations have been completed and he “wouldn’t be afraid personally of moving forward with it.”
But Holland said Tuesday that provinces are telling him they still aren’t prepared enough.
He acknowledged that some may simply oppose expanding assisted-dying eligibility on ideological grounds.
The Alberta government, for example, says it is calling for an indefinite delay because it does not believe that offering a medically assisted death to someone with a mental disorder belongs in the health-care system.
Proponents of the expansion argue that people with mental illness deserve to be treated the same way under the law as those suffering from debilitating physical conditions. They say it would violate patients’ rights to exclude them.
Holland said the government believes in eventually making the change for that reason, and a matter of ensuring that a majority of provinces and territories are ready.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 30, 2024.