Quebec’s extraordinary citizens’ debate
by Geoffrey Kelley
On December 4, 2009, the Quebec National Assembly unanimously adopted a motion creating a special parliamentary committee to examine the question of dying with dignity. The four political parties represented in the Assembly at that time (the Quebec Liberal Party, the Parti Québécois, Action Démocratique du Québec and Québec Solidaire) approved a motion that would lead to extensive public consultations on end-of-life issues, including palliative care, living wills and, most contentiously, the difficult issue of euthanasia. The result was a rewarding experience for all concerned – parliamentarians, the media and the general public, as citizens and representatives of civil society came forward to comment on one of life’s most emotionally charged moments and to explore how death and dying are dealt with in our modern world.
From the outset, the goal was to reach out to the public. In the 20 years that preceded the committee’s work, the debate over euthanasia in Canada had focused either on the courts (as in the Sue Rodriguez and Robert Latimer cases) or on votes in the House of Commons to amend the Criminal Code of Canada. This time, the goal was to generate and allow as many people as possible to express an opinion on the matter.
The motion adopted in the Assembly was quite specific as to how the special committee was to proceed. The first step was to invite 32 experts drawn from medical, legal and ethical fields, along with various professional associations interested in the issue, to testify at the National Assembly in Quebec City. At this stage, the experts were asked for their advice on how to craft a consultation document, which questions needed to be answered, and how best to engage the population on these issues. The committee asked them to refrain from giving their personal opinion for the moment, as it was expected that they would return during the next stage of the committee’s deliberations to add their voices to the general consultation. The committee members were probably engaging in wishful thinking, as many of the experts clearly took sides in the euthanasia debate right from the start.