OTTAWA — Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says the move to legalize medically assisted dying has no bearing on the suicide crisis among young people in First Nations communities.
Some opponents of assisted death argue that making it legally acceptable to seek medical help to end intolerable suffering is tantamount to condoning and facilitating suicide.
But Bennett — a physician who has just returned from visiting the Attiwapiskat reserve in northern Ontario, which has declared a suicide emergency — says no one there raised the issue of medical assistance in dying.
Rather, she says indigenous communities link the suicide crisis to the legacy of the residential schools, missing and murdered indigenous women, child abuse and child welfare systems.
Just prior to her visit to Attiwapiskat, the federal government introduced a bill that would make medically assisted death legal for consenting adults who are at least 18 years of age, in “an advanced stage of irreversible decline” from a serious and incurable disease, illness or disability and for whom a natural death is “reasonably foreseeable.”
The bill is in response to a Supreme Court ruling last year which struck down the ban on physician-assisted dying. The court said medical help in dying should be available to clearly consenting adults with “grievous and irremediable” medical conditions who are enduring physical or mental suffering that they find intolerable.
The government’s more restrictive bill does not extend the right to assisted dying to those suffering only from mental illnesses or to mature minors. Nor does it allow individuals to make advance requests for an assisted death.
At a news conference Tuesday held by a multi-faith group opposed to legalizing assisted dying, Cardinal Thomas Collins, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Toronto, drew a link between the proposed law and the epidemic of aboriginal youth committing suicide “because they find life to be intolerable.”
“On the one hand, we’re seeking to reach out to those people, to help them, to give them hope … We’re saying no, this is not the way,” Collins said.
“And at the same time, we’re saying but it is the way … We’re setting up a law to make that pathway, that solution to life’s most difficult questions, most difficult sufferings, acceptable and part of the law of Canada.”
Liberal backbencher Robert-Falcon Ouellette, an indigenous MP, has made similar arguments.
Bennett acknowledged that some native leaders “are very much concerned” that medical assistance in dying is commonly referred to as assisted suicide.
“The more we can keep that separate, the better,” she said.
Bennett also acknowledged that some of her Liberal caucus colleagues are concerned about aboriginal youth making a link between the legalization of medically assisted dying and suicide.
“Therefore, we’ve got to do a better job explaining the difference.”
She added that she “didn’t hear that link from those kids” in Attiwapiskat.
The suicide crisis in First Nations communities is “much more likely” fuelled by the fact that young people have siblings, neighbours, friends or close relatives who have taken their own lives or attempted to do so, Bennett said.