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Building a Culture of Life

Mary Deutscher



Perspectives of indigenous peoples absent from the discussion on euthanasia

This February, in preparation for Canada’s new euthanasia law, our Parliament’s Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying released a report. Along with its recommendations to extend euthanasia and assisted suicide to children and persons with mental illnesses, the report also recommended that special consideration be given to how these practices will be implemented in indigenous communities.

However, as our country continues to debate the government’s proposed legislation on “medically-assisted dying,” I can’t help but notice that the perspectives of indigenous peoples remain absent from the discussion.

When I read the joint committee’s recommendation regarding indigenous communities, it reminded me of a historical footnote in the world’s euthanasia debate. Very few people remember that in July 1996, Australia’s Northern Territory legalized euthanasia through a bill named the Rights of the Terminally Ill (ROTI) Act. However, a few short months later, ROTI was nullified by federal legislation, and euthanasia has remained illegal in Australia ever since.

Although the Australian federal government does not typically overrule territorial bills (much like the Canadian federal government), the federal reaction was spurred by the response of indigenous peoples to ROTI.

When ROTI was first introduced, the indigenous viewpoint was largely ignored. Some politicians felt that the indigenous people did not understand euthanasia, while others believe that anti-euthanasia activists were fear-mongering in indigenous communities. This attitude changed, however, following a euthanasia education program that revealed the true reasons for indigenous opposition to ROTI.

Rather than being uneducated or blindly fearful, Australia’s indigenous people simply felt that taking another person’s life is wrong and that medicine should be used for healing. They held a deep suspicion of any health care system that claimed to be able to kill as well as heal, and the introduction of ROTI had the potential to discourage indigenous people from accessing much needed health care services. The indigenous communities made their opposition to ROTI well-known, and thankfully the Australian legislature listened to them.

Although the two situations are not identical, there are many parallels between the Australian and Canadian indigenous peoples. In their respective countries, both groups have poorer health outcomes than non-indigenous people, and both occupy some of the most sparsely populated areas. Further, our indigenous communities in Canada do not have consistent access to palliative care or mental health services. And so I wonder, how are Canada’s indigenous people responding to Bill C-14, our soon-to-be adopted legislation on euthanasia and assisted suicide?

The answer to this question is not easy to find, particularly since it seems our government has made no effort to find it. However, a few indigenous leaders have spoken up on the subject.

Following media-attention on the suicide epidemic that is plaguing our Northern communities, the CBC reported that Robert-Falcon Ouelette, a Liberal MP, asked for more consultation on Bill C-14. Ouellette cited the wisdom of his Sun Dance chief, who told him, “We must fight the spirit of suicide. We must work each and every day to defeat it.”

For Ouelette, opening the door to assisted suicide is a permanent decision that needs to be considered with special attention to the communities that it could damage.

Other indigenous leaders, such as Dene leader Francois Paulette, have spoken up as well. For Paulette, the spiritual law is straightforward: “God is responsible for bringing us into this world, and taking our life.” Although Paulette does not speak for all indigenous people, this sentiment is likely shared by a fair number of Inuit, Métis, and First Nations communities.

I do not understand why, when Canada is finally beginning to value the wisdom and experience of our indigenous peoples, we have done nothing to seek out their insight into the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide. If there was ever an issue that touched the deepest spiritual beliefs of every Canadian, this is it, and yet both our government and our media would prefer to look the other way.

Perhaps they are afraid that we will be reminded of the ugliness we are preparing to embrace.

For generations Canadians have divided ourselves into different cultural groups, but once legalized, euthanasia and assisted suicide will not recognize cultural boundaries. “Medical assistance in dying” is being introduced through the thing we all share, our medical and legal systems, and it will be impossible to give it to some Canadians while denying it to others.

Now is the time for all Canadians to find a voice in this discussion, and help shape the values that will guide future generations of Canadians.

Deutscher holds an MA in Public Ethics from St. Paul University in Ottawa. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.