April 9, 2012

A Quebec legislative committee's call for legalized euthanasia might be a grave danger to Canada's health care system. Its immediate and unquestionable menace, however, is the damage it does to democracy.

For the moment, the Select Committee on Dying With Dignity's all-party report presented March 22 to the province's National Assembly is in parliamentary and pre-election limbo. There is reason to hope its mad demand for legalizing doctor-administered assisted suicide in Quebec by 2013 will be lost in the dust of politicians hitting the campaign trail.

What should never be obscured, however, is the poisonous cynicism of the process by which the report was produced, and in which members of both the government and opposition parties connived.

Worse, while that cynicism was cheap as dirt, it was not inexpensive. The report cost Quebec taxpayers at least $1 million, including money spent to send committee members on "fact-finding" visits to France, Belgium and Holland.

It also consumed vast amounts of citizen time to prepare and present more than 425 briefs to the select committee as it travelled across the province.

Analysis of those submissions showed more than 60 per cent unequivocally opposed to any opening of the door to euthanasia or assisted suicide. Fewer than a third voiced some support or even strong support for euthanasia. A mere two per cent of submissions supported legalizing assisted suicide.

Among those strongly opposed was a group of 53 professors from McGill University, in faculties ranging from medicine to chemistry to mathematics, philosophy and history, who argued trenchantly on medical, moral and historical grounds.

Faced with this opposition, and ignoring its own mandate to conduct the public hearings in order to get direction from Quebecers on how to approach end-of-life care, the committee trumpeted in its report an online straw poll it completed before the hearings were even fully underway.

The web survey was not conducted by a reputable polling company. On the contrary, it was little better than the "daily question" gimmicks that are now a staple of media outlets. In other words, it was essentially a write-in petition with no safeguards against multiple submissions from the same person, and no means of authenticating the results.

Compounding that, the questions were so heavily biased that complaints about them to the committee resulted in assurances they would be merely used as a "guide" during preparation of the final report and recommendations.

In fact, the web poll results formed the foundation for a group of public representatives to justify demanding the total transformation of Quebec's medical system from health care to killing care.

They were the basis by which public engagement became a duplicitous excuse for an elite clique of elected officials to follow their own obsessions and announce what they had decided before they even began.

It is difficult to decide which is more breathtaking: the intellectual fraudulence of pretending an anonymous online survey could be passed off as trumping the public submissions of citizens invited to participate in the process, or the stunning arrogance of assuming no one would even notice or care.

But people do care, even as the political class continues to fool itself that its contempt for citizens remains, like carbon monoxide, invisible and undetected.

The evidence for this comes through strongly in a recent credible poll released by The Manning Centre for Building Democracy. Citing Harris-Decima research, the Manning Centre reported 77 per cent of Canadians now have an unfavourable view of politicians, ranging from somewhat unfavourable to very unfavourable.


An even more telling number, however, is that 58 per cent of us now believe politicians to be "very unprincipled" – an increase of 30 per cent since 1988.

We may have to hand over to governments billions in tax dollars. We may be forced to abide by decisions that are genuinely matters of life and death. But more than half of Canadians do not trust the basic principles of those we vote – or increasingly refuse to vote – for.

Such corrosion of public trust does not happen without cause. Nor should its effects on the sustainability of our democratic life be discounted.

The fakery, trickery and cynical manipulativeness of Quebec's select Committee on Dying with Dignity is a perfect example of how that trust has been eroded, and the real menace it represents.

(Stockland is the director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal in Montreal.)