OTTAWA — Conservative MP Steven Fletcher is hoping to ignite a debate on an issue political leaders seem determined to avoid during the election campaign.
The Winnipeg MP is releasing a new book in the midst of the campaign chronicling his own struggle to live with a catastrophic disability and his attempts to force Parliament to deal with the politically explosive issue of doctor assisted dying.
The timing, he says, is accidental — the book's release was delayed and the election called earlier than expected.
Nevertheless, today's release of "Master of My Fate," written with his help by former Manitoba cabinet minister Linda McIntosh, puts the issue back on the radar and Fletcher is hoping it will get people talking.
Not so much political leaders, mind you. They've already abdicated responsibility, ignoring Fletcher's attempts to introduce private member's bills on the matter, preferring instead to leave it to the Supreme Court to do "a lot of the heavy lifting."
Last February, the top court struck down the prohibition on medically assisted dying and gave the federal government 12 months to craft a new law that recognizes the right of clearly consenting adults who are enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to seek medical help to end their lives.
Even then, political leaders dragged their feet. The Harper government waited until mid-July to set up a three-member panel to consult on the issue, with instructions to report back in late fall — after the Oct. 19 election. Justice Minister Peter MacKay has acknowledged there is no way a new law can be put in place before the court's Feb. 6 deadline and that the newly elected government will have to seek an extension.
Fletcher predicts the most likely outcome is there will be no new federal law and provincial governments will wind up setting their own rules and protocols governing assisted death.
Consequently, he's not overly fussed about trying to spark debate among political leaders during the federal campaign.
He's more intent on sparking discussion among families, ensuring that Canadians give some thought to how they want to die and letting family members know their wishes.
"The book is hoping that people will talk about this issue with their family and friends and ponder how they would like to live life and, if something bad were to happen which can happen overnight, which basically happened to me, again ... you find yourself in these situations with no warning and then what do you do, what are your directions?" he said in an interview.
Fletcher has confronted the question more than once. First in 1996 when a run-in with a moose left him paralysed from the neck down and forced him to come to grips with the realization that "the body he inhabited — the body that was too strong to die — would at the same time have no strength to help death come for him," as he puts it in the book.
He faced it again in 2012 when the metal rod attaching his head to his spinal column became dislodged and pierced his throat, requiring dangerous surgery.
Fletcher, at the time a cabinet minister, made his own choice crystal clear to his surgeons: "If something happens during this operation that will damage my brain and leave me cognitively impaired, please stop the surgery and walk away from the table," he recounts in the book.
"I do not want heroic measures taken to keep me alive under such circumstances."
Although polls have shown Canadians overwhelmingly want the right to choose to end their suffering with the help of a doctor, Fletcher says death is not something most people want to think about or talk about, until forced to do so. He's hoping his book, which painfully details his own experience, will help change that.
"At the end of the day, this shouldn't be a government decision. It should be an individual decision and Canadians need to talk to the people who are close to them to let their wishes be known," he said in the interview.
That said, to the extent that Parliament may one day be asked to vote on a new law that spells out the circumstances in which assisted death is allowed, Fletcher is urging Canadian to take advantage of the current election campaign to press candidates for their views on the matter.
"They'll talk about it if people ask and the best time to ask is during an election," he said.
He noted that MPs would most likely be allowed to vote freely on any new law, so candidates' views are more important than those of their leaders or their parties, in his view.
"Just flat out ask, what is your position on physician assisted death and, if it does come to Parliament in a free vote, how will you vote and how will you engage your constituents in helping you decide which way to vote?"
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