Bill C-7 – Motion for Non-Insistence Upon Senate Amendments and Concurrence in Commons Amendments – Sen. Harder

By: The Hon. Peter Harder

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Centennial flame, Ottawa

Hon. Peter Harder: I’d like to briefly make comments with respect to the motion on the message we have received from the other place with respect to Bill C-7, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (medical assistance in dying).

Let me begin by thanking those who helped shape the Senate’s consideration of this bill, the contributions of many senators, both those in particular on the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs led by Senator Jaffer, and the sponsor of this legislation, Senator Petitclerc, whose dedication and tireless leadership have been an inspiration to us all.

In addition, I would like to thank all senators who participated in earlier debates and moved various amendments, some of which are now seeing themselves reflected in the message back. Finally, I would like to thank Senator Gold. I understand somewhat the task he has as the Government Representative in the Senate. He has done an outstanding job of being the representative of the Senate to the government in respect of this piece of legislation and the views of the Senate, as passed in its amendments, and ensured their appropriate consideration by the government.

Bill C-7 has been a deeply challenging bill for every one of us, whatever our personal conviction. I know that each of us feels the weight of responsibility we carry as parliamentarians. This speaks to the profound issues that we as human beings face in life, for death is a destiny we all share.

During our extensive deliberations, we’ve faced the power of reason and argument; we’ve also faced the power of emotion and our own personal stories. Indeed, we’ve been challenged with soul-searching that such a piece of legislation demands. As legislators, we understand the situation that we now face with a message from the other place.

Colleagues, I believe that the Senate has done its work. We have, through our deliberations and the work of the Senate, triggered an impassioned and gripping public debate.

We have, through our amendments, I believe, improved the bill to a great degree and provoked in the other chamber yet another debate of reflection and, in the broader public, a debate with respect to the amendments we have made. This is not the work of either an illegitimate institution, as some would have us believe, or a rubber stamp. This is the role of the Senate: to provoke, to inquire, to make recommendations for improvements, to urge the government and the House of Commons to consider our amendments and our reflections.

The role of the House of Commons and the government is to consider the recommendations we have made and to take seriously the amendments and views of the Senate.

I believe they have done that in a respectful fashion and through meaningful engagement. They have sought an accommodation with the amendments that have been brought forward by this place. That is their role. They are the representatives of the people, and the government will be held accountable. This must be so because democratic accountability for public policy making flows through the other chamber.

Some, like Professor Andrew Heard of Simon Fraser University, would argue:

If the Senate’s principal task in legislative review is to provide sober second thought, then that role appears fulfilled with the Commons’ initial response to Senate amendments. . . . The alternative is to unnecessarily pit the wishes of elected MPs against appointed Senators, with the Senate appearing to be an obstacle rather than a complement to the elected chamber.

Colleagues, the Senate’s debate on medical assistance in dying is a blueprint for the appropriate discharge of the Senate’s role as a complementary body of sober second thought. We can be proud as an institution that the bill is widely viewed as having been improved due to the amendments that have been accepted in the other place, while the basic integrity of the bill remains.

The government, the House of Commons and Canadians have benefited from the sober second thought of this chamber. We are now in a constructive institutional dialogue between an elected and an appointed chamber. As a legislative body designed to provide a complementary review of government bills before they become the law of the land and a counterweight to majoritarianism in the other place, the Senate plays an important role in our federal bicameral parliamentary system. However, robust bicameralism that is respectful of the democratic expression, particularly in a minority House of Commons, has its limits.

The Senate is an advisory body, not a politically accountable body. We are here to advise, amend and improve the legislation that is given to us, but we are not here to obstruct. The political accountability goes through the other chamber. I respectfully submit that it is by concurring with the message of the other place — and not by insisting on further amendments — that we have appropriately and usefully fulfilled our role as the complementary body of sober second thought.

Our former Senate colleague Senator Tkachuk understood that, in the end, the right to govern is for those who are elected to govern by the people of the country. Five years ago, in the passionate speech he gave on the House of Commons message to Bill C-14 — and remember, he opposed this legislation — he said:

We cannot — and I will not — thwart the will of the elected members of Parliament. We have done our job, and although it breaks my heart, I am going to continue to do my duty by voting for this bill in the form that it has been sent back to us by the people’s representatives.

In the end, colleagues, the Senate acts neither as a rubber stamp nor as a rival to the people’s representatives, precisely as the Founding Fathers had intended and — most importantly — where Canadians expect us to be.

I would therefore ask you to support this message before us and concur in the decision of the other place. Thank you.

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