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Bill C-7 - Medical Assistance in Dying - Message from the House

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak on the message from the other place on Bill C-7. I dedicate this speech to the First Nations and disability communities who continue to courageously fight for a better world for the people and the communities which they advocate and speak for.

The Liberal Government’s commitment to renewing a nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples in Canada has been made with promises to make progress “on issues most important to First Nations, the Métis Nation and Inuit communities.” Yet Canada continues to miss key opportunities to meaningfully engage and collaborate with First Nations, the Métis Nation and Inuit peoples when it comes to a critical part of their progress toward self-determination. I am speaking of how legislation currently works and how the laws generated have, both historically and presently, had negative consequences on Indigenous peoples.

Since first contact, Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island have been actively resisting colonial violence, as the institutionalization of racist and colonial values and laws has led to Indigenous peoples experiencing discrimination for simply being Indigenous and for being the original peoples who lived in a land declared by others as terra nullius, or nobody’s land.

First Nations have had to create organizations and groups that support their road back to self-determination and the self-government structures that had existed but were outlawed. Similar organizations and groups have been created by the disability community for their continued fight for recognition and agency as well. These First Nations and disability community leaders and advocates continue to promote the well-being of their communities. Despite the significant amount of work and progress they have made, First Nations and the disability community continue to experience a myriad of intricate challenges while organizing for change. This has been due to the settler colonial state of lawmaking under which they are operating, where they have been persistently excluded, silenced and surveilled.

How does the colonial state continue to express power and control over another sovereign nation, the First Nations, as well as the disability community?

Senators, don’t close your eyes, ears, hearts and spirits to my speech. I’m not here to blame or shame anyone. I need you to understand where we stand and why we are where we are today. As senators, what is our understanding of the impact of laws on the First Nations and the disability community, especially when I tell you that the majority of laws in Canada have not been just to First Nations or the disability community?

Honourable senators, when I entered the Red Chamber in 2017, I did so with excitement, with disbelief and with naïveté. In the last four weeks, I have come to realize that by having 10 Indigenous senators in this chamber at one time doesn’t automatically remove all the deep structural racism that continues to drive the law-making process on Parliament Hill in Canada. We must all be vigilant as we look at the deep structural and systemic colonial processes and policies in place and we must work together to change them. Otherwise we will continue to create an ever-expanding gap of inequity, injustice and violence on First Nations due to the inter-jurisdictional gaps that continue to be ignored.

How do I, as a First Nations senator, take the steps necessary to mitigate these risks we have unilaterally placed on the peoples through the laws we’ve helped to pass? How do I hold myself accountable to my relations who have put their trust in me and in the Senate? Being accountable to my relations means understanding that I, as a senator, am part of this law-making process, which therefore makes me accountable to the people who must fall under these laws that we pass, most times without their knowledge and consent.

What are the consistent themes in the stories of First Nations and the disability community that are not considered in the bills we review, including Bill C-7? These troubling patterns include no meaningful consultation with the appropriate organization or advocates; no clear understanding of how the bill is being understood or explained to different sections of the population, including health professionals; no data to tell the stories of the inequalities and inequities that prevail; no opportunity given to discuss the relevant issues for specific groups, for example, that assisted dying is not part of some cultures or that suicide is an epidemic in some communities.

Honourable senators, in Bill C-7, what are the anticipated impacts on women and other marginalized groups? Disability advocates have argued for increased supports for people with disabilities, rather than doing the exact opposite by extending the availability of MAID. In 2019, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities recommended that Canada establish adequate safeguards to ensure that persons with disabilities do not request MAID simply because of the absence of community-based alternatives and palliative care.

Have these safeguards truly been put in place? Consider the following. According to the GBA+ on Bill C-7, which was undertaken by Minister of Justice David Lametti, it says on page 4:

Women have higher rates of mood disorders and generalized anxiety disorder than men, while men have higher rates of substance use disorders. It is important to note that the Statistics Canada study that drew these conclusions is likely underestimating the rates of mental illness, as it did not include persons living on reserves and other Indigenous settlements, full-time members of the Canadian Forces, and the institutionalized population, many of whom are extremely vulnerable.

That analysis also states that:

There are gender-specific risk factors for common mental illness that disproportionately affect women, such as gender-based violence, socioeconomic disadvantage, low income and income inequality, low or subordinate social status and rank and unremitting responsibility for the care of others. The high prevalence of sexual violence to which women are exposed and the correspondingly high rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder following such violence, renders women the largest single group of people affected by this disorder.

Gender differences also exist in patterns of help seeking for psychological disorders . . . These gender differences may help to explain why women with psychiatric conditions are more likely than men to request MAID in the Benelux countries. It can be expected that should MAID be made available in Canada for individuals whose sole underlying condition is mental illness, we would see an increase in women seeking MAID for psychiatric suffering, and at younger ages.

There is a very real risk of suicide contagion amongst vulnerable groups following a MAID death, especially if members of the vulnerable group identify with the person who received MAID.

In the Benelux countries, where eligibility for MAID is not limited to those suffering physically, there have been controversial MAID deaths that have occurred, and it can be expected that similar cases would emerge in Canada under this option.

Colleagues, I am reaching out to you to urge you all to work with people who are under threat, as an ally, and to act together and protect one another.

What is occurring in Canada today is not an Indian problem but a Canadian one. In her 2015 book Strong Helpers’ Teachings: The Value of Indigenous Knowledges in the Helping Professions by Cyndy Baskin, a Mi’kmaq and Celtic author, she quotes Patton and Bondi at page 490, saying:

Allies for social justice recognize the interconnectedness of oppressive structures and work in partnership with marginalized persons towards building social justice coalitions. They aspire to move beyond individual acts and direct attention to oppressive processes and systems. Their pursuit is not merely to help oppressed persons but to create a socially just world, which benefits all people.

Baskin goes on to state:

Although the term “ally” is widely used, some believe that it indicates a belief that one is fighting someone else’s battle instead of actually aligning themselves within the battle. For example, when asked about the role of allies in Black women’s activism, bell hooks challenged the term, saying, “If someone is standing on their own beliefs and their own beliefs are anti-patriarchal and anti-sexist, they are not required to be anybody’s ally. They are on their front line in the same way that I’m on my front line.”

Examining one’s own privilege and relationship to it is crucial to becoming an ally, according to Bishop, Kendall and Nattrass. Locating oneself within the systems of oppression, one is part of but trying to work against them, and understanding history and current context are pivotal.

In the same book, Ben Carniol states:

From a mainstream perspective, what I see as being important for an ally is to unlearn a lot of the stuff that we have been socialized to believe from a very young age and has been reinforced day by day with the prevailing narrative of colonialism that is still very, very strong in sometimes subtle ways and sometimes not so subtle ways. That unlearning means a recognition of the oppression of colonialism, a recognition of why people are being oppressed, and that goes back to history. So mainstream allies need to understand about the dispossession, the theft of land, the violation of treaties, the assimilative role of government policies and of mainstream non-Indigenous people in general.

That was from his personal communication in 2015.

Senators, while I know that this road — challenging the underlying institutional racism that exists in the law-making process — will be a long road, I also firmly believe that we are up to the challenge. What choice do we have, as the alternative is to continue to place certain vulnerable subsets of the Canadian population in a continuous place of deficit.

While I will be voting against this message, it is my sincere hope that we can use this moment as a turning point where we undertake to move forward in a more inclusive and understanding way, while ensuring we give voice to those who continue to sorely lack it in the halls of Parliament. Thank you.

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