Speech by Senator Chantal Petitclerc on Bill C-14 (second reading)

Criminal Code

Bill to Amend-Second Reading

June 3, 2016


The Honourable Senator Chantal Petitclerc :

Honourable senators, it is with a great deal of emotion that I speak in the chamber today for the first time.

What an incredible privilege it is to be here. In fact, it is more than a privilege. As I was writing this speech early this morning, my heart was full of emotion as well as a great deal of pride in being part of this group.

I want to say a huge thank you to each and every one of you. Yesterday's debates were inspiring, and the questions were relevant.

Let me be really honest with you. I did not plan — in fact, I did not want to talk today. I feel nowhere close to being ready to speak in this impressive chamber. Remembering my former life as an athlete, this morning I feel like my coach has put me in the final event of the Paralympics among the best in the world, with no training, and I don't like it.

But this morning, for one of the very first times in my life, it's not about performing; it's about bringing my personal perspective to a discussion that I believe is crucial and will define the country that we love so much.

Of course, I know that I still have a lot to learn, so please bear with me. People can learn the law and procedure, and I will learn those things, but beliefs and fundamental values come from life experience. That is what I have to offer the Senate this morning.

I will be brief, and I will blame that on the fact that I used to be a sprinter. But mostly it is because so much has been said already and in such a way that there is not too much to add. I will not talk about the Constitution, the wording of the bill or even advance planning. I feel that my questions, worries and doubts have been brought to attention in this chamber by so many of you and in such a way that I honestly could not do. So I want to thank you for this.

I have something to contribute to this rich dialogue as a senator and as a person with a disability.

Bill C-14, you will understand, affects me in a profound, personal way on three different levels. Let me say before I share them with you, in all candour, that I want to be able to support this bill with all of my heart. For as long as I can remember, I have supported the right to medical assistance in dying. Since we have received the bill, I genuinely want to be able to support it, but the truth is, it is not quite the bill that I was personally waiting for, and it is my hope that we can contribute to making it the best it can be.

I would like to share a personal story with you.

It is true that I am here as a senator, but as I said, and as you can see, I am a person with a disability. As such, it is impossible for me to be completely neutral on this issue. I have three things I want to tell you.

I do want to talk about unbearable pain, because in the end that's what this is all about. I heard some comments that seemed to suggest that pain is always manageable and that there is no such thing as too much pain to justify dying. Well, let me assure you, this is not true. I know first-hand what unbearable pain is. Not that I want anybody to feel sorry for me; that's not who I am. But as some may know, I did have an accident that made me paraplegic at the age of 12. A barn door fell on me, and for the next four months I was in the hospital. I've never told this story.

The first 19 days were torture, nothing less. Not to get too medical, but I had a broken spine and broken ribs. They could not fix the fractured bones until the swelling went down, and that took 19 days. Even though I was very young, I will never forget those 19 days of unbearable pain. In fact, I was so heavily medicated that I think I forgot pretty much everything except the pain of lying in bed with broken bones.

I will never forget, while lying in my bed, the big white hospital clock on the wall in front of me. Every hour on the clock, the nurses came in and had to turn me from side to side to avoid pressure. I swear to you, I was staring non-stop at that clock and started to cry every time the hour was approaching, as I knew the pain that I was going to feel when they would turn me. That was followed by screaming when it would happen and begging my mom to help me, every hour for 19 days.

I knew that my pain was temporary and that I would soon be back on my feet, or my wheels, but I can't help thinking of the people who live with intolerable suffering and have no hope of ever getting better. It is really for them, and them alone, that this law has to be the very best it can be. Let me be clear: I have tremendous respect for life. People who know me know that I cherish every moment of my life. I know all too well that life comes with great joy and tough challenges. I am also in a position to understand the importance of being free to choose.

That brings me to my second point, the right to make your own choices. Ever since we received Bill C-14, I'm new here, so I'm trying to get my head around the concept of what foreseeable death is. I have read, studied and thought about it, trying to understand what exactly it means. I will be honest with you: It still does not make sense to me. I was certain that with the debates and listening to all of you experts speak it would suddenly all become clear to me. But again, let me be honest: I still have no clue. To me, this is a problem.

An even bigger problem — and Senator Pratte and others mentioned this — not allowing the right to access medical assistance in dying to someone who is in unbearable pain but not dying denies a whole group of individuals the right to choose how they want to live and how they want to end their lives.

We certainly can all agree on that.

They are the most vulnerable, and we have an obligation to protect them. I agree with that, but not this way. This affects me mostly because even if most days I like to think of myself as invincible, I know that because I am a person with a disability, I belong to what we call "the vulnerable."

A person who is vulnerable is not without rights and deserves to have those rights respected. Let us find safeguards, guarantees to protect the vulnerable. That is our job.

It's our job to protect, that's for sure.

However, it is not our place to give ourselves the right to make such a decision for a person who is lucid and suffering intolerably and who wants access to medical assistance in dying, even though their death is not reasonably foreseeable under the terms of this legislation. It is disrespectful to those individuals. I understand that it is a natural human reaction to want to help, protect and sometimes even over-protect people who are disabled, severely disabled or seriously ill. We all do that. Such empathy and good intentions come from the heart.

But let me tell you, there is nothing more frustrating, when you are a person with a disability and vulnerable, than to feel as if you have no control over your own life. When you have a disability, the worst part is feeling as if you have no control over your own life and your own body. It happens to all people with disabilities, I can promise you that. It happens to me from time to time. This winter there will be a few times when, despite my strength and great autonomy, I will be physically unable to get from my car to the door of the Senate after a snowstorm, and I will hate it, and I will need help. This is normal. It does feel like your own body is betraying you. The more severe the disability, the more vulnerable you are, the bigger this betrayal feels. I can only imagine how someone would feel if they were vulnerable, in great pain and unable to have control over their own choice. That, to me, would be betrayal not only of the body but also from our country.

There is a fine line between protecting the vulnerable and patronizing them. It is my personal belief that this bill is crossing that line. That is not acceptable.

Lastly, I had to speak today because Bill C-14 is not just a number; it is people I know. I have two friends who, years ago, chose to end their own lives — one Canadian, one Swiss — one with a severe disability, one with an incurable disease. They were both in great pain, with no hopes of getting better and not expected to die for years.

They were both bright, clear-minded men in their 40s who were not at the end of life. Even today, I still feel a sense of peace in knowing that they left this world in the way they wanted to. I have always respected their choice and their right to make that choice.

Reading Bill C-14, I know that our country wouldn't have allowed them to exercise that right, which really troubles me. At the same time, thinking of those two individuals makes me smile, because they were both strong, stubborn guys, and I know they would have fought tooth and nail for their rights, regardless of the law. In closing, honourable senators, I will be thinking of them when I show my full support for the amendments that will be proposed in that regard, in the hopes that all Canadians will have access to the law that they deserve.