Canada’s assisted suicide law could especially harm indigenous peoples, group warns

/ Oleksandr Lysenko/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Mar 25, 2021 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- A Canadian suicide prevention group is raising alarms that the country’s new assisted suicide law could especially harm indigenous peoples.

The Embrace Life Council, an anti-suicide organization based in Canada’s northern territory of Nunavut, says that the proposed expansion of assisted suicide, Bill C-7, was crafted without proper input from indigenous voices and may exploit deficiencies in the territory’s mental health system.

“More research is required to determine the relationship between mental health and the current public health emergency of suicide in Nunavut,” said a letter sent to Nunvaut Senator Dennis Patterson from the Embrace Life Council, reported by the CBC.

The group said that mental illness creates a “significant impact on productivity, morbidity and mortality” in the territory.

Nunavut has a population of just over 35,000 and encompasses an area roughly the size of Mexico. The majority of the territory’s population is Inuit, a group of indigenous peoples.

The Inuit have some of the highest suicide rates in the world. According to a paper published by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, suicide rates among the Inuit “range from five to 25 times the Canadian average.”

Mental health treatment is widely unavailable in Nunavut, Kylie Aglukark, president of the Embrace Life Council, said to the CBC.

“We’re required already to leave the territory to access basic services,” she said. “We need more [mental health] services. We need to not have our residents being shipped to southern Canada for basic services that should be offered in Nunavut.”

Bill C-7, an expansion of Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying law, strips the requirement that a person must have a “reasonably foreseeable” death in order to be eligible for an assisted death. Under the proposed bill, a person must simply be in a position of physical or mental suffering to receive assisted suicide. The bill was passed by the Parliament on March 11.

Mental illness as a sole underlying condition for assisted suicide eligibility was not initially included in Bill C-7. The bill was amended by the Canadian Senate, an unelected body of representatives that has the ability to propose amendments to legislation.

Patterson, the senator from Nunavut, voted against adding mental illness as a criterion to receive assisted suicide. He cited concerns from groups such as the Embrace Life Council as for why he voted against it.

“There are organizations working against suicide and for wellness who are concerned that making it easier to choose to die with a mental illness in Nunavut without mental health supports, than to go on living and become well,” Patterson told CBC News. He said it was “not a fair choice.”

Canada’s healthcare system has previously been criticized for encouraging assisted death for the terminally ill, instead of providing care to the disabled and dying.

In August, 2019, a man named Sean Tagert opted to receive assisted suicide after the regional health authority would not provide him the complete care required by doctors, and his family had pushed for years for him to receive the full standard of care.

Tagert, 41, had suffered from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) for more than six years before suffering cardiac arrest; he was unable to breathe without a ventilator, or to move any part of his body except his eyes.

After Tagert was placed on a ventilator in October, 2017, his doctors recommended 24-hour in-home care – typical care for a person who uses a ventilator full-time. Vancouver Coastal Health, Tagert’s regional health authority, initially offered to cover 15.5 hours of care per day, and then increased their offer to 20 hours per day. Tagert would still be responsible for paying $263.50 per day for the remaining hours of required care.

Tagert and his family continued to fight for coverage of a full day’s care, to no avail. Eventually, he opted to end his life. While Canadians are entitled to free health care under the Canada Health Act, this does not include disability care or palliative care.

“Hey everyone. I’ve been quiet lately because I’m just done, worn-out,” wrote Tagert in a July 25, 2019 post on his Facebook page.

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