Civil Liberties: Dying with Dignity

Today is a good day at the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. A small space heater, perched on one of three laminate wood tables pushed together in the boardroom, provides humming warmth to the 1950s, rust-red stucco building on Helmcken Street, where staff sometimes don tuques, coats, and gloves to ward off the chill.

Early this morning, BCCLA executive director Josh Paterson received a text message alerting him that the Supreme Court of Canada would hear his organization’s “dying with dignity” case. The challenge could overturn the 1993 Sue Rodriguez decision that denied the terminally ill Victoria woman the right to a physician-assisted suicide. “We hope to make legal history,” says Paterson. “It is inhumane to deny someone who is facing tremendous suffering the assistance to end their life in a peaceful and dignified way.” (A similar debate — encapsulated in Bill 52, the “Act Respecting End-of-Life Care” — was heading to Quebec’s National Assembly at press time.)

Paterson, 36, has helmed the group for just over a year. In 2011, under predecessor David Eby (now MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey), the BCCLA successfully challenged in B.C. Supreme Court the law criminalizing physician-assisted deaths. The B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the ruling last year.

And so, the journey to the Supreme Court of Canada — one of about 35 human rights and civil liberties cases the BCCLA will litigate this year. Each is complex and expensive; the watchdog depends on private donations, funding from the Law Foundation of B.C., and thousands of pro bono hours from about 70 lawyers. This case will cost the BCCLA around $200,000. (The bill would be closer to $500,000 were three of the four attorneys not donating their time.)

Paterson seemed destined for the law. Despite an ordinary, middle-class upbringing in suburban Waterloo, by nine he was leading a “pretend kids’ political party. We would go around at recess giving pro-choice speeches.” When the Charlottetown Accord debates raged, he advocated for constitutional change and handed out Yes pamphlets. A few years after graduating from the University of Toronto, he moved to his dream job in Vancouver, working on environmental and First Nations cases at West Coast Environmental Law.

Civil liberties are enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but these rights are always being threatened. Last year, as attention south of the border turned to Barack Obama’s tolerance for surveillance at home and abroad, it came to light that Canadian spymasters from the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service were compiling data on demonstrators at peaceful anti-Enbridge rallies. The companion spy agency, the Communications Security Establishment Canada, recently admitted to tracking Canadians utilizing airport Wi-Fi systems. BCCLA has filed a complaint against the RCMP and CSIS, and a lawsuit against CSEC. “Mass spying on Canadians by Canadian authorities is unlawful and warrantless,” Paterson says. “There is no compelling evidence that shows that wide-scale dragnet surveillance is justified from a national security or a crime-fighting perspective.”

As it happens, the creation of the BCCLA 52 years ago was spurred by similarly heavy-handed conduct. In 1962, the RCMP arrested 57 Kootenay Doukhobors, charging them with conspiracy to intimidate Parliament and the B.C. Legislature. The BCCLA was formed to oppose their treatment by government.