This is part 2 of a four-part series of essays written in response to Canada’s assisted dying legislation.
An argument has been advanced in many quarters that faith-based institutions should be forced to administer medical assistance in dying if they receive public funds. But this is a one-size-fits-all approach to how we share our public resources and contribute to our public services.
A different vision of Canada is possible. It is built on incrementalism, mutual respect, and the notion that we are resourceful and humble enough to protect both our freedom of conscience and religion in a world in which assisted dying is lawful. What is more, this vision is true to Canada’s founding principles.
Canada was founded in the early days of the Royal Proclamation of 1763 on a partnership between Aboriginal Peoples and European settlors, who arrived and lived in small numbers at the graciousness of their indigenous hosts. This partnership was reflected in the image of the Two Row Wampum Belt, which provides that both societies, Aboriginal and settlor, row side-by-side on common waters. The waters we shared in common then and share in common today is the land. And the common waters we share today also include our public funds and our public services.
Canada’s story is one where people and institutions of many faith and non-faith backgrounds have come together to share in our great wealth and to provide public services, such as schools, hospitals and universities, to each other. And our government has played a supportive role in this collective endeavour, partnering with Canadians, for Canadians. In our story, government should not pit one partner against the other. Rather, we trust our governments to help facilitate creative ways to permit the rights of all to flourish in harmony. What is remarkable about our country, and so enviable to others, is that we have been able by and large to achieve this balance through our elected representatives by respecting the faith and non-faith beliefs of our people and institutions. But our work in this effort is never complete, and must be renewed with every new challenge.
There is room in our country’s traditions for all to share in the provision of our public services and for all to protect their deeply held beliefs. The notion has been advanced that if a faith-based institution receives public dollars, then its administration must give up its freedom of conscience and religion on such important questions as ending another human being’s life. But who is “the public” in Canada? Canadians are, and historically have been, a multifaith, multicultural and multilingual people. And in our rich history, we have permitted multifaith, multicultural and multilingual organisations to play an organic and integral part in providing our cherished public services from the ground up, that is to say, not in a monolithic, top-down and one-size-fits-all approach. We have Christian hospitals and Jewish hospitals, Christian universities and secular universities, Jewish university institutes and Islamic university institutes. And they all receive public dollars, directly or indirectly. We should celebrate this. We needn’t look too far outside our borders to see how enviable our shared history of mutual respect is. A one-size-fits-all approach, which says you must be completely secular, or unilingual, or unicultural, with the first public dollar you receive, is not true to our rich history, and would dim the light of our example to the world of humility and mutual respect.
Some fear a monopoly of faith-based institutions, which would bar access to assisted dying. We are better than to let that happen. And we are better than to infringe on the right to freedom of conscience and religion.
The argument against freedom of conscience cuts both ways and dams up the river of our common waters. For he who expresses his desire to hold freedom of conscience ransom for public funds, could by the very same rule have his freedom of expression held ransom on receipt of a public dollar.
 Patricia Olive Dickason, Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. John Ralston Saul, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2008.