Paul Schratz - Life In The Schratz Lane

Important history behind our health care

Voices Jan. 12, 2018

An assisted suicide at Vancouver's Louis Brier Home and Hospital raises important issues of religious freedom and health care, writes Paul Schratz.

The illicit death at a Vancouver Jewish care home, prompting a statement last week from Archbishop Miller, raises important issues of religious freedom, but also the nature of health care in Canada.

A little history sheds some helpful light on both.

Back in 1858, the Sisters of Saint Ann arrived in B.C. from Quebec, ready to bring their teaching ministry to the new colony of Victoria.

No sooner had they arrived than they saw an equally urgent need for health care. Working from a small log cabin near Beacon Hill Park, they began visiting and carrying for the poor, elderly, and sick and dying in their homes. They would even prepare the deceased for burial.

The sisters went on to establish St. Joseph’s Hospital, funded entirely by donations, and even launched a rudimentary health-insurance program that cost $1 a month and was open to all faiths and races.

That’s just one small part of one particular story of Catholic health care in Canada. There are countless others, because the history of Catholic hospitals is in many ways the history of health care in Canada. At one point there were hundreds of Catholic hospitals across the country – 17 of them in B.C. – started by religious congregations who dedicated their lives – literally – to caring for the sick and dying. Scores of them remain today.

Catholics don’t have a monopoly on compassion in health care. In B.C. there are more than 40 health-care facilities operated by 12 different religious denominations – Catholic, Baptist, Salvation Army, Jewish, and more.

The Louis Brier Home and Hospital is one of them, and like many other religiously run facilities, it operates with core values that guide its mission to the community.

Those values are the reason these faith-based institutions exist. Like the Sisters of Saint Ann 160 years ago, the religious communities behind these hospitals and homes see the inherent value and dignity of each person, particularly the most vulnerable among us.

Those values are built into those hospitals and care homes, often thanks to the religious commitment of the men and women behind them. As Archbishop J. Michael Miller said in a statement, religious facilities represent communities that “have the right to determine the values that govern their mission” and the right to reject procedures that contradict their code of ethics.

It’s understandable why a religiously based health care facility would regard assisted suicide as a conflict. So when an assisted death was carried out at Louis Brier, without administrators’ knowledge or permission, professional action was taken against the doctor responsible.

In an essay last month, Christopher De Bono at Providence Health Care pointed out that the mission of Catholic hospitals is “much more than what they don’t do.” In the context of assisted suicide – or the more politically correct Medical Assistance in Dying – Providence’s mission means “focusing on what is provided (exceptional palliative care) rather than what is not provided (MAiD).”

Religious health care facilities bring a different contribution to health care, but not an inferior one. Catholics were caring for the sick and dying before Canada was even a country. St. Paul’s Hospital was admitting AIDS patients when other hospitals were turning them away. And today Providence hosts the innovative B.C. Centre on Substance Use in leading the campaign on the opioid crisis.

“Given the amazing strengths of many publicly funded faith-based providers and the added value the public gets from them,” writes DeBono, the public should see them “as reflecting Canada’s diversity.”

It’s simplistic to think all health-care facilities, like all educational approaches, must be identical. As DeBono puts it, “secular and faith-based health care providers already work together in what is an increasingly integrated system, capitalizing on each other’s strengths.”

Unfortunately, the resulting debate revealed many people want to see the current euthanasia regime made available for any reason in any care facility, including religious ones. Their central strategy, like the debate over religious freedom in education, is to wield the public purse over dissenters and call for the removal of funding to any hospital that opposes killing.

To them, the contribution of Canada’s religious communities in establishing and running these places of care is immaterial. What matters is choice in dying, regardless of how it may infringe on others’ religious freedoms.

It’s alarming how quickly some people see force as their first and best option for resolving differences. Despite the many strengths of faith-based organizations, whether schools or hospitals, the first instinct of many in a political clash is to force compliance.

This may come as a surprise, but beating your political opponent into submission is not a Canadian value. Rather, the tradition of courts and tribunals in this country is to attempt to balance conflicting rights.

Nobody wants to see patient and loved ones who are struggling with life and death decisions abandoned or given more duress. When an imperfect system fails, the solution is not to take a heavy-handed approach and force compliance from those with sincere ethical objections. It’s to work together to resolve the issues. Then we can ensure British Columbians continue to get the compassionate care first introduced here in a log cabin before the founding of Canada.