OTTAWA — Anthony Housefather was already under pressure when he was elected as the Liberal member of Parliament for the Quebec riding of Mount Royal.
His predecessor? Irwin Cotler, a parliamentarian widely respected for his advocacy on justice and human rights who held the riding for 16 years.
Housefather knew he had big shoes to fill, even though, as he jokes, Cotler only wears a size eight.
But the task ahead is also pressure packed — Housefather is chair of the House of Commons justice committee, soon to start studying the Liberal government’s polarizing assisted suicide bill.
Making sure everyone feels their voice has been heard in the ensuing debate will be a challenge, he said.
“There are a number of values that are involved and some of them may be conflicting,” he said.
“It’s our job as parliamentarians to make sure we work them out, and in respect of the court decision and the charter — and my goal is that our committee will come out with everybody feeling that that’s what we did.”
Housefather has yet to hang a single picture in his ground floor office on Parliament Hill and it’s unlikely he’ll have much time to decorate now. It’s expected to be May before the committee receives the bill and they are facing a tight deadline — the new law must be in place by June 6 to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down the existing ban on medically assisted death as unconstitutional.
Late nights, early mornings, meetings five times a day — all are on the table, Housefather said, in an effort to make that deadline.
Another goal is keeping the study as free from partisanship as possible. One way is to have a witness list created collaboratively, not by each party submitting their own slate, he said.
“My hope is we can all come together, understanding what everybody thinks and if you don’t achieve a consensus at least you’ve tried and you understand why you haven’t and you respect each other’s point of view,” he said.
Housefather, 44, has a wide smile and bouncing energy.
He tries to work out 90 minutes a day and is an avid swimmer, having competed in his youth and more recently in a Jewish multi-sport event held every four years in Israel known as the Maccabiah Games.
But his cheerful tone drops an octave when asked about his personal belief on whether a person should have a legal right to get help ending their life.
“I do believe in the autonomy of individuals and I do believe in a general sense, individuals should have a right to control their lives and in certain, specific, limited cases, their death,” he said.
“But I think the goal for me is that very few people will ever want to make this right available to themselves because we’ve created a system of medicine and palliative care that ensure there are people that are not living in constant pain as they live out their natural life.