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Hospice's refusal to provide assisted death causes 'anxiety,' says B.C. mayor


DELTA, B.C. — A hospice that has a long history of helping people near death but denies them medical assistance in dying is drawing criticism from the city's mayor in a clash of ideologies that has split its board and raised questions about its future.

The head of the society that operates the facility says she is trying to strengthen its position to only provide end-of-life palliative care.

Angelina Ireland, who heads the Delta Hospice Society, said politicians at the municipal, provincial and federal level who disagree with the Christian basis of its stance against medically assisted death should build another facility to provide the service.

"It's a separate stream of end-of-life care and what we have is a government that wants to destroy palliative care for their own ideological reasons or economic reasons," Ireland said in an interview.

The British Columbia government has announced that it's withdrawing $1.5 million in annual funding to the society starting next year.

Health Minister Adrian Dix gave the requisite one-year notice in February, saying the money covers 94 per cent of costs for the 10-bed hospice on land that is owned by the Fraser Health authority.

"This decision to end this contract is final and will not change," Dix said in a statement Friday. 

Ireland said the society will hold a special meeting by phone and mail-in-ballot on June 15 for members to vote on amendments to its constitution. They would say "God is the giver and taker of life" so getting help from a medical professional to hasten death should not be an option for patients at the Irene Thomas Hospice it operates in Delta.

The federal government introduced a law in 2016 to allow for medically assisted death if strict criteria are met, but Ireland said the society is a private organization aiming to affirm the heritage and identity of palliative care.

"The history of palliative care is rooted in Christian moral teaching," she said. "It is rooted in that we take care of each other, that we care for the dying, that we don't kill them, that we make their lives comfortable and peaceful."

She said three patients at the hospice have asked for medical help in dying but two of them went home to die and another had the procedure at a nearby hospital.

The upcoming meeting has created tension among residents, with some saying they want the opportunity to vote on the future of the hospice but their membership applications have been rejected without explanation.

Delta Mayor George Harvie said in a statement Thursday that he has discussed the need for an urgent meeting with local MP Carla Qualtrough as well as two provincial politicians.

"The mass rejection of memberships from dedicated community members, including past and present hospice staff and volunteers, is simply wrong," he said.

"As mayor, I cannot allow this board to create a division and anxiety in this community."

Ireland said the society has become "huge," with 1,500 members. As a private organization she said it has the right to refuse membership to anyone, adding she doesn't know how many applications have been returned.                         

Harvie said he has support from politicians at the senior levels of government.

"There is total agreement amongst us that we cannot let the intolerable actions of the current board go on," Harvie said.

"The hospice was funded, built on public land, to provide an end-of-life facility in Delta."

Ireland said Harvie has not contacted her and anyone who wants a medically assisted death has the option of getting it at home, at a hospital adjacent to the hospice or anywhere else the service is offered. But she said the public shouldn't be "snowed" by the rhetoric of politicians at all levels of government.

"We're talking about palliative care and we're talking about (medical assistance in dying) and it's disingenuous of the government to try and put those things together."

The previous board voted in favour of medically assisted death, but Ireland said four or five members who were in favour of providing that service were "turfed out" at an annual general meeting in November.

"They didn't even have a quorum, but they went through and pushed this apparent motion to allow (medical assistance in death) at the facility," she said.

Randy Scott said he quit the board 10 days after being elected last December over a disagreement with the direction of Ireland's views because he believes they differ with the needs of local residents.

"It kind of makes my stomach turn the way things were handled," he said, adding Ireland's predecessor also left the board and volunteers have turned away in disagreement.

The society says on its website that it signed a contract with the Fraser Health authority in 2010 for the hospice's operating funds, "making Delta Hospice accountable to Fraser Health and its accreditation standards."

It had already raised $5.5 million two years earlier for both the hospice and an adjoining centre, which provides counselling for clients and patients as well as volunteer support groups, the society says on the site.

Scott said while the society could potentially fund its services independently, residents of Delta would lose out on a valuable service at the end of their lives at a facility they have long supported.

His father and two friends lived out their last days at the hospice, he said, and he believes the majority of Delta residents are strongly in favour of medically assisted dying.

"It's a fantastic facility and it has been over the years," Scott said.

Chris Pettypiece, who served as board member and then president between 2014 and 2018, said the society is attempting to "keep people of a different belief away from services in a society that was built by and for and within this community."

"It's a precious community resource that people feel they're being shut out of because what's being proposed is a very exclusive and very specific agenda," he said.

At least 160 people who recently applied to become members of the society and paid a $10 fee have recently had their applications rejected without explanation, with their money returned to them, Pettypiece said.

"In the eight years I spent on the board I don't recall ever rejecting a membership application or even contemplating doing so."

A spokesman for British Columbia's Health Ministry said that as of March 31, nearly 3,500 residents had chosen to have a medically assisted death.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2020.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

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