Freedom of conscience needs to be protected in Canada

The Alberta government is looking to protect a doctor’s right to do their job without going against their conscience.
The Alberta government is looking to protect a doctor’s right to do their job without going against their conscience.

Disclosure:Garnett Genuis is the Conservative MP representing Sherwood Park–Fort Saskatchewan in Alberta.

At the federal level, I have consistently sought to advance the protection of conscience in legislation and policy. A right to freedom of conscience is enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and is part of other human rights documents going back to before Confederation.

Protection of conscience has a strong moral and intellectual basis. The most important freedom we all have is the right to an independent and personal search for truth–to do what we believe right and avoid what we believe wrong, insofar as doing what we believe right does not involve some act of violence against another person.

If a person can be compelled to accept the state’s notion of right and wrong regardless of his or her own conscience, then what is left of the notion of individual freedom?

There has been much discussion recently about freedom of conscience and religion in the context of religious symbols. Importantly, though freedom of conscience has to go beyond external symbols. If you believe that a Muslim woman should be free to wear a hijab at work, do you believe that that same Muslim woman should be free to abstain from participation in, say, euthanasia, if such participation conflicts with her conscientious ‎beliefs? Conscience is a matter of what is inside your head, not just of what you put on your head.

In the last Parliament, Conservatives sought to amend the government’s euthanasia legislation to protect the conscience rights of medical practitioners. Many doctors‎ would prefer not to participate in euthanasia. Requiring them to do so will not improve access because it will force those with a strong conscientious objection out of the profession or out of the country. This is a serious concern given the limited number of doctors practising palliative care. Fewer palliative care doctors means more pain at the end of life and less access to the accommodation and comfort that people under such pain deserve.

Notably, our efforts to protect conscience through our opposition motion were supported in a vote on May 17, 2016, by all present Conservative MPs (including Stephen Harper, Rona Ambrose, and Jason Kenney) as well as by five NDP MPs–Charlie Angus, Alistair MacGregor, Gord Johns, Sheila Malcolmson, and Erin Weir.

For good reason. In light of the failure to act at the federal level to protect conscience and ensure access to vital services, a provincial MLA has proposed legislation to affirm conscience protection here in Alberta (Bill 207). This legislation would mean no substantive change for anyone–it simply codifies into legislation what is already the rule and practise for physicians in Alberta. It does not provide a right to refuse service on the basis of identifiable characteristics–only on the basis of well-founded conscientious objection. It is a necessary legislative step because it ensures that doctors in Alberta won’t face a situation‎ in the future where the regulatory body tries to take away conscience protection.

It is fascinating to observe how apoplectic many on the political left have become over proposals like Bill 207 to protect conscience. Apparently the road to Gilead is paved with conscience rights protection. (People who say such things have probably never actually read A Handmaid’s Tale).

Many on the left have embraced the inverted vocabulary of another dystopian novel, 1984. To them, the protection of something as basic as conscientious objections has been re-imagined as an attack on someone else’s freedom. But nobody’s right to anything should be a basis for compelling someone else to provide that thing in violation of their conscience. Unlike the Alberta NDP, this is something that at least some members of the federal NDP understood well in the last Parliament.

Diversity isn’t just about the colour of your skin or the symbols you wear. Respecting diversity means allowing people with substantively different views of life to express their opinions and to access professions. A society that does not understand this is not a free society. It is, therefore, vitally important to ensure that Charter protections for freedom of conscience are taken seriously.