A cap on membership applications for the Delta Hospice Society (DHS) ahead of a controversial vote on whether the organization should adopt a faith-based mandate has drawn sharp criticism from many in the community — including Delta’s mayor, MP and MLAs — and sparked a lawsuit aimed at stopping the vote from happening.
In a joint letter dated June 1, Delta Mayor George Harvie, Delta MP Carla Qualtrough, Delta North MLA Ravi Kahlon and Delta South MLA Ian Paton are asking for an urgent meeting with B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix to advise him of their shared concern for “the status of ongoing patient care in the Delta Hospice.”
The four met on Friday, May 29 to discuss the unfolding situation at the society, in particular proposed changes to the organization’s constitution that would see the DHS become a “Christian community that furthers biblical principles governed by the Triune God,” and allegations that hundreds of people had their membership applications denied — in some cases existing memberships being revoked — by the board without explanation.
“As Delta’s elected officials, we are united in voicing our concerns with the board’s recent decision to significantly alter its constitution and bylaws, while at the same time seemingly thwarting the efforts of our citizens to have a say in the direction of the society.”
In response, DHS president Angelina Ireland said she takes issue with the mayor and company’s characterization of the situation, explaining the society has been inundated with applications and had to “draw the line” for practical, not ideological, reasons.
“Normally there’s about, like, 50 members in a hospice society, [and we had] like maybe 200 members. Big, right? We now have 1,500 members. And at some point you have to say, look, we cannot accept anymore,” Ireland told the Reporter. “We had to draw the line because, more than that, there’s no place that we can even have a meeting in Delta. We would have to be forced to go to maybe the Bell [Performing Arts Centre] over there and rent it, and that’s like $8,000.
“Just to send out this information to our membership now at 1,500 people, it cost us $5,000 in postage. So we can’t afford to have a meeting if the meeting’s going to cost us $20,000. We have to be realistic. And I know that’s difficult for government [to understand] because government has unrestricted funds, unrestricted tax payer funds, to do whatever they want, but we’re just a small society and we just can’t afford to have any more people, not to mention the administrative nightmare of trying to administer to 1,500 members.”
Ireland further explained that the society is entirely volunteer-based and has no paid staff, meaning its up to the two or three board members who serve on the membership committee to go through the mountain of applications and process them, entirely for free and on their own time.
In February, Dix announced the Fraser Health Authority had given the society a year’s notice that it will terminate its contract with the DHS after the board voted not to provide medical assistance in dying (MAiD) at the Irene Thomas Hospice in Ladner. The facility is located on Fraser Health property, rented to the society for $1 a year, and the health authority provides the hospice with $1.5 million in annual funding, which covers 94 per cent of the 10-bed centre’s operating costs.
“We are taking this action reluctantly, and when the role of the Delta Hospice Society concludes, patients in publicly funded hospice care will again be able to fully access their medical rights,” Dix said at the time.
Dix said most of the 3,000 B.C. residents who had used assisted dying since federal law changed in 2016 had done so at home. But home for many elderly people is a care facility and they have the same rights, he said.
Faith-based hospice societies remain exempt from the requirement to deliver medical assistance in dying, including St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, Dix said, but they have an obligation to refer people to a facility that offers it if they want.
Ireland said at the time that the funding was abruptly cancelled without consultation between the care facility, Fraser Health and the Health Ministry.
Ireland said in February that if the government wants to implement medical help in dying then it should create facilities for people who want the procedure, adding that government should not be allowed to put medically assisted death “on the backs” of facilities that provide hospice and palliative care services.
Over the past three years, three people have asked for medically assisted death at the hospice, she said.
“All I can say is they were transferred out to their preferred location — two went home and one went next door to the Delta Hospital, one minute away,” she said.
“We facilitate a transfer as is the practice in a hospice and palliative care facility. We have no training to provide euthanasia.”
Members of the society were advised of proposed changes to the DHS’s constitution and bylaws in a letter dated May 22. They include a “statement of the Christian faith of the society” — which says the “holy catholic (sic) church means the true church in all places in all times” — and amendments to the purpose of the Delta Hospice Society.
The amendments include that the society “function as a Christian community that furthers biblical principles governed by the Triune God,” “continue the healing ministry of Jesus Christ,” “uphold and defend that all people are created equally in the image of God and God alone is to be the giver and taker of life” and “provide and facilitate pastoral care to patients and their families.”
An extraordinary general meeting of the society is scheduled for Monday, June 15 at 7 p.m. by telephone conference, followed by a vote by mail-in ballot which closes at 4 p.m. on Friday, June 26.
The wording of the changes and proposed Christian/Catholic focus of the society caused an immediate stir in the community and on social media, with many residents voicing their opposition to the changes and demanding their denied memberships be approved. Others expressed concern over whether those who do not identify as Christian or Catholic would be welcome at the hospice should the changes go forward.
“We believe that the board of directors’ single focus on avoiding the option of MAiD has become a distraction from the good work of the hospice staff and volunteers, causing severe damage and division within the hospice and throughout our community,” Harvie, Qualtrough, Kahlon and Paton wrote in their June 1 letter.
Ireland, meanwhile, stressed the move to adopt a Christian mandate is simply a reaffirmation of the core ideas that have served as the basis for the society and the hospice since day one.
“If you look at the world health organization or any palliative care physician in Canada, they will tell you that the definition of palliative care does not include euthanasia. It never has, and as far as we’re concerned, it never should,” Ireland told the Reporter.
“Palliative care is quite unique in that it came from Christian moral teaching. So we have asked our membership if they would like to return to that as we move forward into the future, having been shut out now completely by government.”
Ireland also stressed that if members do vote to become a faith-based organization, it would not change the care provided to hospice residents and their families.
“Nobody would need to be a Christian to be admitted, it would admit everyone.”
Meanwhile, three former DHS board presidents have filed a petition with the Supreme Court of B.C. in an attempt to stop, or at least postpone, the special meeting on June 15, alleging notice of the meeting contravenes the Societies Act, Emergency Program Act and the society’s own bylaws.
Among other actions, petitioners Sharon Farrish, Christopher Pettypiece, and James Levin are asking the court to order the society to provide them with a list of all the DHS’s members including contact information, as well as a list of all persons (including contact information) whose membership applications were rejected by the society since Nov. 28, 2019.
The petition, filed Friday, June 5, alleges “the board of the society has manipulated the membership list to stack the deck, by holding back for up to six months, and ultimately rejecting without basis, hundreds of membership applications by community members concerned by the direction of the society, all the while selectively accepting members supportive of their philosophy and direction. […] It is intended to change what was always an open, secular community organization into a closed, religious organization.”
According to the petition, a list of members dated March 3, 2020 includes approximately 600 members, similar to the number on the register of members at the 2019 AGM, while another list dated April 15 and produced on May 25 in response to legal demand shows approximately 800 new members were added in a little over a month.
“Large numbers are from other communities, such that something approaching half of the members shown on the April 15, 2020 list reside outside of Delta,” the petition reads.
The petition includes affidavits from 14 people whose memberships were denied by the board, including former Delta South MLA Vicki Huntington, former Delta mayor Beth Johnson, former Delta Police Department chief constable Jim Cessford and current Delta school trustee Daniel Boisvert.
None of the allegations have been proven in court, and as of mid-day Tuesday the DHS had not filed a response to the petition.
On May 29, Dix reaffirmed Fraser Health’s decision to end its service agreement with the society, saying funding will continue until Feb. 25, 2021 so long as the DHS complies with the existing contract.
On June 4, Dix said he will arrange a virtual meeting with Harvie, Kahlon, Paton and Qualtrough to discuss the situation at the Delta Hospice Society.
— with files from Tom Fletcher/Black Press Media and Hina Alam/The Canadian Press
Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.