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Lawyer who fought for assisted-suicide thinks himself ‘a plumber ... with words’

Lawyer Joseph Arvay waits to talk to the media as members of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition protest outside the British Columbia Supreme Court in Vancouver on June 15, 2012.


He's argued some of British Columbia's most notable civil-liberties and constitutional-rights cases, but as a young man growing up trying to find his calling, Joseph Arvay stumbled into law almost by accident.

"There were two factors that were on my mind at that time," he said. "I was completely useless with my hands – I couldn't build anything ... and my undergraduate degree was just a lot of ologies: sociology, anthropology, archeology. Nothing that felt very practical."

That changed the day he started law school.

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"On my first day in my law-school contract class, I thought, 'Wow, this is like being a plumber, but with words. I can actually help fix people's problems with words."

After receiving law degrees from both the University of Western Ontario and Harvard, Mr. Arvay began practising. In 30 years, he's worked landmark cases, having successfully argued that children of sperm donors have the same rights as adopted children to information about their birth parents, and that supervised injection site Insite falls under provincial jurisdiction and therefore the federal government can't shut it down.

Awards he has received multiple awards for human-rights law, and Canadian Lawyer magazine named him one of the country's top 25 most influential lawyers in both 2010 and 2011.

Mr. Arvay said the physician-assisted suicide case was a "no-brainer" to take on – and one that is among the most meaningful he's ever worked.

"This is a case that I think sort of touches everybody in Canada, if not directly then indirectly," he said.

"All of us likely know a family member, or friend, who is suffering, and who has a fear of dying a horrible death. What this decision gives everybody is the peace of mind to know that should their end of life situation become intolerable, there is a peaceful and dignified way out."

"I remember when Sue Rodriguez lost her case 20 years ago, and I thought that was wrongly decided. I had hoped that that issue would be reargued and reheard by the courts at some point; I didn't know I would be the one doing it."

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Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More


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