OTTAWA -- The chair of an outside group established to report on the contentious issue of doctor-assisted death is defending his panel's independence as it embarks on an 11-day research tour in Europe.

Harvey Max Chochinov, who also serves as the Canada research chair in palliative care at the University of Manitoba, says the federal government has selected panellists who intend to be objective.

In July, the Conservative government established the panel to solicit attitudes and opinions of Canadians and key stakeholders after the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the right of clearly consenting adults who endure intolerable physical or mental suffering to end their lives with a physician's help.

The court also gave Parliament one year to establish a set of laws to govern physician-assisted death.

Chochinov's co-panellists are University of Ottawa law professor Benoit Pelletier, a former Quebec cabinet minister who is a constitutional expert; and Catherine Frazee, former co-director of Ryerson University's institute for disability research and education.

This week, the team will be in the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland to meet government officials and experts in the fields of medicine, law, ethics and human rights.

Chochinov said the panellists feel their work is a "critically important task."

"Canada is at an important cross-roads at this issue," he said in a phone interview.

"The Supreme Court has made its decision. All of us respect the court's decision on this."

The panel's mandate is to establish key findings and options for the cabinet to review, but it has been criticized by some, including the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, because two of its three members were federal witnesses who argued against assisted suicide when the case was heard.

Chochinov said the panellists "try not to be put off by any of the criticism whatsoever."

"We know that we are bringing to the table years of experience, certainly all of the talents that we collectively have and again are very much open to listening to and being guided by the things that we hear from Canadians," he said.

The panel is encouraging Canadians to participate by completing an online questionnaire.

Wanda Morris, chief executive of the group Dying With Dignity, has said she is disappointed with the online survey.

"The federal government has moved from inaction to obstruction," Morris said in an interview. "The questions are clearly designed not to elicit information, but to manufacture fear."

Chochinov strongly disagrees with Morris' assessment.

"This is not a biased tool," he said.

A spokesperson also said Monday that statistics indicate a majority of survey participants to date believe the online consultation tool provided a good opportunity to express views on doctor-assisted death.