© The Canadian Press
Lee Carter, left, hugs Grace Pastine, litigation director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, inside The Supreme Court of Canada, Friday morning, Feb. 6, 2015, in Ottawa,
The judges of the Supreme Court of Canada, in their verdict on physician-assisted suicide, put it succinctly: “It is a crime in Canada to assist another person in ending her own life. As a result, people who are grievously and irremediably ill cannot seek a physician’s assistance in dying and may be condemned to a life of severe and intolerable suffering. A person facing this prospect has two options: she can take her own life prematurely, often by violent or dangerous means, or she can suffer until she dies from natural causes. The choice is cruel.”
Then, the good judges decided to let that cruelty continue, suspending their judgment for a year so that the federal government can address the issue with new legislation — making it the latest ideological plaything.
I certainly applaud the decision wholeheartedly and agree with the court unanimously striking down the law as being unconstitutional — but while I can understand the court’s desire for practicality, I think the do-over is a cop out.
For those with short memories, the Supreme Court did much the same thing with Canada’s prostitution laws: ruled them to be unconstitutional, but allowed the federal government a year’s grace to come up with new legislation. The government did exactly that, coming up with seriously flawed new prostitution legislation that will, in all likelihood, go right back to the Supreme Court.
Legislative ping-pong may be fun for judges and politicians, but the fun goes out of it entirely when you have to watch your mother slowly and painfully die on the couch in her living room. (Let me be absolutely clear: when my mother died, I lived a continent away and bore only a fraction of the burden that my brothers, and especially my older brother, did.)
But what I did bear will never leave me.
My mother was a lively, independent woman in her 70s when she developed liver and brain cancer. Three months after it was discovered, the disease was literally tearing her apart. No time for chemotherapy or surgery, no prognosis except death. Not sick enough for palliative care, too sick for home.
Sometimes, she thought the British Columbia mountains were drawings put there by hospital staff. Sometimes, she thought she was in other cities. Sometimes, she got up from her hospital bed and ran as far as her legs would carry her.
One night, back at home at around 3 a.m., she started talking to me. I was sitting in a chair next to where she was lying on the couch. The rest of the house was quiet, everyone else finally sleeping.
“Call them, Russ,” she said. “Call them. Call the people who come and pick them up.”
“No. Call them. The people that take you away. They come and pick you up from the curb. Call them now.”
You know your parents. You know when they make decisions. She looked straight at me.
“No more. Had enough. Just end this. You know what I mean. Do it.”
It was a lesson she had already learned from her father, who had suffered from dementia and had intended to commit suicide before he was completely ravaged by the disease.
As she told me quite bluntly when I was a teenager, “Our big mistake was that we took away his gun.”
I had the medications, I knew exactly what she wanted, but I couldn’t do it. More than anything else, I couldn’t bring myself to do it wrong.
She stayed alive, and, just like the court said, it was cruel.
I can’t write it exactly the way I would say it — the language would be far too foul — but here goes: before our federal government spends the next 12 months drafting new legislation, walk
the walk, you pompous blowhards.
Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; his column appears on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in The Guardian.