Medically assisted death in Canada: A legal and personal history

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Supreme Court of Canada building. Photo: shankar s./Wikimedia Commons

This is the first part of a three-part series on medically assisted death in Canada, chronicling legal columnist Celia Chandler's personal experience with assisted dying, in the wake of her partner's diagnosis of a terminal illness.

rabble.ca's Pro Bono column is no stranger to the issue of medical assistance in death (MAID). We have contributed to the discussion a number of times in the last four years.

What is new is that I can now provide a firsthand account of a medically assisted death. At 6 p.m. on Monday, November 19, 2018, surrounded by his closest family, my husband, Jack Sikorski, consented to a medically assisted death. Jack's cancer had progressed and his quality of life was greatly diminished; he was grateful for the choice to prevent further suffering and die on his own terms, as he had lived. And I am profoundly grateful, too.

How did we get there, legally and personally? This column is a brief history of the legal battle to get MAID legislation in Canada which Jack and I watched from the sidelines as interested observers. The next instalment will cover the time the legislation was introduced, which largely coincided with Jack's initial cancer diagnosis. I will also cover the spread of Jack's cancer in early 2018 when MAID was already available in Canada. In the final instalment, I will describe Jack's final days and will reflect on my experience with MAID.

The issue of physician-assisted death is one that has simmered in Canada for decades. The outcome of the Sue Rodriguez case in 1993 appeared to cement us as a country that would not allow people the option of a legal death outside the natural order. This despite the fact that people -- including doctors -- were helping others die on the down‑low for a long time. Exit Interview, a 2018 documentary on the life and death of John Hofsess, helps us understand this underground movement and likens his work to that of Henry Morgentaler in fearlessly furthering a cause about which he felt strongly and around which there were huge medical and moral issues.

Jack and I first discussed the issue on January 26, 2014 (although his children assure me that he'd talked about it his whole life). Our beloved boxer, Kora, had developed what our vet believed to be degenerative myelopathy, a progressive and incurable disease that ultimately leads to complete paralysis. Kora had begun falling over early in January and had awakened on January 26 in a pool of her own urine -- this thing was moving fast. She had been a dignified old girl and her disease led to a loss of that. We left the vet after Kora's euthanization reflecting on how we were able to provide for her the best death we could and how terribly unfair it was that we were unlikely to be able to do that for each other.

We were both physically well at the time.

A year after Kora's humane and dignified death, together with the rest of the country, we were poised to hear what the Supreme Court of Canada had to say about euthanasia. Canadian Kay Carter, who suffered from a degenerative disease, was denied a physician-assisted death in Canada and ultimately went to Switzerland in 2012 to end her life, as so many others have done. (Writer Lawrence Hill's moving article about his mother's Switzerland death is worth a read for those who missed it last June). Carter's daughter continued the fight to the highest court of the land, in the hope that the Rodriguez decision would be overturned.

In a January 2015 rabble.ca column, "Whose body is this? the right to die with dignity revisited," lawyer Lauren Blumas wrote about a Winnipeg man who had been charged with criminal negligence causing death for allowing his mother, apparently at her request, to die a slow death rather than seeking medical attention. Lauren made a strong statement in favour of the Supreme Court reaching a "compassionate decision to advance the rights of terminally ill Canadians."

The court did not disappoint. The February 6, 2015 Carter decision was unanimous: it called criminalization of physician-assisted suicide unconstitutional and said that competent adults with grievous and irremediable medical conditions should have the right to ask a doctor to help them die. The decision gave the federal and provincial governments until February 2016 to develop legislation to provide a framework to allow it. After his October 2015 election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mandated the Minister of Justice to make the Carter response a priority. See Safia Lakhani's rabble.ca column November 2015 for a summary of the work that lay ahead. On March 2, 2016, Safia provided an update on the state of assisted-dying legislation in an article for the Ontario Bar Association. At that time, she noted that governments were still working away to come to a solution that would balance the various competing interests and that they would be unlikely to meet the already extended deadline set by the Court.

In December 2015, my personal world was torn apart when Jack, my partner of only seven years, was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer. Stay tuned to rabble.ca for part two in this series to hear how Jack's cancer and the development of the legislation consumed my 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Celia Chandler joined Iler Campbell LLP, a law firm specializing in co-op, non-profit, and charitable law, in 2005, and was called to the bar in 2006. Iler Campbell LLP is a law firm serving co-ops, not-for-profits, charities and socially-minded small business and individuals in Ontario.

Pro Bono provides legal information designed to educate and entertain readers. But legal information is not the same as legal advice -- the application of law to an individual's specific circumstances. While efforts are made to ensure the legal information provided through these columns is useful, we strongly recommend you consult a lawyer for assistance with your particular situation to obtain accurate advice.

Submit requests for future Pro Bono topics to probono@rabble.ca. Read past Pro Bono columns here.

Photo: shankar s./Wikimedia Commons

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