From a Whistleblowing Doctor

Whistleblowing doctor
Whistleblowing doctor
Dr. Rita Pal

This is an article written by British whistleblowing doctor Dr. Rita Pal. Dr. Pal is an independent medical journalist based in the UK. Between 1999-2007, she worked as a psychiatrist in the National Health Service UK.

Her reflections on a death culture within the NHS — a system much like Canada’s — confirms what many of us have already suspected: the elderly, disabled and disenfranchised are being provided with a very different kind of care. Our nation’s media is not publishing information like this. Perhaps the Canadian Medical Protection Association, a legal entity that often threatens and intimidates media outlets, is the reason why.  

Here are my precise reasons for rejecting Bill 52, which will allow euthanasia in Quebec. I disagree with our premier, Philippe Couillard, who also happens to be a neurosurgeon. He says we can trust all healthcare practitioners — a very dubious claim.

THE stark realities of life and death in the NHS were revealed last week. New research showed that ending life unethically was common practice amongst many doctors.

Not too long ago I was an idealistic junior doctor, fresh from medical school and eager to provide the best possible treatment for my patients. After all, I wanted to save lives to the best of my ability. But as time passed, I learned the shocking reality of health professionals with a taste for playing God.

My idealistic values have little place in today’s NHS. Hospitals are so under-staffed and under-funded that they become treatment factories condoning a ‘survival of the fittest’ policy. The elderly, disabled, confused – those who are least able to form a rapport with doctors – become an intolerable burden on an over-stretched NHS.

whistleblowing doctor
Dr. Harold Shipman. The exception or the rule? Given what many of us have witnessed, this is a rational and not hysterical question. Why isn’t Canada’s media helping?

Before long, a consultant (specialist) will make the decision to withdraw treatment in these patients’ ‘best interests’. The decision is actually based on an assessment of the patient’s quality of life versus the potential resource consumption.

Unfortunately, the assessment is rarely either detailed or objective. Doctors are so busy and tired that they make subjective decisions influenced by their own culture, upbringing and opinions. If the patient’s condition does not permit a quality of life that the doctor would personally find acceptable, it is assumed that the life is not worth living and treatment is withdrawn. Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) decisions are equated with stopping basic care, active treatment, withholding treatment and prescribing with a side-effect of decreasing respiration.

These decisions are often unknown to relatives.

I hear the justification of ‘best interests’ echoed through every NHS ward. I often turn away and wonder how death could possibly be considered in the patient’s ‘best interest’. Clearly, the NHS today lacks humanity, integrity and the ability to care about the most vulnerable members of society. The simple concept of assisting the ill and frail has been lost in favour of balance sheets, targets and star ratings. How much is a life worth?

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Who is culled in our healthcare system? The wealthy who live next door to doctors, or the disenfranchised who don’t? A class system exists in Canada whether we accept it or not.

As a junior doctor, I found this appalling situation impossible to accept. I became a doctor not to end lives, but to save them, and to help patients make their own choices. Instead, during my time in general medicine, I spent many sleepless nights agonising over the decisions made by consultants, racked with guilt at being an unwilling part of this unethical decision-making process. I often felt that their behaviour as doctors was nothing more than involuntary manslaughter.

The practice has gone on for decades, passed on as accepted practices from one generation of doctors to another – so much so that there is a sense of indifference towards the simple values of patient care.

Whistleblowing Doctors

However, just as lives can be ended covertly, so similar methods can be used to save them. Clever under-cover medicine is something that many doctors do to thwart a consultant’s deadly decisions. Patients are transferred to other establishments quickly before DNRs take effect, medication reinstated and given in one-off doses before the consultant has time to notice.

Perhaps my most rewarding experience was the sight of an elderly lady sitting up in bed and putting on her lipstick just two weeks after a consultant had written her off.

“Doctor, do I look pretty?” she asked. I smiled, hiding my knowledge of my colleague’s decision to let her die. “You look fantastic and not a day over 60,” I told her.

Saving lives must always be the doctor’s first role.

Related: From a Whistleblowing Doctor and Why We All Need Edward Snowden

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New figures reveal that 3,000 patients were helped to die by doctors breaking the law in the UK in 2006, and 192,000 people had their deaths accelerated by medics. This is why we need whistleblowing doctors. 

Irene Ogrizek
Irene Ogrizek

If you like this post, please share it on social media and/or make a comment below. My site is designed to offer an alternative to the mainstream media: adding your voice may help journalists and politicians of all stripes remember what common sense looks like. Feel free to comment anonymously. 

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Wikileaks and the Canadian Media

Wikileaks and the Canadian Media: Endless hacking away at the CBC’s budget has been going on for decades through a succession of both Liberal and Conservative governments. But this time, management is making a point of saying, in so many words, that it’s our fault, it’s not their fault. We’ve been told our financial woes are due to a number of internal pressures — such as lower-than-expected ad revenues and the loss of NHL broadcast rights.

None of this would be an issue if the CBC had a funding model like the BBC’s. In Britain, the public broadcaster is not dependent on the whims of the party in power…

-Talin Vartanian, Senior Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Producer, from Rabble.org’s CBC: Life support or the killing floor? 

Trouble is lurking in our Canadian media landscape. The CBC has just lost National Hockey League broadcasting rights and, given the long term financial impact this will have, is slated to cut 657 positions over the next two years.

Vartanian’s suggestion that the CBC be funded like the BBC in the U.K. — where households pay a television tax — sounds simple, direct and easy, except for one thing: our nation’s broadcaster, along with its competition, is failing us miserably.

WikiLeaks-LogoThere are thousands of Canadians who have experienced medical malfeasance in hospitals and nursing homes in this country. Over the last few years, I’ve spoken to individuals, families and activists — a lot of them. Getting our media outlets to carry our stories has proven to be almost impossible.

My family’s ordeal started in 2008, when my mother had a disastrous trip through the healthcare system. Her appointments were mysteriously cancelled, her care was delayed and mistakes, fraudulent documentation and outright lapses in basic care were frequent. She did not die as a result of her treatment, but did emerge greatly changed. Apart from one functioning arm, she is now (almost) a quadriplegic.

Wikilieaks, canadian mediaOur hospital story in its entirety was so bizarre, so difficult to credit, that I often withheld parts of it when I told others. I was afraid I would not be believed and after all the turmoil, I needed all the support I could get. But tell the story I did and after each rendition those listening to me would say: You have to go to the media with this.

So I wrote to all the major news outlets, the CBC, the National Post, the Globe and Mail, CTV, Global, The Toronto Star, the Toronto Sun, The Hamilton Spectator and the St. Catharines Standard (the hospital was in the Niagara Region). You name the outlet, I sent them a letter or email giving an outline of my mother’s story, saying I had eye-witnesses and documentation to support it.

And what did I have? I had recorded phone calls with a GP’s assistant who refused to release my mother’s records; I had proof that my reputation in Montreal’s healthcare system had been affected by events in Niagara. I had other medical and pharmacy records that proved dangerous over-prescribing. My mother’s experience was illustrative, too, of just how much power physicians in this country have and how few real avenues of recourse there are for families like mine. In short, it was an extremely timely, extremely important story, particularly for Canadians trying to take care of aging parents.

So imagine my surprise when not one reporter or outlet returned a call, a letter or an email. And I tried several times. I’m diligent when roused by injustice and that hospital journey was easily the most powerful experience of it I’d ever had. However, after spending months trying to get my mother’s story told and failing miserably, I finally took to my bed, overcome by despair. By this time, the hospital system in Niagara had also not responded to any of my complaints or requests to change damaging comments in my mother’s records. No one cared and it was crushing.

Wikileaks: A Realistic Alternative?

I recently read David Brooks’ New York Times article on suffering and found it quite moving. It’s worth quoting at length:

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David Brooks

First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.

Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.

The metaphor of crashing through the bottom floors of one’s personality struck me as precise and powerful. It’s what happened to me when I tried to bring a simple sort of justice to my family. I did not want to sue the hospital, did not want to ruin anyone’s career, but I did want to warn others, and I did want the hospital staff to address its shortcomings. I’m not a saint, but a deep swath of altruism runs through me and I knew that if I could effect some change, however small, I might start that healing process Brooks quite rightly describes as divine. That my sustained efforts were completely ineffectual became almost unbearable.

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Birgitta Jonsdottir, Icelandic founder of Wikileaks

And so in desperation I stepped out of character and did something that months earlier would have been unthinkable. Feeling foolishly grandiose (and so keeping my own counsel), I made plans to find and speak to the founders of Wikileaks. Julian Assange was being covered in the mainstream media at the time and while I could see he didn’t always conduct himself admirably, I was also fascinated by the disruptive technologies he and his other Wikileakers were using to reshape the boundaries between private and public information. I googled their names, found out when, where and how I could find them and then headed over to Expedia.ca to plan my expeditions. I was successful: in the space of three months, I had face to face conversations with two of them. The sense of possibility I got from those meetings was encouraging. I was not a technical person then, but was sufficiently buoyed by these meetings to try anything. 

So upon my return to Canada, my first goal was to take a course in WordPress, to create a blog, then a website, and then learn about algorithms, social media and networking. And, of course, to start writing.

Read: Why we all need Edward Snowden 

This website was the end result but will not be the end of my story. I don’t feel grandiose now when I imagine teaming up with others, like those two founders, who are as bold and committed to change as I am. And it’s clear that change will not come about by being obedient, by using the channels set up by Canadian medical entities, channels that are designed to game the system and frustrate patients almost 100% of the time. It’s obvious to me now that there are a great many time-wasting protocols that hospitals, and organizations like the Canadian Medical Protection Association have created precisely to discourage potential litigants: our country’s medical establishment is rich and they have the resources to create and sustain these barriers.

Our Canadian Media

Change will also not come about by relying on Canada’s mainstream media: I’ve learned that while they are our nation’s storytellers, almost all seem guided by a need for personal acclaim, a need to scoop a story, any story.

Our media’s narcissistic attitude becomes even more obvious when set against the attitudes of those south of the border. I was interviewed on a public access radio station based in New York City after they had discovered my blog, and I’ve had more meaningful contact with a reporter from Al Jazeera (based in Washington) than I’ve had with all Canadian media personnel combined.

So while I was pleased to see a recent Toronto Star article about the over-medicating that goes on in Canadian nursing homes, I’ve no doubt the journalists see themselves as the cavalry come to the rescue. This is despite the fact that people like me, whose family members have been seriously harmed, have been trying to raise the alarm for years.

Wikilieaks, canadian mediaI’d say they’re better late than never, but like a lot of Canadian media consumers, I’ve become so disenchanted I’m not sure I care anymore. Robyn Doolittle’s sale of the film rights to her book about Rob Ford, Crazy Town, along with all the accolades that have been heaped on her by other reporters, tells us all we need to know about the self-importance and self-referentiality of the media in this country. And the over-officious tactics of hospitals and medical organizations — those institutions that are supposed to help us — are just as bad. So while our country’s reporters, editors, doctors and lawyers are preening in their mirrors, disaffected Canadians like myself are keeping our eyes glued to developments in disruptive technologies. When it comes to fixing healthcare in Canada, and showing our media what real reporting looks like, Wikileaks and Anonymous may be our only hope.

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Related: Wikileaks and the Canadian Media and The Canadian Medical Association: Whistleblowing 2.0

Irene Ogrizek
Irene Ogrizek

If you like this post, please share it on social media and/or make a comment below. My site is designed to offer an alternative to the mainstream media: adding your voice may help journalists and politicians of all stripes remember what common sense looks like. Feel free to comment anonymously.

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The Spartan Way

The Spartan Way: This article has 2,200 words.

I recently found myself in a game of mental ping-pong. I was flipping back and forth between articles and, without planning it, chanced upon two very different perspectives of life. One article, written by Canadian Barbara Farlow, explained how she and her husband had discovered a hidden agenda in the hosptial death of her infant daughter, Annie. The other was about ancient Sparta, that Greek city-state on the Peloponnesian peninsula.

Farlow’s daughter had been born with Trisomy 13 and for most of her 80 day life, appeared to be doing well. It was only after an unexpected bout of respiratory distress that Farlow and her husband discovered the problem had been building since their daughter’s birth. Medical records revealed evidence of the hospital staff’s initial and ongoing awareness of the issue and of their failure to convey what was, in the end, life-saving information. Annie’s respiratory problems were not fatal and had they known, the Farlows would have advocated for treatment. spartan, babies, medicine

Why weren’t they told? In a scenario being played out more and more often in this country, staff attending Annie made a tacit and collectively powerful agreement: they had decided that Annie’s Trisomy 13 rendered her life futile and not worth saving. However, at the time of the emergency, the Farlows were told only one thing: Annie’s chances of survival hinged on an invasive and very risky surgery, one that would likely kill her. A later inquiry proved that scenario was grossly exaggerated and had been used to persuade them to sign a DNR. In a final twist, it turned out that a DNR had already been issued, without their consent, hours before they signed.

Barbara Farlow’s story resonated with me for many reasons. I too was told frightening scenarios, the most gruesome being that my mother, who was suffering from arteriosclerosis, might need to have all her limbs amputated, one by one, if she were to survive a first amputation. This came from her surgeon, after he had removed her gangrenous leg below the knee. He said that keeping patients like my mother alive had the potential to be inhumane, his point being our family should have agreed to let the gangrene claim her.

spartan, babies, medicineHe seemed to enjoy sharing this information with me and only stopped when I interrupted and said my mother had made the decision herself, clearly and lucidly, and that I, as her power-of-attorney, was bound by law to advocate for her. That conversation was one of the most disturbing I’ve ever had and, not surprisingly, it gave me nightmares as well as serious doubts about the surgeon’s mental health. As soon as my mother’s physical rehabilitation was over, I moved her from the Niagara Region to Montreal. I did not want her subjected to any of that region’s healthcare practitioners again.

For a fuller account of our family’s experience, click here.

Both Farlow and I experienced the cognitive dissonance of operating at cross purposes with a healthcare system that was systematically lying to us. The divergent paths — between the truth and the stories we were told — were not minor, were not done to protect us from earth-shattering information that threatened our well-being. We were lied to because the lies were convenient for the practitioners taking care of our loved ones.

Annie Farlow’s doctors, as well as my mother’s, put a value on life that was unacceptably low, the proof being the covert way their agendas were carried out. (My belief is that my mother’s doctors had never intended to help her survive.) Had their actions fallen within humane and ethical frameworks, I have no doubt our families would have been kept apprised of developments honestly and in real time. That that didn’t happen speaks to the confidence our country’s practitioners have when it comes to disregarding the wishes of patients and their families. They are free to do more or less as they like, especially since there isn’t much in the way of real recourse available to those of us who end up feeling abused by the system.

The Spartans

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A Hoplite Phalanx

I teach a version of the Helen of Troy myth and have been inspired, mostly by British historian Bettany Hughes, to deepen my knowledge of the late bronze age. Helen of Troy was originally Helen of Sparta, before she was kidnapped by Paris or left her husband voluntarily to live with him, depending on which author from antiquity you prefer. Both versions of the myth have enjoyed equal exposure — Helen was either an innocent victim or a wayward wife — and she has fascinated classical scholars for centuries. A revival of Spartan history, at least in popularized form, began a few years ago with the release of 300, a film about the Spartan’s doomed battle at Thermopylae.

Unlike their Athenian counterparts, the Spartans were a tribe who embraced extremes of frugality and self-sacrifice. They were doggedly communal and placed great emphasis on physical strength, beauty and skill. Young boys were indoctrinated into a military program from the age of seven, homosexuality between young boys and men was enforced, and Spartan men’s only occupation was fighting. Women were encouraged to participate in society as well: they were educated, enjoyed a high degree of sexual freedom, and also engaged in physical competitions. They were so free that when Sparta went into decline, Athenians speculated that it was due to the inordinate power women had been granted. Spartan men were not pushovers, however: when it came to war, the city-state was renown for the ferocity of its hoplite phalanxes, those shielded lines of armed warriors who could frighten enemies away just by showing up. Spartan women were just as tough and one famously told her husband, as he went off to war, to “Come home with your shield or on it.”

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Bettany Hughes at the Place of Rejection outside of Sparta.

So it’s not surprising that with their emphasis on physical perfection, the Spartans were the one of the first tribes to practice eugenics. Babies born with deformities were killed, and unwanted female babies exposed, left on mountainsides where, if they were lucky, shepherds might take them in. The Gerousia were a council of elders who adjudicated.

If the child survived it was brought before the Gerousia by the child’s father. The Gerousia then decided whether it was to be reared or not. It is commonly stated that if they considered it “puny and deformed”, the baby was thrown into a chasm on Mount Taygetos known euphemistically as the Apothetae (“Deposits”). 

It’s true that the Farlows’ experience with their daughter was engineered more subtly, and some would argue more humanely, but the outcome was the same: their daughter was not given a chance to survive.

The Spartans have a lot to teach us. If we look at Sparta in the 7th century BCE, we learn that they enslaved their neighbours in Messene by warring with them twice, for twenty years each time, until the Messenians finally capitulated. What this created was a society that granted unusual freedoms for Spartan citizens. Men did not farm, conduct business or support themselves in any other way except fighting. Spartan women were free of the burdens of cooking, housekeeping and childminding, and could spend their time in each other’s company and in religious practice. The captive Messenians, the helots, were controlled by fear. Teenage boys were recruited for elite squads that hunted down and killed helots at night, their random attacks keeping the slave population frightened and subdued. The elitism of the Spartans — one could only be born into citizenship — meant their population was often at risk after prolonged fighting. In the end, their perfectionism and insularity were their undoing and the utopia they created disappeared.

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Torso of a Spartan hoplite, found at Sparta and identified as a memorial statue to Leonidas.

In a historical sense, it should come as no surprise that Hitler and the Nazis looked to Sparta when they began their own process of racial purification. It started with the extermination of disabled children and adults, via the infamous T4 Aktion program of involuntary euthanasia. Hitler admired the Spartans, as evidenced from his words:

At one time the Spartans were capable of such a wise measure, but not our present, mendaciously sentimental, bourgeois patriotic nonsense. The rule of six thousand Spartans over three hundred and fifty thousand Helots was only thinkable in consequence of the high racial value of the Spartans. But this was the result of a systematic race preservation; thus Sparta must be regarded as the first Volkisch State. The exposure of the sick, weak, deformed children, in short, their destruction, was more decent and in truth a thousand times more humane than the wretched insanity of our day which preserves the most pathological subject, and indeed at any price, and yet takes the life of a hundred thousand healthy children in consequence of birth control or through abortions, in order subsequently to breed a race of degenerates burdened with illnesses.

For further reading: Dr. Brenda Brueggeman’s website: Aktion T4, Economics, Euthanasia, Eugenics. 

There are several reasons to heed the warnings implicit in the Spartans’ demise. Our economic system, it could be argued, is structured in an enslaving way, with the top 1% of the world’s earners making more than the bottom two-thirds combined. That concentrates power in the hands of a very few, while the multitude experience varying degrees of freedom according to income and status. Add to this the spending habits of our Canadian government — with its unwillingness to enrich our healthcare network right to its outer reaches — and this means that unproductive Canadians are also culled, from neonatal wards, like the one Annie Farlow was in, to nursing homes, where the elderly are often drugged into submission and, as many of us believe, hastened toward death.

spartan, babies, medicineThese neonates and sick elderly fall into a current paradigm of “useless eaters,” although there are several epistemological layers between the starkness of that offensive definition and more acceptable versions used in real life. Stories like the one Farlow told me, where a priest, speaking to a congregation, admitted he was praying for his mother’s death after he saw her in a nursing home, being spoon-fed and with food on her chin. Stories like this rely on the imagery of pathos to state the unstatable: that these are individuals who should not be alive. It’s the flexibility of the English language, with its capacity for indirectness, that allows us to distance ourselves from otherwise abhorrent sentiments. Most of us, without even realizing it, slip into euphemistic speech when we discuss painful subjects like death.

Where is our media when it comes to covering assisted suicide?

The attraction of the Spartan way of life is that it speaks to the competitive aspect of our psyches, the part of us that is annoyed when another driver cuts us off or races to a free parking spot ahead of us. It’s the basis of the envy we feel when a colleague wins a prestigious award, or when we struggle with Schadenfreude, that disquieting urge to smile at the suffering of others. Nevertheless, competition is a good thing when it allows us to buy affordable goods and services and motivates us to excel. Medical researchers are often motivated by altruism and competition, so it’s not even necessary to treat these two worldviews as mutually exclusive; combined, they can be quite powerful. However, what does become problematic is when we favour competition at the expense of others’ rights and freedoms, particularly when those rights and freedoms are ones we wouldn’t sacrifice ourselves.

spartan, babies, medicineThe Athenian Greeks aimed for a more balanced society, one that still had its shortcomings — women were not as liberated, slavery existed and a less programmatic form of infanticide was practiced too — but their philosophical and cultural  interests, and more importantly, their willingness to practice a truer kind of democracy, with their famed assembly, meant they lived lives less fraught with internal violence, the kind overt competitiveness propagates. Athenian slaves were not captive neighbours forced into hard labour, for example, they were a diverse group of peoples who were not conquered en masse.

The main difference between the Athenians and the Spartans was this: the Athenians took their fascination with man’s place in civil society, with the polis, to heights that carried their reasoning forward into our present. The basis of many of our laws come directly from theirs. It was the Athenians’ capacity for self-reflection, broadened to state-reflection, that provided the basis for our ideas about personal freedoms and responsibilities. One of their finest achievements was the articulation of the Golden Mean, that exhortation to practice moderation in one’s emotional and practical life.

The taking of another life, through execution, attrition in care or assisted suicide, is one act that cannot respond to the Golden Mean and that’s because one is either alive or dead. In that case, the answer to our healthcare problems is clear: we can use the gifts of reasoning Athenians have endowed us with to err on the side of caution and not allow ourselves to be guided by the kind of extremities practiced by the Spartan way.

The culling of human beings, either at the end or start of life, must stop. We cannot consider ourselves civilized otherwise.

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Related: The Spartan Way and Why is the CBC Promoting Euthanasia

Irene Ogrizek
Irene Ogrizek

If you like this post, please share it on social media and/or make a comment below. My site is designed to offer an alternative to the mainstream media: adding your voice may help journalists and politicians of all stripes remember what common sense looks like. Feel free to comment anonymously.

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Ford and the Media

Ford and the MediaThis article is about the coverage of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, health care and the assisted suicide movement in Canada. In a global sense, media literacy about these issues needs improvement and I’m using the feeding frenzy around Ford to illustrate why. I am not religious, but am a huge fan of Denys Arcand and his films. This article has 2,200 words.

I recently watched Jesus of Montreal again after not seeing it for many years. The 1989 film is a postmodern version of the passion play and its literate narrative — its subtle humour and play within a play — allows viewers to consider Jesus’ life in both extraordinary and ordinary circumstances.

Like a canny aphorism, one scene has left its mark in my memory. It’s when the priest in charge of the shrine, where a controversial version of the play has been staged, lashes out at the actors after they make light of his faith.

Have you ever been here on a Sunday when it’s packed? Have you seen the Haitian cleaning ladies? The Guatemalan refugees? The elderly and forsaken? It’s a gathering of universal misery. They don’t care about the latest archeological findings in the middle east; they want to hear that Jesus loves them and awaits them…

Not everyone can afford psychoanalysis. So they come here, to be told, “Go in peace, your sins are forgiven.” It comforts them, a bit. That’s something. This is where we hit the depths…loneliness, illness, madness.

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The young actors, teasing the shrine’s priest

The exuberant young actors, who minutes earlier had been clowning around, mixing biblical phrases with advertising hyperbole, are momentarily struck silent. It’s moving. In a few sentences, the priest sums up his and his church’s mission: it’s to gently support the dispossessed in their misery. The reference to immigrants is likely what hooked me into the priest’s perspective and made the moment so memorable: my mother is one of that flock he so eloquently defends.

About Ford

Lately I’ve been writing about Rob Ford and about the push to decriminalize assisted suicide. The link between the two can be found in Denys Arcand’s sublime script, in the words uttered by the priest, the ones that speak directly to those in Montreal (and elsewhere) who are on the bottom rungs of society. Ford’s success was entirely predictable, or would have been, if those Torontonians most horrified by his tenure had bothered paying attention to the social climate in their city.

That they were caught off guard is obvious, so the most important question, even more important than the how of the situation, is the why of it. Despite the prodigious output of venom, coming in waves, layers and every colour imaginable, not one social scientist or political pundit, or even an upstanding spokesperson for Toronto-the-Good, has answered this question satisfactorily. While Ford is being blamed for being divisive — for pitting the servers against the served — critics who say so are over-demonizing the man, giving him way too much credit. That divide has been there for decades and Ford, in his disinhibited way, has merely had the gall to say so.

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Robyn Doolittle, author of Crazy Town, with Michael Cooke of the Toronto Star. No more hero narratives, please.

I left Toronto in the early 1990s because with my arts degrees I had no idea how I could support myself with a job I actually wanted. Now when I visit I stay at downtown hotels and wonder how on earth the chambermaids, valets and hotel receptionists, most of whom are immigrants, can afford to live there. My father’s job as a janitor gave me this sensitivity and curiosity. (Those are attributes that would have stood some Torontonians in good stead before the advent of Ford; let’s hope they figure it out in the aftermath.)

The Toronto Media

In the meantime, the media in Toronto has been showing its petticoat and giving us some insight into the parallel workings of egotism at several levels. Like Jesus of Montreal, we are getting narratives within narratives — we are getting the story of Ford’s bad habits — and we are getting the stories about how reporters broke the story. That over-focus on Ford has left some of us wondering if the powerful in Canada are encouraging the dumbing down of our media, if they’re encouraging the “deep” coverage of petty uproars, the kind caused by easy targets like Ford, to distract us and displace other information that might be more pertinent to our lives. Although Ford is accused of being a media ham, everything I’ve seen points at a press aiming to keep us amused instead of informed.

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Ivor Tossell’s essay about Ford reportage appears in the latest edition of The Walrus

The media savvy at Idle No More have figured this out, as have a few of us who are trying to shed light on stories of medical malfeasance in this country. Natives are upset about the lack of police concern and media coverage when it comes to their missing daughters, sisters and wives. People like me, who are concerned about institutional elder abuse, are trying to raise awareness of the issue before assisted suicide is voted into law. We’ve seen enough incompetence and wrongdoing in our health care system to know it is a comprehensively bad idea, but reporters are turning supporters of it into their own media darlings. 

So instead of laughing at how Ford drums up “retail” support via his many visits to Torontonians in need, maybe others in Toronto should step back, look at the larger picture and consider how class divides work in this country.

Our Healthcare System

Let me describe two scenarios. Two Toronto women, Joan and Jane, are diagnosed with similar cancers. Joan has a master’s degree in the arts and has been teaching for 30 years. Jane, whose name is an anglicized version of the one she was given, has been cleaning buildings since she arrived in Canada 30 years ago. She too has an arts degree, but since it wasn’t recognized in Canada and she needed work, she started cleaning even though it was far beneath her abilities. Her English is good, but not perfect, and her children, who could not afford to live in Toronto, live in Montreal and Halifax.

Both women have a form of cancer that causes pain in the early stages and both have been given powerful analgesics while they wait for operations. While Joan shows up with one of her children, who are all well-educated, her treatment pathway proceeds as it should. She sees specialists, meets with a surgeon, has her surgery and chemo afterwards. Jane, on the other hand, has a strong accent, which slightly distances her from the same process and shows up without her children. They haven’t asked for time off work to travel to Toronto because their mother is being vague about her illness. The analgesic, which is powerful, has rendered her muted and indistinct when it comes to answering questions. It’s also interfered in the organizing her treatment: she misses an important appointment because she is too chemically intoxicated to drive or take public transit.

When she is rescheduled for a few weeks later, the physician is very busy, hands her another prescription for pain and tells her it is unfortunate, but she must wait her turn. The powerful drugs muddle her thinking and the physician senses Jane is not someone who will make trouble if she is not treated with urgency — she is deferential and appears intimidated. By contrast, educated patients like Joan, whose children can and will make trouble, are prioritized. The physician doesn’t want the kind of grief her children can cause him.

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Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter. Is this where our nation’s media is headed?

So in a healthcare system with more patients than resources, this physician’s path of least resistance means being proactive with his well-educated patients and being less so, to varying degrees, with the rest. Jane is eventually hospitalized two months later, by which time the cancer has progressed to a terminal stage. Her children are told their mother waited too long to be seen and the only option is to provide her with comfort care until she dies. She is sent home with the promise of community caregivers, who show up intermittently. Her daughter takes an unpaid leave from work to help. Joan, in the meantime, has survived and participates yearly in one of the many fundraising walks to raise money for cancer research.

Anyone who doubts the possibility of these scenarios needs to step into my life. Although my mother’s story was slightly different, she is a lot like Jane, and I have no doubt there are many Janes out there. If I had had the option picking up a phone and asking someone like Rob Ford for help, I would have done so in a heartbeat. I would have asked him to advocate for my mother until I had a chance to organize a trip home. And it’s the power of that kind of accessibility that Ford’s enemies are under-estimating and under-estimating to their detriment.

It’s the same with assisted suicide, except that advocates in that case are over-estimating the strength of our healthcare system and aren’t taking the diminished experiences of people like my mother into account. Because people who support assisted suicide are mostly educated, they haven’t experienced inequities in the system — their education gives them the agency and confidence to survive, or at least successfully manage, a serious illness. And so it’s the cleaning ladies, the valets and the cooks, whose unpronounceable names and less-than-perfect English means they will likely be relegated to the medical slow lane, a lane where being treated proactively becomes a hit-or-miss affair.

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The Toronto Sun. Going too far?

That being said, supporters of assisted suicide do know they are advocating for a procedure that is meant for middle-class people just like themselves. And this is obvious because most advocates are using the class card to gather support. The caricature on offer is that only uneducated religious zealots oppose them, so if you don’t want to be lumped in with that herd of lummoxes, you better join us and say yes. Coupled with the requisite descriptions of agonizing deaths, this is neoliberalism at its Sham-Wow best.

The fact that the timing of treatments in Canada, especially in the immediate aftermath of a diagnosis, can differ according to variables like class, ethnicity, age and disability is something supporters of assisted suicide either dismiss or willfully ignore even after they’ve been informed. They pooh-pooh the idea because, of course, it interferes with their goal. 

So it’s disappointing that our media is so in love with itself that we hear stories about how they tell stories — about politicians like Ford — and we don’t hear that in some parts of Canada, it’s dangerous for the elderly (and others in Canada) to go into hospital without help from black belt advocates. Instead we hear about the actions of a garden-variety boozer, Ford, who does the predictable things that boozers are known to do: they lose their tempers, rant about people they may actually care about, and forget about having done so the night before. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of alcohol abuse knows these things and also knows that our media is dining out on Ford’s behaviour in ways that are contributing to the very circus they’re criticizing. 

We don’t need another article or book describing the heroics of reporters who have “broken” the Ford story: believe it or not, most of us have seen heavy drinking people and politicians before. Ralph Klein was known to tie on one and act unreasonably, but the good people of Alberta didn’t lose their minds over it, which, given the current state of affairs in Toronto, makes them seem eminently sensible by comparison.

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Vince Offer the Sham-Wow guy

What we do need is a media that asks why segments of Toronto are behind Ford, despite his problems. Why aren’t their needs being served and how can service be improved? These questions would be one place to start.

But our media is failing us: they should be taking on the role of asking the tough questions of everyone, not just the Fords or the Ford Nation, and acting as a responsible intermediary between the political machinery of our country and a population that has a right to understand the entire context, and not just the context according to reporters and editors promoting a hero narrative that serves them well and us badly. Ford is not the problem; he’s a symptom and the sooner our media recognizes this, the faster we will return to news that is news and not reportainment. I’m not holding my breath though; the narcissism of our media, like the narcissism of some of our health care professionals, is profound and not likely to change soon.

The Idle No More movement set up a blockade on the rail lines between Montreal and Toronto today. They were protesting the lack of resources our nation’s policing authorities and media outlets put towards the issue of missing native women. Individuals from that movement have read my articles about health care and have commiserated with me: they know what it’s like to be ignored too. Maybe this is a good time to join forces with them and to suggest our media outlets get over their addiction to their own “heroism” — to stop obsessing about their work — and do their jobs properly.

They could start by reporting the news instead of trying to make it. 

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Related: Ford and the Media and A Streetcar Named Congestion

irene ogrizek, cheeky canadianIf you like this post, please share it on social media and/or make a comment below. My site is designed to offer an alternative to the mainstream media: adding your voice may help journalists and politicians of all stripes remember what common sense looks like. Feel free to comment anonymously.

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How to die in Canada

“The best defense against democracy is to distract people.”

-Noam Chomsky

In 2013, Sammy Yatim was a young Syrian immigrant living in Toronto. On the evening of July 27th, he was shot and killed on a streetcar by police officer James Forcillo. In the minutes leading up to his death, he had exposed himself and brandished a knife at other riders. In one Toronto Star article, he is described as a “sweet, skinny teenager with striking green eyes….an introvert…and someone who struggled to fit into a new culture.” Yatim’s death raised a furor in Toronto and Officer Forcillo was eventually charged with second-degree murder.

sammy-yatim2There are other photos of Sammy. In them, he is a fit-looking young man, wearing a baseball cap and black tee. Below, he’s holding a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. He looks a lot like the young students I see at work, in the corridors of the college where I teach.

He’s making a fashion statement — he’s a little rebellious, but probably a good kid underneath. According to his friends, that much was true, but they also say that goodness was becoming harder to discern. According to the Star, “his circle of friends expanded and his dress sense changed. He went from 70477SAMMY-YATIM-GANGwearing Euro-style Adidas track suits to snapback caps and graphic tees…he started smoking pot, all in an effort to cultivate a tougher image.”

Below is another image, easily recognizable as the famous crack-video photograph, the one the Toronto Star used in its reportage of Mayor Ford. I’m including all these images to show how our media contributes to the formation of ideas we uptake and store in our collective consciousness.

Apart from the first photo of Sammy, taken with his mother, most of these are of a young man who looks a lot like the young men standing with Ford. The difference, which isn’t immediately apparent, is that Sammy was a young student with hopes for the future; however, he was clearly having difficulty the night he died.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his friends
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and his friends: I will refer to this image as the “crack photo”

It’s notable that the Toronto Star used the crack photo to augment a very active campaign against the mayor, to visually emphasize how inappropriate his companions were. The question posed by it was “What on earth is the mayor doing with those young men?” That question was based on the implicit assumption the young men were drug-dealing gang members.

Their assumptions may have been correct, but if you’re wondering why the police sometimes shoot young men like Sammy, we should look at how our media portrays others who look and dress like him. For example, the intended purpose of the crack photo was to point to the criminality of all the men in it. Unfortunately, that assumption is part of a larger pattern where the use of visual images in the media is concerned. Images are sometimes manipulated in ways that suggest connections that may not exist, connections that are meant to gain readers’ sympathy or fan their outrage.

An image of Sammy Yatim -- does it look familiar?
An image of Sammy Yatim — does it look familiar?

Why use photos this way? Because they draw in readers. And because of their drawing power, these visual patterns are repeated over and over again by publications like the Toronto Star. 

The problem is that the Sammy Yatims of this world end up paying for that strategy. When we assert that an image equals a fact, it can be dangerous. He was a young man who dressed a certain way, yes, but that cast a too-powerful suspicion over him and had fatal consequences. Although the police officer who shot Sammy went overboard — he fired nine times — I’m not sure he’s entirely to blame. The exposed genitals and the waving knife suggested that Sammy was either mentally ill or pumped up on drugs. It was the gangsta outfit, however, that likely sealed his fate: it suggested that drugs were more likely and that he was used to fighting with knives. Although it’s hard to know what Officer Forcillo was thinking, the accumulation of visual cues, which we are all exposed to via our media, must have been powerful.

Read my review of Robyn Doolittle’s Crazy Town: the Rob Ford Story. 

So given the mileage the Toronto Star has gotten with the crack photo, it’s ironic that they have taken a soft-hearted approach with Sammy Yatim and an antagonistic one with the police. It was no coincidence that of all the photos available, they chose the one including his mother to support articles pointing at police wrongdoing. The photo of Sammy holding a bottle of Jack Daniel’s wouldn’t have been as effective.

The public is not sovereign over the media -- the owners and managers, seeking ads, decide what is to be offered and the public must choose among these. People watch and read in good part on the basis of what is readily available and intensively promoted. Polls regularly show the public would like more news, documentaries, and other information, and less sex, violence and other entertainment even as they do and listen to the latter. There is little reason to believe that they would not like to understand why they are working harder with stagnant or declining incomes, have inadequate medical care at high costs, and what is being done in their name all over the world. If they are not getting much information on these topics, a propaganda model can explain why: the sovereigns who control the media choose not to offer such material. -From Manufacturing Consent, the Political Economy of the Mass Media
“The public is not sovereign over the media — the owners and managers, seeking ads, decide what is to be offered and the public must choose among these. People watch and read in good part on the basis of what is readily available and intensively promoted. Polls regularly show the public would like more news, documentaries, and other information, and less sex, violence and other entertainment even as they do and listen to the latter. There is little reason to believe that they would not like to understand why they are working harder with stagnant or declining incomes, have inadequate medical care at high costs, and what is being done in their name all over the world. If they are not getting much information on these topics, a propaganda model can explain why: the sovereigns who control the media choose not to offer such material.”
–From Manufacturing Consent, the Political Economy of the Mass Media

In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky describes two kinds of victims when it comes to war: the worthy and the unworthy. The worthy, he says, are those victims who have been abused by countries the U.S. and its allies are on adversarial terms with, like Serbia in 1999, when they victimized Kosovo Albanians. Unworthy victims are those who have been abused  by countries the U.S. is on good terms with, like Indonesia, whose military quietly started massacring the East Timorese in the 1970s, without raising nary a flutter on the world stage.

As a sensitive young man, Sammy Yatim would have felt the angst of watching the west treating Syrian casualties as unworthy, and so the stress of making himself feel at home here while his country’s innocents were being slaughtered, must have been considerable. Although Sammy was a good kid, he used alcohol and pot to cope.

How to die old

The Toronto Star used the crack photo to impugn Ford and they cast young men, who look a lot like Sammy, to provide an amoral landscape.

That, I believe, is a reflection of their values.

A similar pattern can be found in the use of another photo, this one impugning the reputation of Sandro Lisi, one of the mayor’s friends.

I don’t have an opinion of Lisi, but I suspect he is not a nice man. However, it’s not his behaviour I’m interested in, it’s how the media, and again the Toronto Star, is manipulating information in ways I find offensive. In a breathless list of alleged offences, the article only stops twice to state that much of the information cannot be confirmed. It’s understandable that not all Torontonians want Ford as their mayor; what’s harder to understand is why no one is calling the media out on their questionable practices. Like photographs of starlets’ dimpled buttocks and thighs, the Toronto Star is beginning to look like it’s having an affair with that other Star, that magazine of truly dubious distinction.

How so? In a recent article, commenting on a 1999 accident, the caption under the leading photo reads: Anna Kupraty was 76 when struck by a car driven by Alexander “Sandro” Lisi. It’s a lengthy article for the Toronto Star and it’s not until three quarters of the way down that an explanation, one which actually diminishes Lisi’s responsibility for the accident, appears. The photo of Kupraty, along with an ambiguous statement about her death, is being used as a hook at the beginning of the article; various other bad behaviours of Lisi’s are also described, including the ominous “[Lisi] was driving in a car crash that critically injured an elderly woman pedestrian, according to newly obtained court documents.”

Anna Kupraty
Anna Kupraty

Since I am an elder-abuse activist, you might wonder why I object to this story. I object for the same reason I object to the Star’s use of the crack photo. Individuals who have almost no bearing on the intention of the article are being used, against their best interests, to emotionally manipulate readers. The death of Anna Kupraty, which is provocative given her age, is being used to discredit Lisi and, by extension, Ford. The three reporters responsible for the article go so far as to quote eye-witnesses from the 1999 accident: “Witnesses described her flying and spinning through the air after making contact with Lisi’s windshield. ‘I can see her in my head — laying on the ground,’ one witness told a police officer, who recorded it in his notes. ‘I can’t believe she’s alive. I thought she was dead.’” Lisi was 21 at the time.

One of the characteristics of unworthy victims, as defined by Chomsky, is their absence in the media. Since 2008 I have been following medical malfeasance stories as they apply to the elderly in this country. It hasn’t kept me very busy because there isn’t much to read. It’s an odd situation, made odder still by the fact that media alerts I subscribe to in the U.K. and Australia, which focus on institutional elder abuse, are constantly sending me links to articles published in those countries. On any given day, I will receive 10 to 20. I read stories of court cases, of nurses and personal support workers arrested, of physicians being “struck off” medical registers, etc. But none of those stories, or at least only a very, very few, appear in our nation’s media.

Websites by private citizens are willing to cover stories of institutional elder abuse. Why won't our nation's media do the same?
Seniorsatrisk.org: Websites by private citizens are willing to cover stories of institutional elder abuse. Why won’t our nation’s media do the same?

It’s not because abuse isn’t happening here — it is. I know because I am part of a Canadian network of activists and most of us, at one time or another, have sent articles about institutional abuse to our major media outlets. Most of us are professionals; most of us have seen or recorded outright incidents of abuse; many of us are good writers. But no one wants our stories. Not the Toronto Star, not the National Post, not the Globe and Mail nor the CBC or CTV or Global. These outlets will report on resident-on-resident violence in nursing homes, they will report on the trouble with waiting lists or dementia patients who attack staff. But when a patient or a resident is abused by a healthcare worker — a physician, a nurse or a personal aide — it’s as if these incidents simply don’t happen.

A video of my mother telling me about an odd drugging incident in her nursing home. 

So when the Toronto Star uses a vividly rendered story like Kupraty’s death for the sole purpose of harming a politician, in this case Rob Ford, I see red. I wonder why they are willing to provide a technicolour report for their own advantage, when reporting on suspicious hospital or institutional deaths of the elderly, in the usual course of things, is barely done at all. I wonder why those of us who are trying to keep our parents safe in our country’s healthcare institutions aren’t seeing our concerns reflected in our media. Like the disadvantaged young men in the Ford photograph, the young men who don’t see much of a future ahead of them, we’re feeling a void too. It’s as if we simply don’t exist.

Read: Why is the CBC promoting euthanasia? 

The Star and the Toronto Star -- having an affair?
The Star and the Toronto Star — having a lurid affair?

Emmett Shane, a CBC producer, has read my critiques and called me a crank; he says I am seeing a conspiracy where there is none. But I’ve spoken to families in almost every province and territory in Canada and we’re all having the same experience. So despite his claims, the paternalism of Canada’s media is clear to me and many other activists: we know there are only a handful of powerful Canadians who determine what’s fit for publication, and if they want to keep certain stories out of the news, they can.

There are also agencies like the Canadian Medical Protection Association that threaten television stations with heavy-handed CRTC complaints if they expose physician abuse. It happened to CHEX-TV in the Rouge River last year. There are also unions, like nurses’ and support workers’ unions, that speak to other unionized people working in the media. These are connections I’ve come to appreciate because I see them at work on Twitter, a social media site that can tell you a lot about who’s talking to whom.

The Canadian Liberal Party has announced that they will be voting on the issue of assisted suicide. This is happening with very little fanfare, very little debate. People like me, with parents in nursing homes, are worried: most of us aren’t religious and our objections aren’t moral. We are simply afraid hospitals and nursing homes that are already under-serving our elderly are going to get worse. A permissive atmosphere will develop and what will start off as a voluntary procedure will segue into an involuntary one, especially in institutions that have long waiting lists or are chronically understaffed.

To see my articles about Canadian healthcare, click here.

The bad news coming out of countries like Belgium and the Netherlands, which have both legalized euthanasia, supports this. The level of involuntary euthanasia is escalating and there is much in the way of peer-reviewed literature to prove it. But again, our media is not listening. I’ve attended several press conferences where specialists from these countries — academics, physicians and legal experts — have come to tell their stories. Very few reporters have turned up and yet most of our nation’s media outlets are writing articles that subtly and not-so-subtly support assisted suicide.

Yes, let's do that Hedy. And let's talk about why stories of medical malfeasance aren't appearing in our media and why the Liberals support assisted suicide despite overwhelming evidence that it's not working in other countries.
Yes, let’s do that Hedy. And let’s talk about why stories of medical malfeasance aren’t appearing in our media and why the Liberals support assisted suicide despite overwhelming evidence that it’s not working in other countries.

A video of my mother after being given her sleeping medication at 4:00 in the afternoon.

I suspect that influence from upper-echelon earners and learners and in this country is what’s causing the “inexplicable” absence of bad news. Study after study shows that it’s the wealthy and the educated, of both political persuasions, who are pushing for the decriminalization of assisted suicide. They are the ones most concerned about their dignity. So as long as these individuals get what they want — their made-to-order deaths — they and the media outlets they influence and control are willing to let the little people, like my mother and Sammy Yatim, die.

This is just one elephant in the room when it comes to the selective vision of the Canadian media. I imagine there are many, many more.

Sign my petition asking the Canadian government for more discussion of assisted suicide. Here is a video that illustrates what I mean by nursing home abuse:

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Speaking ill of the Dead: Susan Griffiths

Above: From the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland. This article refers to events in Canada.

Susan Griffiths of Winnipeg, Manitoba, is the latest person to publicize her desire for assisted suicide, and to have her efforts celebrated by the press. Last week, her plea for parliament to re-open the assisted suicide question was widely reported as she prepared to go to Dignitas, a clinic in Switzerland that helps people kill themselves (April 2013).

This is how Amy Hasbrouck, of Not Dead Yet, begins her insightful article about Susan Griffiths. 

I wish I had Amy’s cool. I have a mother slightly older than Griffiths, and had a hard time watching all the positive press Griffiths was getting for making what many thought was a “courageous” choice. Unless you’ve cared for an elderly person lately, you may not be aware that even in our vaunted healthcare system, many practitioners applaud the kind of stoicism Griffiths seemed to embody — seemed, of course, being the operative word.

Amy Hasbrouck of Not Dead Yet
Amy Hasbrouck of Not Dead Yet

Our Canadian media, of late, has morphed into something I no longer recognize. Or maybe I just didn’t realize the extent of its paternalism. I’ve come to this awareness because I follow people on Facebook and Twitter who scour English language sites looking for stories about the elderly. In the past few years, I’ve noticed a trend. Stories of institutional elder abuse abound in the American, British and Australian media while very few appear here. I’m in touch with other elder abuse activists in Canada, so I know there are problems in this country too. Why aren’t we hearing about them? 

Is it because we are so polite when it comes to conflict? After all, we’re a nation of people who apologize to one another to endlessly. Is it because our healthcare system is so entwined with our national identity? And to challenge its safety is unthinkable? These sound like good explanations, but my recent stance against euthanasia, and the hysterical responses it’s elicited, tell me something else might be at stake. Things have been said to me – by policy-makers, academics, and mothers of young children – that would make Miley Cyrus blush. So I’m making some very un-Canadian observations here and I’m doing so because we need a reboot when it comes to our beliefs about stoicism.

Brace yourselves my fellow Canadians: I am going to speak ill of the dead.

I disliked Susan Griffiths within seconds of clicking on one of her many videos. I saw a woman who was dramatizing something that did not need dramatizing, and she was doing so while fully made up and elegantly dressed. She did not look sick, but seemed ghastly to me nonetheless. Manipulators, especially polished ones, have that effect on me.

poppiesI do not think that people who choose suicide over facing reality are brave and stoical. In the military, soldiers who turn and run are called deserters. When we honour our veterans on Remembrance Day, we are not honouring deserters; we are honouring those who stayed and fought. There was nothing honourable about Griffith’s choice, although she presented an attractive enough package that reporters, apparently handicapped by a total lack of discernment, started falling all over each other with admiration.

The fact is Griffiths did not need to spend $11,000 to go to Switzerland to die. She could have purchased a generator from Canadian Tire for $400, operated it in an enclosed space and died quietly of carbon monoxide poisoning. She could have asked her doctor for a prescription of anything in the benzo family – anti-anxiety medication – and taken it with a couple of glasses of wine and overdosed. Approximately 4,000 people in Canada successfully killed themselves last year. Griffiths projected an image of brisk self-confidence. Are we really to believe she couldn’t have managed it as well?

So why didn’t she? Because then her existence would have ended with a whimper and not the bang she wanted. I understand she was desperate, but her cries of “Where’s the justice?” over the issue of assisted suicide did not ring true to me, nor to a few other bloggers. The more rational among us believe existential angst kicked in when she realized she hadn’t accomplished what she wanted in life and she so made up for it in a flurry of Canada-wide publicity and ghoulish self-promotion. In the end, however, she was just like any other suicide: she left a big ol’ mess behind.

Kubler-Ross consulting a patient
Kubler-Ross consulting a patient

Swiss psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross became famous for her ground-breaking book On Death and Dying. Her five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — have become standard fare in psychology studies. I took out Kübler-Ross’ book while I was at university. I’d had a series of medical test results that didn’t bode well for my future and I wanted to understand what I was experiencing. I devoured her book in one afternoon and while it didn’t calm me much, it did give me a useful paradigm for understanding why I obsessed over certain events in my life.

Contrary to what Griffiths and her supporters assert, Griffiths had not accepted her fate. You may rightfully ask how I know this and so let me explain: I spend several hours a week in my mother’s nursing home and see residents there who have accepted theirs. That’s the trick when it comes to recognizing it: we need acceptance in our own lives to know it when we see it. My mother’s exclamation of “Things must have been really bad for her,” when I told her about Griffiths, is a case in point. A stroke and gangrene left my mother with only one arm that works. Like Griffiths, she too was physically active (going to the gym six days a week), and yet she didn’t flinch in the face of a difficult prognosis. She had the capacity to imagine her life as manageable and so it is. 

It’s no surprise then that Griffiths’ pursuit of publicity cried out to me in a different way: look at how unfair life is, is what she was really saying. And then her message became more refined as she sought someone to blame: now look at how unfair our government is. By using her death in this way, Griffiths was bargaining with that public forum we all like to imagine cares for us: if she could make use of her death, maybe some form of reward, in the present or the hereafter, would come her way. Griffiths’ behaviour is textbook Kübler-Ross, but most of those writing about her either missed it entirely or were too awed by her notoriety to speak the truth. 

Some will argue that Griffiths’ message was timely and necessary. As Dr. Donald Low, Canada’s renown SARS specialist said in his video appeal, “we’ve come far enough” that assisted suicide should be made available to Canadians. However, his notion of the history of euthanasia is flawed too. While the ancient Greeks argued in favour of it, most societies over millennia have not embraced it fully, although in Canada we do allow patients to refuse treatment and to choose terminal sedation, a not-so-poor relation of euthanasia.

Louise Smith and her Nan in 2005. Smith is a tireless researcher of the elderly.
London-based Louise Smith and her Nan in 2005. Smith is a tireless researcher on behalf of the elderly.

“Coming far enough,” or evolving, as Low would have it, also means that we have far more tools at our disposal when it comes to palliation. Methods of pain control are far superior of those of the Greeks and it should be noted, just for the record, that Low stated clearly and unequivocally in his video, made eight days before his death, that he was not in pain. As Hasbrouck asserts in her analysis of Griffiths’ appeals to the public, Griffiths, like Low, was afraid of losing the ability to take care of herself and did not display any discernible disability in any of her public appearances.

Losing autonomy then, was what both Low and Griffiths feared, so here is the real question their appeals raise: is serving their needs (and the needs of others like them) a good enough reason to risk the safety of Canada’s disabled and elderly population? I don’t think so and here’s why: unbeknownst to many Canadians living in large urban centres, the quality of our healthcare system is woefully uneven across the country. Meeting the basic requirements of care is the best that can be expected in some places.

So asking physicians to euthanize patients safely and on demand is a bit like asking a Carnival Cruise ship to stop on a dime. It’s near impossible to do considering all the demands being made on the system. Catering to the needs of a few Canadians who want to end their suffering before it even starts is a luxury we simply cannot afford. The message, in short, is this: suck it up or end your own life.

Most of us don’t expect the healthcare system to deliver everything we want and that’s because we have a realistic idea of its limitations. However, there are some Canadians out there, fighting for the right to die, who are simply clueless on this account. Our country’s media is not helping: failing to share realistic stories about what is happening in our hospitals and nursing homes amounts to subtle and insidious manipulation. We can’t make informed decisions about how our tax dollars get spent if we are prevented from knowing the full extent of our country’s healthcare deficiencies. Griffiths and Low’s actions, in this context, seem unforgivably irresponsible. Their attention-seeking has deflected attention away from the real issue.

AA008628Moreover, auxiliary messages came along for the ride on Griffiths’ trip to Switzerland. The message her actions telegraph to her grandchildren and to the Canadian public is this: losing autonomy means becoming a burden on your loved ones and foisting an unpleasant fate on them, a fate they don’t deserve. I would argue that this attitude towards our elders’ failing health is cultural and differs from ethnic group to ethnic group. Griffiths’ aloof, patrician nature was evident in her detachment from everything except her cause célèbre — she went so far as to clear out her own house and, in the process, deprived her adult children of a rite of passage that by necessity would transport them to another stage of adulthood. Becoming an orphan, I believe, needs its rituals too. Clearing out my mother’s house, even though she was still alive, gave me a chance to mourn an important part of our shared past.

I also suspect a perverse sort of feminism was at work in Griffiths’ actions. It’s as if she felt compelled to erase all evidence of herself in an effort to assert her independence and gain widespread approval. My mother’s change in health has taught me this: asking for and providing help can be intensely satisfying. It adds to the tissue of connection we already feel for a loved one and deepens our capacity for love and compassion. I recognize not all of us have good relations with our parents, but I have also heard, time and again, that helping a parent through a health crisis — either a terminal or ongoing one — has healed emotional wounds. Where Griffiths saw a burden, I saw an opportunity. Where supporters of euthanasia see a quick solution, I see a process that demands commitment and yet rewards us with emotional growth. Whose glass, I wonder, is half-full?

Finally, Hasbrouck makes a valid point in her analysis of Griffiths’ actions:

We have a policy to prevent suicides, and rightfully so. We apply this policy to people whose despair arises from social as well as psychological stresses; bullied adolescents, LGBT people who’ve been persecuted, Aboriginal people struggling with poverty and loss of cultural heritage, and survivors of domestic violence.

diversityIf we want to ensure the safety of all Canadians we need to express that wish in our public policies. Disabled rights advocates, with their proven record of fighting discrimination, are well situated to speak for the many in Canada who are disadvantaged. Voices like Hasbrouck’s have the weight of history behind them and so can be entrusted with the kind of legitimacy we are foolishly squandering on attention-seekers like Griffiths. Although many feel compassion for her, I find it difficult. Her self-proclaimed status as a dying person gave her a powerful megaphone and she used it to make life difficult for those of us who care for the vulnerable and elderly. Let’s take that megaphone away from individuals like her and put it in the hands of those who have learned about discrimination the hard way: by facing and living it. 

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The CBC’s role in promoting euthanasia is inappropriate. 

 Read: “Kill me now” by Jaime Joyce

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