Sandra Martin says she hopes winning the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction helps bring more attention to the issues covered in her book. A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices won the prestigious $40,000 award on Thursday.
"I think a lot of people are afraid of my book because it's a topic that a lot of us don't want to deal with," Ms. Martin, a long-time Globe and Mail journalist, said in an interview after the ceremony in Vancouver.
"I do hope that people will talk about what they fear, what they need to learn about dying. It's the final stage of our lives and it's an important stage in our lives."
The deeply researched book charts the right-to-die movement in Canada and internationally. It includes stories of people Ms. Martin encounters as they deal with the inevitable, beginning with a family friend she calls Eleanor, now ailing in a Prince Edward Island nursing home. The former airline executive wishes for "something quick and painless" – a response that shocks the journalist.
"Death today is far too often like sex was for the Victorians: a taboo topic," Ms. Martin writes in that opening chapter, Death: The Final Dilemma. "We know it occurs and may even find a prurient pleasure in hearing gruesome details, but most of us don't want to talk about the prospect of our own deaths, and certainly not in public."
In introducing Ms. Martin at the event, palliative-care physician Paul Sugar praised the journalist for writing a "well-researched and intellectually vigorous" book that guides the reader through the history of palliative care and medical assistance in dying.
"In this book, Sandra Martin has mirrored the stories of so many of my patients," Dr. Sugar said in his remarks. "Her sensitive and insightful description of the turmoil and fear and the reconfiguring of needs and priorities is both accurate and heartfelt. Her years of talking to the dying and their families have found powerful expression in this book."
In a statement, the jury, led by Vancouver Writers Festival artistic director Hal Wake, also applauded the book, saying it "will make an enormous contribution to our ongoing, often contentious public debate on the issue.
"Her careful and thorough research provides historical context, legislative precedents, the effect of medical technology and philosophical and religious insights," the jury statement continues. "What truly distinguishes this book is the reportage on individuals and families who have fought to arrange for a better death, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. These first-hand experiences are the beating heart of a timely and powerful examination."
Ms. Martin, who was born in Montreal and lives in Toronto, joined The Globe in 1998. Her responsibilities over the years have included writing obituaries.
"People laughed and called me the grim reaper or the angel of death when I started writing obituaries but I loved trying to condense an entire life onto a newspaper page and learning new subject areas from politics to science," Ms. Martin writes on her website.
Now, as a regular Globe freelance contributor, she writes features and her column, The Long Goodbye.
Other finalists for the national award, which is open to Canadian citizens and permanent residents of Canada, were Taras Grescoe for Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue on the Eve of the Second World War; Robert Moor for On Trails: An Exploration and Alexandra Shimo for Invisible North: The Search for Answers on a Troubled Reserve.
Past winners of the prize, which is presented by the B.C. Achievement Foundation, include Globe and Mail journalist Ian Brown for The Boy in the Moon: A Father's Search for His Disabled Son.
After being named this year's winner, Ms. Martin told The Globe she doesn't think the current doctor-assisted death legislation, which came into effect last year, is adequate. "It's leaving out a lot of people. It's causing some people to have to go off their pain medication so they can be lucid enough to talk to doctors about their requests. We can do better. And we must do better. This is not over."
She also said faith-based hospitals, which have raised opposition to the practice, should participate. "I think publicly funded hospitals are supplying health care. They're not supplying religious care. They're supplying health care – a right we won many, many years ago."