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Bernice Levitz Packford of Victoria, B.C. turned 95 on Sunday. While in good health, Packford fears suffering a debilitating stroke. A life-long activist, she is taking as her final cause her right to choose the time and place of her own death. (GEOFF HOWE/Geoff Howe/ The Globe and Mail)
Bernice Levitz Packford of Victoria, B.C. turned 95 on Sunday. While in good health, Packford fears suffering a debilitating stroke. A life-long activist, she is taking as her final cause her right to choose the time and place of her own death. (GEOFF HOWE/Geoff Howe/ The Globe and Mail)

Tom Hawthorn

At 95, trailblazer Bernice Levitz Packford wants the power to end her life Add to ...

tomhawthorn@gmail.com

The door of the white clapboard house in Fairfield opens to reveal a diminutive figure clutching a walker.

Dressed in purple corduroys, a green sweater and a sleeveless red fleece pullover, Bernice Levitz Packford invites a visitor into a dining room that now serves as a parlour.

"I'll put in my hearing aid," she says, wheeling into her adjacent bedroom.

A recent copy of Tikkun, the progressive Jewish magazine, rests atop a New York Times Book Review on a table.

A few greetings cards stand open.

"Thank you for continuing to be a trailblazer," reads the neat handwritten script.

"Bernice, you continue to be a champion, giving voice to the concerns of the most vulnerable people."

She turned 95 yesterday, a landmark birthday in a life of activism. Soon after arriving in Victoria in 1953, she could be found on a downtown street wearing a sandwich-board sign seeking foster parents for needy children. She became more sophisticated in her protests over the years, but has never wavered from a desire to improve the world, little bit by little bit. She has championed clean water, old-age pensions, and the importance of voting.

She demanded a CBC Radio station in Victoria, which finally arrived a decade ago. In 1983, the taxman seized $549.21 from the pensioner's chequing account because she had diverted payments in opposition to military spending.

She protests against Canadian participation in the war in Afghanistan.

A local politician once greeted her in public with a hearty, "Bernice, my rabble-rousing friend!"

She recently announced her final issue, her last cause, by writing a letter to the editor of the local daily newspaper. In it, she made a shocking confession.

"I am tired," she wrote to the Times Colonist, "and I am ready to die now."

Ms. Packford wishes not only to die, but to kill herself.

Or, more accurately, to have herself killed.

She settles into a chair at the table, brushes a hand against her magnificent white hair.

"I want to go, I want to die, when I'm able. I want to go on my choosing," she told me.

"My greatest fear is to have a stroke and remain conscious and be aware that I'm helpless."

It is not a crime to commit suicide, but it is a crime to counsel, or to aid and abet, suicide. Hence Ms. Packford's dilemma and sad plea.

"It's simple to do," she acknowledges, as though speaking of an ordinary chore. "I haven't got the means to do it. There's lots of potions. But I don't know them and I haven't got access to them."

She spent months perfecting the 331-word letter calling on Parliament to give her the right to an assisted suicide.

Her fear is not unique, nor is her dilemma.

She knows she is fortunate in having enough money to live in her own home, to hire helpers who cook and clean. She trundles with her walker to the Cook Street Village for shopping, lunches with lady friends at some favourite restaurants, is a regular at Saturday services at the Congregation Emanu-El synagogue, founded when Vancouver Island was still a colony and which she proudly describes as the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the land.

She follows with admiration the lives and careers of her daughter and three grandchildren.

Other than suffering from heart congestion, she is in good health, though her hearing is failing and she finds herself fading in ability. "My energy is limited," she acknowledges. It is the possibility of an incapacitating stroke she most fears.

On the day we met, the U.S. health department in Washington released a report on the first 10 months after the passing of the Death with Dignity Act. Doctors there can prescribe lethal medication for terminally ill adult patients. In the first 10 months, at least 36 people did so.

Of course, Ms. Packwood is not terminally ill. She is not even ill. I tell her I am in no hurry to see her depart. She has the most wonderful, infectious, impish laugh.

Her argument, as always, is compelling.

If the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation, it also has no place in the deathbeds.

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