Andray Domise is a Toronto-based writer.
Last spring, a few months into Ontario’s initial COVID-19 lockdown, I suffered the worst anxiety attack I’d had in years, requiring medical intervention. I’ve experienced these kinds of episodes since my early 20s, with the most severe ones forcing me to relive repressed and traumatic memories as if they’ve just happened. In the past, they’ve led to intense bouts of suicidal ideation that can last for days at a time, with echo effects that can last months.
I was only properly diagnosed and provided medical attention for this and other conditions in my mid-30s – meaning that, for more than a decade, my mind periodically attempted to destroy itself and the body carrying it, and I wasn’t getting any help or support. And even when I received the diagnosis and treatment I needed, I’ve experienced the sort of financial instability that forced me to choose between taking time off work for adequate recovery and maintaining the ability to live independently and feed myself.
So if an option for ending my life with the assistance of medical professionals had existed back then, I would likely be dead today.
Before, I was single and poor. Now, I have a life partner, children who mean the world to me and financial security. In other words, not only do I have much to live for, I have the material and social capital necessary to keep my life together. Statistically, my circumstances put me in the minority of people with disabilities: More than half of disabled Canadians have low incomes, many depending solely on provincial disability payments.
Poverty and disability are inextricably linked in our society, even for those of us who are mostly or even fully able-bodied. The alarming rates of suicide among Black and Indigenous people only confirm that I’m one of the lucky ones.
I mention this because the Canadian government is on the cusp of pushing through Bill C-7, which would expand access to medical assistance in dying (MAID) with a broad enough scope to give people diagnosed with “serious and incurable illness, disease or disability” and an “irreversible decline of capabilities” the option to end their lives, even when natural death due to such disability isn’t foreseeable. The Senate has even amended Bill C-7 to open the door for MAID to be offered to people with solely mental illnesses. It has also nixed a failsafe to prevent medical professionals from suggesting MAID as an option if it wasn’t first raised by the patient.
The expansion of MAID shows a side of Canada that is anything but merciful. And despite the insistence of well-heeled advocates, there is nothing dignified about this approach. It is a gruesome reminder of our tendency to pat ourselves on the back for thinking Canada is a progressive nation, even as our legacy of eugenics continues to haunt us.
We are less than 50 years removed from the end of eugenics boards in this country, barely out of living memory of our institutions sterilizing those deemed “degenerate” and “feeble-minded” (as I would have been). During this shameful time, eliminating “polluted” stock (per W.L. Hutton, of the Eugenics Society of Canada) through sterilization was viewed as a logical means to end the “suffering” of hereditary disease.
This still informs how many Canadians view disability: not with the requisite humanity, but through the lens of suffering. And where the suffering doesn’t exist, Canada can provide by immiserating the day-to-day lives of disabled people with our embarrassing lack of accommodation in public spaces, the workplace, medicine and society at large. Canada provides suffering when we shovel millions of dollars at companies such as Bell Media, which “raise awareness” around mental illness one week and then lay off hundreds of employees the next, leaving them without the insurance necessary to make mental-health services affordable. Canada provides suffering when we tighten the purse strings when people with disabilities ask for necessary and continuing financial relief, even during a deadly pandemic.
We laud our progressive approach to “dignity in death,” even while the United Nations stands alarmed at the potential for “subtle pressure” being applied through “lack of services or lack of community living options” in such legislation. We see Indigenous peoples in the grip of a suicide crisis but, according to Denesuline elder François Paulette, consultation with their communities was apparently too much to ask for.
I have friends in the disability community who have testified vehemently against the substance of Bill C-7. They have spoken forcefully on the Liberals’ failure to challenge the Quebec court decision that forced the Supreme Court’s hand in declaring the current MAID framework unconstitutional, and on the repeated and catastrophic failure at all levels of government to accommodate people with disabilities.
They’ve made it clear that disability is not the problem, but the way society views and treats disability. And yet this bill is being pushed through anyway.
In the next few weeks, people from all sides of this debate will bring personal testimony to bear. And whether they support or oppose the expansion of MAID, a simple truth remains: This is a country that continues to fail in respecting the humanity of people with disabilities. And rather than find strength of character to improve ourselves, the Canadian government is set to fall back on egregious historical precedent by offering death instead.
Where, I ask, is the dignity in that?
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