it's a very down-home, family crowd tonight. No trendies, scarcely a young person -- except for kids, who are there with Mommy and Daddy, who are mostly middle aged. We're in a small park beside St. James Cathedral on King East on the evening of April 21, and it's getting dark. Volunteers are passing out candles to the 75 or so people who have gathered to express their support for a man who is in jail for having murdered his 12-year-old daughter.
Robert Latimer, the farmer from Saskatchewan, is no ordinary killer. His daughter, Tracy, was afflicted with a particularly severe form of cerebral palsy. She had the mental development of a three- or four-month-old child, lived in near constant pain, had had many painful operations in her short life and was facing more. Her father says he did not think she should have to live in constant pain, so he killed her with carbon monoxide poisoning because he knew of no other way of ending it. He was convicted of second-degree murder and given the only sentence the Criminal Code allows: life, with no chance of parole for 10 years.
It is a case that has strongly divided people. Many believe that his punishment is excessive and cruel, given the circumstances of the crime. Many others, particularly people with disabilities and their advocates, feel a less severe punishment would mean their lives are devalued, that a time may come when euthanasia might is applied to those whose lives merely inconvenience the rest of us.
Don Danbrook is a person with a disability. Several accidents, beginning with one in 1983 that broke his neck, confine him to a wheelchair. He says he lives in chronic pain. He needs an attendant to help him if he wants something as simple as a drink of water. He is an adviser to the government on disability matters. He is also Robert Latimer's nephew, and he is here, at this vigil, to support his uncle and to call on the government to mitigate the sentence.
He is not the only person with a disability to support Latimer, as you can read on the Friends Of Robert Latimer Web site (www.robertlatimer.ca).
For him, for those others, for everyone here tonight, the issue is not disability, but pain. As lawyer Edward Greenspan, who represented Latimer at the Supreme Court, says this night, "Robert is guilty of being unable to watch his child suffer endless, unremitting pain. He is guilty of concluding that his child had reached the end of the road, that her pain was unendurable.
This is not an uncontroversial position. Others say that further operations would have eased Tracy's pain, that stronger medications were in fact available to her. (And the counter-argument is that she was restricted to Tylenol because it would have been dangerous to combine opiates with the medications she had to take to control her seizures.)
A friend once asked me if I would help kill him. He was slowly dying of Hodgkin's disease, and there were nights when he would end up in some hospital emergency ward, and I would be with him, and I would have to watch him writhing in pain until the increasingly large doses of morphine took effect and the writhing and the moaning would stop. He didn't want to die that way. He was stockpiling pills, prescribed by a doctor who both knew (unofficially) and didn't know (officially) what they might be used for. And when the time came, would I help?
Of course I said yes, although I knew -- as did he -- that I was agreeing to participate in an illegal act. As it turned out, though, I didn't have to break the law. When the end came, he didn't need the pills. He died without assistance, peacefully and painlessly.
I think most people would have said yes to such a request -- even though most people will not lightly decide to break the law. They will do so because years of loving friendship will have taught them that such a request is not casual, not the result of a passing depression. It is as serious a decision as anyone will ever make, and it has been made by an adult in full command of his or her faculties. To decide instead to uphold the law strikes one as timorous at best and immoral at worst.
And, as difficult as my decision might have been, it was made easier by virtue of being made in a large urban centre. There are, particularly since the AIDS crisis, understanding doctors my friend could turn to. There is relatively easy access to palliative care.
But, as John Russell, communications coordinator for Casey House Hospice, puts it, "The real concern is outside urban centres. If you live in Moosonee, where are you going to go? We support people in their right to choose their own course, but we're concerned that many people feel they really have no choice in the absence of skilled, compassionate palliative care that would improve their quality of life to an acceptable level.
"First, let's make that care available to all who need it. Only then can we have a meaningful discussion about alternatives."
Were there alternatives for Tracy Latimer? Depends on who you talk to. Doctors say more surgery could have been performed, but the prospect of what he'd begun to think of as more surgical mutilation was a factor in Robert Latimer's decision. Professional care? According to Don Danbrook, Tracy was put into an extended-care home for a period when her mother was pregnant and her father was busy harvesting, but while there her weight went from 45 to 36 pounds.
"Her mother was really the only person who could get her to eat," he says, "and she had to do that by massaging her throat."
So what is one to think? That Robert Latimer's sentence is cruel and unjust? Most certainly. That he should have killed his daughter? Not so easy to answer. The trial judge found as a fact that the killing was done for caring and altruistic reasons.
But was that Robert Latimer's decision to make? There are many who argue that it was, that it is always up to parents to decide what is best for their children, especially when a child is incapable.
But surely decisions of such magnitude should not be left to one wretched individual, driven frantic by a loved one's misery, who feels he has nowhere to turn and who, as John Russell points out, may in fact have nowhere to turn.
Here, in this candlelit park in downtown Toronto, a woman named Shirley McNaughton makes that point most clearly. She's on the speakers list, is described as an "alternative communication consultant" and a member of the Order of Canada. She's a plain-spoken woman speaking to a crowd of plain-spoken, mostly working-class people, and this is what she tells them.
"We need hospices for children in pain. We need them so that the whole community, not just one person, takes responsibility for these children."