This tenth month of 2020 is only half over but has already dredged up a pile of memories for me to reflect on. All of them, unfortunately, have evoked thoughts of death and emotions of sadness.
OCTOBER 4, THE AVRO ARROW: On this date in 1957, engineers and technicians at Ontario’s A. V. Roe Corporation proudly rolled out what might have been the world’s best fighter airplane. I was in high school and many of my classmates had fathers or mothers who worked to build this state-of-the-art aircraft. Downsview Collegiate sat next to the air force station. Initial test flights saw the plane easily climb to 50,000 feet with speeds of over 1300 MPH. Sadly, two short years later, our school collectively mourned the demise of the Arrow, inexplicably cancelled by then-Prime minister Diefenbaker. A number of those engineers and skilled tradespeople were immediately recruited to the USA’s own aeronautical and burgeoning space programs—and Canada’s defence relied on American BOMARC missiles and warplanes.
The National Post has just reported (October 8) that researchers may have found one of the missing Arrow miniature test models that were sent aloft over Lake Ontario before disappearing under the water. Almost all other evidence of the Arrow’s brief but glorious existence—the plane itself, blueprints, parts— were deliberately destroyed, perhaps to keep the aircraft’s secrets from Soviet spies.
OCTOBER 5, BILL C-7: This controversial piece of government legislation has just passed first reading in Parliament. Most of us are preoccupied with dramatic headlines emanating these days from Washington, not Ottawa. Yet this amendment to the Criminal Code will potentially affect the life and death of every Canadian, should it become law. The Liberal government introduced C-7 to expand grounds for medical assistance in dying (MAID.)
When “—death is reasonably foreseeable,” immediate consent by the patient is no longer required. This amendment would address circumstances where a person suffers, for example, both from the confusion of dementia and uncontrollable pain from terminal cancer. Under current law, he or she would not be able to give rational, informed consent for MAID and would be deemed ineligible for the life-ending procedure. C-7 would now allow pre-dementia advance consent to be sufficient. The mandatory ten-day waiting period between consent and procedure has also been removed.
What if a patient’s suffering occurs even when death is not imminent? Here is the second significant part of the amendment. The legislation now will respond compassionately to offer MAID in cases where the patient is diagnosed as being not necessarily terminal, but in a “—grievous and irremediable condition.”
My sadness? As a pastoral minister before MAID was available, I had many bedside conversations with bravely stoical, dying patients and distraught family members helpless to ease their pain. While medical and palliative support can now work wonders in most cases to ease a patient’s passing, there will remain tragic situations where expanded eligibility for MAID offers the best option among difficult ethical choices.
My other sadness? Conservative religious forces within all faith traditions strongly oppose Bill C-7. I do understand and accept their pro-life position around abortion, as the unborn child has no protective voice of their own. Yet, adult-end of-life decisions within obvious proposed safeguards should be available for those who freely make that choice to leave on their own terms, an unbearably painful earthly existence. Since 2016, over 13,000 Canadians have already made that difficult decision through MAID.
OCTOBER 9, VIVIAN RAKOFF: I read of the recent death of Dr. Rakoff in the Globe and Mail’s obituaries. A brilliant psychiatrist among his many other accomplishments, Dr. Rakoff came to Toronto’s renowned Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in 1977, a few years after I had left the staff. I would have enjoyed meeting him. The Globe quoted his famous assertion: He “—believed there was no divide between the brain and the mind. — Every thought is a neural event.” I may have been bold enough, in fear and trembling, to interrupt his coffee break to ask about “the soul.” Is there room in his view to allow for its non-physical existence, an entity within us which survives death? I already would have guessed his negative answer.
OCTOBER 15, HURRICANE HAZEL: Technically, Hazel was not a hurricane by the time it roared across Lake Ontario and hit Toronto with torrential rains and still-powerful winds. The storm was still destructive enough to leave 81 Ontarians dead, including two railway men from Palmerston who perished just outside Southampton on that dreadful night and a local emergency responder who, shortly after the attempted rescue, suffered a fatal heart attack. Despite passing years, interest in Hazel remains strong. (I have been surprised that my just-released book ‘Like a River Flows’, which recalls my memories of that frightening day, has already sold over 100 copies, despite some book stores remaining closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.)
OCTOBER !7, PIERRE LAPORTE: I was sitting with my friend, Peter, in the CNE Stadium bleachers watching my beloved CFL Argos play football on that cold, windy
October day in 1970. Suddenly, a loudspeaker gravely announced the murder of this Quebec politician at the hands of the violent FLQ movement. The stadium announcer then asked shocked fans to stand for a moment of silence. The day before, Pierre Trudeau issued the emergency War Measures Act. To my astonishment, I saw soldiers looking very menacing in full battle dress surrounding the Armory in Peterborough.
After only 18 days, this month of October has already evoked a jumble of difficult memories. I still have 13 days to go. What else will resurface?