Maclean’s Interview: Bernice Packford

The 95-year-old on why she wants to kill herself, despite being healthy, and why she thinks a doctor should be allowed to help
Photographs by Brian Howell
Photographs by Brian Howell

Last month, as her 95th birthday approached, Bernice Levitz Packford, a one-time Victoria citizen of the year, wrote to her local newspaper, the Times Colonist. “I am tired and I am ready to die now,” began her letter, a carefully considered argument in favour of changing the Criminal Code to allow for doctor-assisted suicide. “I have decided, after much reflection, that I wish to end my life now before my mind and body deteriorate further so I am incapable of making that decision,” wrote Packford, who lives in her home with the help of caregivers. She concluded: “Can Parliament find the gumption to give me the right to assisted suicide? I could then have my family and friends around me to say goodbye as I die with dignity.” Packford’s letter has triggered a renewed debate on the issue, in the pages of the newspaper and on websites, both for and against assisted suicide.

Q: You started your letter with the sentence: “I’m tired and I’m ready to die now.” You must have expected you’d stir things up.
A: I never though it would create such a public response. Never.
One thing I do know is that people do not face their mortality. I know that because I wrote a letter to the editor about making a will. People do not generally make a will and they die without a will, leaving so much grief for their children. And that’s because of a refusal to face our mortality.

Q: You can’t be accused of that. Why did you write the letter?
A: I am in good health. I’m not suffering from an illness that will be eventually fatal. So my case is not covered [in the current death with dignity debate]. That’s why I wrote that letter. I’m tired and I do suffer from congestive heart failure [which robs her of energy and requires her to use a walker]. I can have a stroke. I’ve had a stroke, and I recovered from that. I’m facing imminent sickness or a stroke, which will leave me conscious and helpless. And that thought fills me with horror.

Q: So there wasn’t a particular event that inspired the letter?
A: No, just this thought of what I’m facing. After all, I’m not getting younger.

Q: Can we turn back that clock and put you in context. Where were you born? Tell me about your family.
A: I was born in Toronto, in a first-generation Jewish family. My parents came from Russia. They came over about 1906. My mother had seven sisters. They were very close and they helped each other. My mother was a single parent, [my father] died, and my mother was poor so all the sisters helped. I have one sister. Had one sister. We always had to worry about the rent. We were always two or three months behind. The rent was $33 a month. The war broke out in 1939 and it was our saviour.

Q: You must be the only Jewish family to say that.
A: Yes. We were safe, we weren’t in Europe. Business picked up, so I asked my mother and sister if I could go to university because they were so short of students you could enter into the social work graduate school without a B.A. Everything went by the board because it was the war. I took it in three years and I graduated in 1945. They were so short of social workers on the West Coast. I heard in Vancouver you didn’t have to have a winter coat. That was a big plus for me. I applied and got a job in Vancouver. I worked for three years for the ministry.

Q: You also attended the University of British Columbia, and got married at some point.
A: I decided I’d get a B.A. I got married while I was at university. We weren’t married very long. He was not cut out to be a father. I saw that within about five or six years. You can’t make him over.

Q: So you were a single mother.
A: Yes, with one daughter. I was very fortunate. My mother came out here and she really raised my daughter because I worked full-time, after Leah [Bernice’s daughter] was about three.

Q: Did your early poverty play a part in setting you on the path of social activism?
A: Yes, fashioning out a fairer social order. That’s been my life. I was a member of the CCYM. Does that name mean anything to you?

Q: No.
A: Co-operative Commonwealth Youth Movement of the CCF [the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which later became the New Democratic Party]. I was in that in the 1930s.

Q: I’m probably missing some things, but you’ve been an advocate for children’s rights, for foster parents, for the decline in jobs on Victoria’s waterfront, for the state of the environment. You’ve supported safe injection sites, opposed Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan, and written many letters about the need for public engagement in civic politics.
A: Oh, definitely. And legalizing marijuana.

Q: Well, no wonder you’re tired.
A: The number of years is what tires me. People have asked me from time to time why I don’t give up. Just turn away. The thought never occurs to me because that’s not my nature. I don’t have to spur myself on. I don’t think, “why doesn’t someone else do it?” There’s enough there for all of us.

Q: Back to the issue of doctor-assisted suicide. I guess, by definition, it would be your last crusade.
A: It isn’t. If I have enough time I’ll write another of my famous letters. I’m very concerned about Vancouver Island. I read the various schemes of attracting people to Vancouver Island. None of them ask, how many people can this island support? That’s what I’m going to ask. Do you know how slowly [groundwater] aquifers are filled and how they are filled? Very slowly. If you empty it before it fills naturally, it gets filled with sea water. Once it’s filled with sea water, it’s kaput.

Q: When you wrote this letter about doctor-assisted suicide, did you consult with your family, talk to your daughter and grandchildren?
A: Yes, I talked with Leah and the family. They always take the view that if this is what I decide to do, there’s not much they can do about it. They won’t say “no, no, no.” This is my decision.

Q: Were they surprised or shocked?
A: No.

Q: Are you a member of the Right to Die Network?
A: Yes. I have been a member for several years.

Q: Your letter triggered many others, and it’s all over religious and anti-right-to-die websites. Are you happy about the debate you’ve started?
A: Absolutely. It shows people are thinking about it. They don’t want to talk about it but now it’s made for a conversation.

Q: You’re a faithful member of the oldest synagogue in B.C., a conservative one at that. I have to ask, what did your rabbi say about your letter?
A: [Laughs] We haven’t discussed it. If I don’t open it, he won’t open it. He knows that’s how I feel.

Q: In your view, what does the Torah have to say about suicide?
A: They leave it up to God. I’m not of a philosophical turn of mind.

Q: One interpretation is we don’t own our bodies any more than we can own someone else’s, and that we’re a gift from God to be used for His purpose. You don’t feel that doctor-assisted suicide would violate that?
A: In some people’s eyes that would. In others no. We’re very flexible.

Q: Religion aside. Assisted suicide is illegal. Have you followed [Bloc MP] Francine Lalonde’s private member’s bill?
A: Yes, I have.

Q: She has described it as amending the Criminal Code “to allow medical practitioners, subject to certain conditions, to aid a person who is experiencing severe physical or mental pain without any prospect of relief or is suffering from a terminal illness to die with dignity once the person has expressed his or her free and informed consent to die.” Do you feel your circumstance would apply?
A: No. Because I feel fine. But that’s better than nothing. Certainly people want to have [a change]. In some cases, doctors do put them out of misery but why drag it out as much as we do?

Q: What kind of legislation would you advocate for?
A: What [Lalonde] has on the table right now is better than nothing, definitely. People who are enduring pain or mental anguish, they should have that right to go. However, if a person wishes to go—they should have that right as well.

Q: Since you wrote that letter, has anyone come forward to offer assistance?
A: No. Moral, yes.

Q: But not immoral?
A: [Laughs] You mean but not illegal.

Q: You don’t like the term euthanasia. What is the difference?
A: In euthanasia, somebody is doing it to you. I’m not good at defining the differences but I’m not happy with that term.

Q: I presume from a Jewish perspective, especially, euthanasia has ugly connotations of Nazi medical experiments and death camps.
A: Yes.

Q: There have been several attempted prosecutions across the country, but juries tend not to convict those accused of assisting in a suicide of the terminally ill. Is that an expression of public will?
A: It’s an expression of opinion. It’s one way of letting the government know what the general thinking is. People are expressing their point of view on this whole matter of end-of-life issues.

Q: I’m sure you’ve heard the counter-arguments. Is there a risk that the elderly, the handicapped or infirm might feel vulnerable? They may consider themselves a burden on their families or society and feel compelled to kill themselves or have somebody help them do that just to be expedient.
A: They already feel that way [a burden] when it happens to them personally. Fortunately, here we have medicare so that medically we are not a burden on our families. That’s a big help. In other countries we would be a terrible burden.

Q: Are you in favour of safeguards to ensure a person isn’t pressured into a decision like that?
A: Yes, of course, I am in favour of safeguards. I wouldn’t want to be put in that position, or have anyone else be in that position, to not be rendered a free agent.

Q: You’ve been working toward a civil society your whole life. Isn’t one measure of a civil society how it takes care of the weakest members? Do you give the weakest members the right to end their lives when they wish? Or do you protect them at all costs? We don’t banish people out onto an ice floe anymore or things like that.
A: There’s a lot to be said for that. [Laughs]. The decision is taken out of your hands when you can no longer contribute to the community.

Q: But doesn’t that run counter to a civil society?
A: Yes, it does. We’re a rich society. We can afford to do this in a civil way.

Q: Do you think there would be a class of doctors that would be willing to make these end-of-life decisions and to actively kill people? Doesn’t it run counter to their Hippocratic oath? Certainly the Canadian Medical Association opposes the idea.
A: If they would not be prosecuted, and the patient wants that, there will be doctors found to work on this, to volunteer for this. It’s not everybody’s doctor. Just like abortion. Not every doctor wanted to do abortions. Well, you didn’t have to, but there were enough.

Q: Now that you’ve generated attention, are you hoping a member of Parliament will carry this message back to Ottawa?
A: It will take much more than just this. But I’m hoping, yes, of course.

Q: Do you think Stephen Harper’s government is disposed to this kind of idea?
A: No, I don’t.

Q: You’ve been thinking about this for some time. Have you thought about the afterlife? If there is one and what it would be like?
A: What will I say? I believe a person lives on in the memories of their friends and family.

Q: None of this land of milk and honey stuff?
A: No.

Q: This is a rude question, but have you thought how you would like to end your life?
A: I would prefer it to happen while I am still the way I am now. Of course, I would love to go by a heart attack or a [fatal] stroke. I would love it, but you can’t order that.

Q: Would you want your family around?
A: That I would love, yes.

Q: And then what, a pill?
A: Yes.

Q: Doesn’t that put the burden on someone else, if they have to assist you?
A: They don’t have to, they would be a volunteer.

Q: Would you prefer to do it yourself if you had the means?
A: No, I would not

Q: Why is that?
A: Because I am a coward. And it’s lonely.

Q: In 95 years, you’ve seen some of the worst and the best of the modern age. Everything from the Holocaust and segregation, to the civil rights movement, medical advances and a respect for civil liberties. As you consider your departure, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of society?
A: Oh, I’m optimistic. I always have been. That’s the way I am. I’m very lucky to be born in Canada. I count my blessings. It’s just a wonderful country.

Q: You’ve got tulips on the table. The sun came out this afternoon, I hear birds out there in your backyard. Do you really want to say goodbye on a day like this?
A: No, I don’t. But people are thinking about [assisted suicide]. And I’m glad they are.