B.C. group attends 'self-chosen deaths'
VANCOUVER - Months before B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith struck down Canada's law on doctor-assisted suicide, Russel Ogden and a colleague attended the suicide of a 90-year-old woman in the province's West Kootenays.
As Margaret Joan Lunam — a mother, veteran of the Second World War and aspiring Buddhist — ended her life, the fragrance of gilead and balm filled the crisp afternoon air of her Kaslo, B.C. home, and yellow daffodils lay nearby.
The visit wasn't a first for Ogden, a criminologist at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, who said he has attended what he calls "self-chosen deaths" for research before and has even been arrested by police. But it was a first for him as director of the Farewell Foundation for the Right to Die, a group that will be in court Monday when the federal government appeal's Smith's ruling.
The foundation, which believes its members should be able to receive assistance to end their lives and provide assistance to other members who want to do the same, even for non-medical reasons, has published a five-page protocol for attending self-chosen deaths.
"The principal reason for attending is because members do not wish to die alone and they also wish to ensure that their death is reported appropriately to the coroner and the police," said Ogden.
"This ensures that there is no traumatic discovery by somebody who is not expecting to walk into a room and find somebody who is deceased."
The federal government appears in the B.C. Court of Appeal this week to challenge the June 15, 2012 ruling by Smith, who found the Criminal Code's provisions on doctor-assisted suicide were unconstitutional.
Specifically, Smith ruled the Criminal Code infringed on a plaintiffs' charter rights to life, liberty and security of person, but gave Parliament one year to draft new legislation.
Eight groups, including Ogden's which now represents about 280 members, have been granted intervenor status in the appeal, which will be webcast between Monday and Friday.
Protests outside the courthouse have also been announced by several of the groups.
The foundation's protocol says members choosing their own deaths who want a support team present must make the request in writing.
A member may choose death because of serious illness with intolerable suffering or because the person has lived a "completed life" and its value and meaning has diminished to the point where death is preferable, states the protocol.
Once a request is made, Ogden added, a support team of at least two people encourages the member to discuss the issue with the family.
The protocol states before the death, the support team must meet with the member who may decide to include family or friends in the discussions.
At least two meetings, however, must take place without the presence of friends, family or others who could exert "undue influence," states the protocol.
Members should also consider alternatives to death, states the protocol, including medical treatment, palliative care and social support, and the support team will document those discussions and help the member explore the options.
Ogden declined to discuss the details of Lunam's death because of an investigation by the RCMP and the B.C. Coroners Service.
But according to a newsletter on the foundation's website, Lunam had a "sense of completion in her life," and only five years earlier had stopped teaching yoga.
"I did not want to lose my sense of independence and the ability to choose the time and means for my death," she was quoted as saying.
The newsletter said she knew she could have travelled to Switzerland where she would have been legally allowed to receive assistance, but she didn't want to make the trip.
So on April 26, 2012, a two-member support team, including Ogden, went to her Kaslo, B.C. home.
Ogden said the support team who attends such events doesn't do anything to counsel, assist or encourage the suicide.
Following the death, he said the support team notified the coroner and the RCMP and provided them with a case file.
The protocol states that case file had to include Lunam's membership with the foundation, a declaration by her that the death was self chosen, and a record of the support team's observations and conclusions about the member's lucidity.
If applicable, the file was also supposed to include available medical and psychological records and reports and a record that the member was referred to independent suicide-prevention organizations.
Ogden said he hasn't always been received positively by authorities, and in 2007, while he was conducting research at the scene of a self-chosen death, he was arrested by Vancouver police.
"That was the most serious response that I had from the police," he said. "They arrived and arrested me on the spot, and it took over a year for them to conclude their file, and the conclusion in the file was that they did not believe that I had crossed the line to commit any criminal offence."
Const. Brian Montague of the Vancouver Police Department would not confirm if Ogden had been arrested, noting police won't identify a victim, witness or suspect unless a criminal charge has been laid.
Suicide is not an offence under the Criminal Code, he added in an email to The Canadian Press.
"You cannot charge a person that is deceased with a criminal offence. However, it is an offence for a person to counsel a person to commit suicide, or aids or abets a person to commit suicide, whether suicide ensues or not."
Under the province's Metal Health Act, police can apprehend a person acting in a manner that's likely to endanger his or her own safety or the safety of others, and is apparently suffering from a mental disorder, but such an apprehension is not a criminal matter, he added.
RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk said Mounties are assisting the BC Coroners Service in the investigation of Lunam's death.
Coroner Barb McLintock said her agency has concluded its investigation and is writing a report, which will be made public.
Because of such investigations, some people who request a support team actually decide to die alone, Ogden said, pointing to three separate cases.
Regardless, he said it's tough to be part of a support team because a friendship develops with the member before the death, and the support team knows that bond can end quickly.
"There is no pleasure in being with somebody when they end their lives. It is a changing moment and it is a time of deep loss," he said.