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Canada’s Seething Prejudice Against the Disabled


Robert Latimer and his daughter Tracy

Earlier this month, Global Television Network in Canada featured a documentary about the so-called “mercy killing” of children with severe disabilities. The very fact that such a topic is even entertained on national television reveals something about the moral state of my country.

The documentary featured two parents: the first was Annette Corriveau who wants to euthanize her two severely disabled children who suffer from Sanfilippo syndrome. She says that her children, who live in institutionalized care, would opt for assisted suicide if they could communicate with her. How does she know that? They have been uncommunicative since early childhood. Corriveau says they wouldn’t like to live the way they are. Of course they wouldn’t. I don’t want to live triplegic and electric wheelchair dependent from MS — but that doesn’t mean I am better off dead. Annette Corriveau’s children have not expressed a wish to die, they can not communicate and it’s doubtful they are aware of their circumstances or even their surroundings. It’s their mother who wants them dead.

The second case featured on the Global documentary was that of Robert Latimer. He is the Saskatchewan farmer who murdered his disabled daughter Tracy back in 1993. She had cerebral palsy. A protracted legal saga ensued in Canada that eventually saw him him convicted of second degree murder.
What shocked me during the time that the case moved through various legal avenues, up to and including Canada’s Supreme Court, was the sympathy and support Robert Latimer enjoyed from the courts, the media and the general public in ways he would not have had if he had murdered one of his healthy children. I was shocked because I did not fully realize at that time what low regard Canadians have for people with serious disabilities!

A trust fund was established for Robert Latimer’s legal costs; it received close to $100,000 from across Canada! Many Canadians felt that Robert Latimer should not serve any time for killing his disabled daughter. Television interviews with people  on streets of Canadian cities revealed stunning levels of public support for Robert Latimer. One man said that Latimer did a favor for his daughter by killing her. Others thought he did what was best for Tracy and should not have been charged with a crime. The judge in Latimer’s first trial issued an unprecedented “constitutional exemption” to Robert Latimer. Members of the jury in Latimer’s second trial asked that he serve no more than one year in prison and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association petitioned the Justice Minister to reject Latimer’s second degree sentence. Public opinion polls consistently revealed that over 70% of Canadians supported euthanasia for the terminally and chronically ill and assisted suicide for the disabled. Disabled people like me began to understand that the lives of chronically ill and disabled Canadians are viewed as having less worth than healthy Canadians and not deserving the same legal protections as the rest of the population.

In the Global TV program, journalist Jennifer Tryon said that the Latimer pitted morality against law. That is a view but not in the way Latimer and Tryon might think. Many of us within Canada’s disability community believed it was profoundly immoral to murder Tracy Latimer and show lenience toward her killer in ways that would not have been shown if Latimer killed one of his healthy children.

At a personal level, I thought Robert Latimer should have been convicted of 1st degree murder, not 2nd. Evidence established during his trial showed premeditation.

There is a seething undercurrent of hostility against Canadians with disabilities — and that hostility extends to children.