Monday, March 8, 2010

At 95, trailblazer Bernice Levitz Packford wants the right to end her life

Bernice Levitz Packford has taken as her final cause a lobbying effort for the right to die with dignity. Globe and Mail photograph.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 8, 2010


The door of the white clapboard house in Fairfield opens to reveal a diminutive figure clutching a walker.

Dressed in purple corduroys, a green sweater and a sleeveless red fleece pullover, Bernice Levitz Packford invites a visitor into a dining room that now serves as a parlor.

“I’ll put in my hearing aid,” she says, wheeling into her adjacent bedroom.

A recent copy of Tikkun, the progressive Jewish magazine, rests atop a New York Times Book Review on a table.

A few greetings cards stand open.

“Thank you for continuing to be a trailblazer,” read the neat handwritten script.

“Bernice, you continue to be a champion, giving voice to the concerns of the most vulnerable people.”

She turned 95 yesterday (Sunday), a landmark birthday in a life of activism. Soon after arriving in Victoria in 1953, she could be found on a downtown street wearing a sandwich-board sign seeking foster parents for needy children. She became more sophisticated in her protests over the years, but has never wavered from a desire to improve the world, little bit by little bit.

She has championed clean water, old-age pensions, and the importance of voting. She demanded a CBC Radio station in Victoria, which finally arrived a decade ago. In 1983, the taxman seized $549.21 from the pensioner’s chequing account because she had diverted payments in opposition to military spending.

She protests Canadian participation in the war in Afghanistan.

A local politician once greeted her in public with a hearty, “Bernice, my rabble-rousing friend!”

She recently announced her final issue, her last cause, by writing a letter to the editor of the local daily newspaper. In it, she made a shocking confession.

“I am tired,” she wrote to the Times Colonist, “and I am ready to die now.”

Ms. Packford wishes not only to die, but to kill herself.

Or, more accurately, to have herself killed.

She settles into a chair at the table, brushes a hand against her magnificent white hair.

“I want to go, I want to die, when I’m able. I want to go on my choosing,” she told me.

“My greatest fear is to have a stroke and remain conscious and be aware that I’m helpless.”

It is not a crime to commit suicide, but it is a crime to counsel, or to aid and abet, suicide. Hence Ms. Packford’s dilemma and sad plea.

“It’s simple to do,” she acknowledges, as though speaking of an ordinary chore. “I haven’t got the means to do it. There’s lots of potions. But I don’t know them and I haven’t got access to them.”

She spent months perfecting the 331-word letter calling on Parliament to give her the right to an assisted suicide.

Her fear is not unique, nor is her dilemma.

Born in Toronto, she was raised by her mother, Hinda, a seamstress and garment worker from Russia. Her father, a partner in a men’s clothing store, was a soft touch when it came to credit. With the outbreak of war in 1914, many young men enlisted in a spirit of jingoism and patriotism, stiffing Sam Levitz. The store closed. Her father died when she was aged six.

A sickly girl, who struggled with breathing problems, she found solace in reading. Once, she was so engrossed by “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” she rode the streetcar past her home to the end of the line and back again before realizing she had skipped her stop.

She learned about social democracy in magazines, joining the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation at age 20, soon after sharing a car ride with party leader J.S. Woodsworth, whom she found inspiring.

With men away to war yet again, she found work which financed her studies in social work. She came to British Columbia in 1945 to avoid winter, earning a bachelor’s degree. Still seeking to avoid cold weather, she rejected a transfer to Pouce Coupe and ended up on Vancouver Island.

For 40 years, she was an outspoken advocate for foster care. She befriended the parents (“wonderful people”) of current provincial NDP leader Carole James, as they raised many troubled children.

“I won’t say I love helping people,” she says. “That isn’t it. I satisfy myself. I fulfill myself by being active and by assisting people. I always want to improve things.”

She knows she is fortunate in having enough money to live in her own home, to hire helpers who cook and clean. She trundles with her walker to the Cook Street Village for shopping, lunches with lady friends at some favourite restaurants, is a regular at Saturday services at the Congregation Emanu-El synagogue, founded when Vancouver Island was still a colony and which she proudly describes as the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the land.

She follows with admiration the lives and careers of her daughter and three grandchildren.

Other than suffering from heart congestion, she is in good health, though her hearing is failing and she finds herself fading in ability. “My energy is limited,” she acknowledges. It is the possibility of an incapacitating stroke she most fears.

On the day we met, the health department in Washington released a report on the first 10 months after the passing of the state's Death with Dignity Act. Doctors can prescribe lethal medication for terminally ill adult patients. In the first 10 months, at least 36 people did so.

Of course, Ms. Packford is not terminally ill. She is not even ill. I tell her I am in no hurry to see her depart. She has the most wonderful, infectious, impish laugh.

Her argument, as always, is compelling.

If the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation, it also has no place in the deathbeds.

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