February 10, 2021 QUOI Media Group
By Sarah Jama
Amidst a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black, Indigenous, poor and disabled communities, we’ve barely heard a word about disability issues from our federal government – except, that is, their intention to expand access to death for persons with disabilities through new legislation.
Over the next few weeks, Canadian Senators will engage in lengthy discussions around Bill C-7, which would amend the criminal code to remove the ‘reasonably foreseeable death’ requirement in Canada’s Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) legislation. This legislation, if successful, would allow for a Canadian who has a chronic illness or a disability that fits the category of ‘irremediable’ and whose condition has irreversibly declined to apply for a medically assisted death.
On the surface, this change sounds like a victory for people who support bodily autonomy. In theory, everyone should have the right to choose what kind of life they want to live and how they want to die. But the stark reality of our current society is one that shows that autonomy does not exist for everyone. Choice in life has never existed for working class disabled people, particularly if they are Black, Indigenous and racialized. Both race and white supremacy are etched into the historical fabric of this country but have been missing in conversations around MAiD.
Bill C-7 seeks to grant autonomy in death for those with disabilities without confronting the current realities of their lived existence.
Across this country right now, disabled people are dying in long term care institutions in shocking numbers. This institutionalization and subsequent mass death would not be possible if home care and personal support workers were funded adequately, if housing options were both affordable and accessible, and if we did not live in a society that devalues people outside the workforce.
Legislators continue to force people with disabilities to live in poverty through social assistance rates well below the poverty line, while able-bodied Canadians receive $2,000 a month in CERB financial aid.
Hamilton, Ontario, where the Disability Justice Network of Ontario (DJNO) where I work is located, has the highest density of people with disabilities in Ontario, and over 20 encampments of unhoused people living in tents. Many of the people living in these tents are disabled and were ‘rennovicted’ out of their homes. As people who live on Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) or Ontario Works (OW), many were unable to afford their rent increases. Many have multiple visible and invisible disabilities, some have lost toes and fingers from sleeping in the cold, and some have been frequently excluded from the shelter systems for being ‘disruptive’ when experiencing a disability-related episode.
There are only two accessible shelters in Hamilton and neither practice harm reduction, meaning people addicted to substances cannot use them. So, where can one go to escape suicidality when you are disabled and poor, our systems of support are ableist, and your body cannot do exactly what you command it to?
Indigenous and disabled people have a shared history of forced institutionalization where abuse, violence, neglect and death were normalized. Both Indigenous and disabled women have been targeted by ongoing forced sterilization.
The list goes on.
Legislators have no real, grounded understanding of how prevalent systemic ableism is in our communities. If they understood this, they would understand that to be disabled and poor in Canada is often to entertain suicidality on a daily basis.
And it is the most marginalized disabled community members who are living without autonomy, and who die because of intersecting experiences of systemic racism and systemic ableism.
During a time of mass death in Canada, our elected leaders should be doing everything they can to make sure disabled people have the right to life. Instead, they choose to give disabled people special access to MAiD.
It is okay to want to choose death. Autonomy is important. But the fear of disability driving this push for legislated access to death will harm the most marginalized members of the disability community who do not often have the same choices available to them as everyone else.
About Sarah Jama
Sarah Jama is Lead Organizer with the Disability Justice Network of Ontario (DJNO), and Senior Program Coordinator with the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion (HCCI).