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?
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.