Tracy Latimer: my sister in spirit – July 18, 2018
Taylor Hyatt – Policy Analyst & Outreach Coordinator, Toujours Vivant-Not Dead Yet
On July 11, 2018, a number of news outlets revealed that Robert Latimer was seeking either a new trial or a complete pardon for the second degree murder conviction in the 1993 death of his daughter, Tracy. The conviction and life sentence he received (with a mandatory minimum of ten years before parole could be considered), were upheld by the Supreme Court in 2001. Latimer “was granted day parole in February 2008 and full parole in November 2010.”
Most Canadians are aware of his crime: in October 1993, Mr. Latimer put 12-year-old Tracy in the cab of his truck and piped in exhaust fumes. His motive? He “loved his daughter,” who was thought to be in severe pain, and “couldn’t bear watching her suffer.”
The cause of Tracy’s alleged pain and suffering was her cerebral palsy. I was born with the same disability in May 1992, about a year and a half before Tracy’s death. As a result, I’ve always felt a connection when I’ve heard her name in the news. I can’t remember how old I was when I finally understood what had happened to her – probably around age 10 or 11. (For reference, I was 18 when Latimer was granted full parole in 2010. Among my fondest memories of high school law classes are the discussions my classmates had about how sickening his actions were!) Hearing about Tracy’s fate sent shivers down my spine…and years later, it still does. The sense of kinship I felt with her, and the disgust I felt at the thought of her murder, has stayed with me. If I had to put it all into words, it would read something like “She’s like me, and her father resented having to care for her and feared for her future so much that he killed her.”
There are at least two major differences between Tracy’s life and my own. Like all families, mine has had its share of squabbles and drama. Yet as intense as some of these conflicts have been, none would have put me in physical danger. As well, a medical label is just about the only thing our conditions have in common. Because my speech and cognition are unaffected by CP, it would have been easier for me to reach out to others if I were in a dangerous situation at home. Authorities would also be more likely to take my complaints seriously. Due to deep-rooted biases in our legal system, accounts of crimes put forward by people who communicate using assistive technologies or who have cognitive disabilities are more likely to be disbelieved.
As I wrote a few years ago, life with a disability does not seem too strange to the Canadian public right now. Walkers and wheelchairs like the ones used by Tracy and I are common sights. However, the internalized prejudice and fear surrounding disability that played a role in her murder is just as prevalent now as 25 years ago. Legal euthanasia and assisted suicide now offer a socially-sanctioned escape from those negative messages; the procedures are prompting a startling shift in our country’s view of disability, death, the definition of “suffering” and how much of it someone can live with. Just as some physicians have begun to view suicidal behaviour as “an expression of refusal of medical treatment,” Robert Latimer’s lawyers are now arguing that society’s new acceptance of assisted suicide makes his actions more understandable. Therefore, the case against him should be re-examined.
However, the lawyers are missing a few important points. First, as a minor, Tracy would not have been able to consent to her own death. Her father had a responsibility to protect his daughter, care for her, and help her to thrive – a task which he clearly rejected. Second, Tracy’s own thoughts about her life were not taken into account. At best, no one asked Tracy what she thought about her life because they lacked a consistent way to communicate with her. At worst, the obvious joy that she found in life with family and friends was dismissed – in part because she was disabled, young, and female.
The questions remain: does Canada value its citizens with disabilities less than it did 25 years ago? Will my sister in spirit continue to get the justice she deserves?