EDMONTON—All his life Kenneth Chan cared deeply about the suffering of those closest to him — his sister who died of Multiple Sclerosis, his friend who suffered from fibromyalgia and travelled to Switzerland to access assisted death, even his beloved dog, Mark, who died of cancer.
In his own final moments, Chan, 62, wanted people to know about the struggles of his loved ones, and how increased access to medical assistance in dying could help many end what may otherwise be a lifetime of suffering.
A military veteran of 25 years who served both in Iraq and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chan lived in Gibbons, a town northeast of the city. But on Dec. 2, he made his way into Edmonton, according to his family. It’s not clear how he chose to spend his last afternoon, until precisely 2:35 p.m., when he sent two emails.
One was addressed to his employer about workplace grievances and was shared with around 40 people. The other was sent to the provincial and federal ministers of health. The subject line read: “Medical Assistance in Dying.”
Chan’s stepson, Harald Linder, shared the email in hopes of honouring his final message.
“I would like to use my death to bring attention to Medical Assistance in Dying, MAID,” the first line of the email read. Around thirty minutes later, shortly after 3 p.m., Chan died by suicide on the front steps of the Alberta legislature due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
For Linder, the timing of his stepfather’s death is no coincidence.
At around the same time, inside the legislature, United Conservative MLA Dan Williams had just stood to defend a bill he tabled in early November — Bill 207, also known as the Conscience Rights for Health Care Providers Protections Act.
It looks to enshrine conscience rights for medical professionals who refuse care to patients based on moral or religious beliefs. Currently, medical health professionals can refuse to provide treatments such as abortion or medically assisted death if it conflicts with their conscience, but they must provide a referral to someone who can. Experts have said Bill 207 could remove the referral requirement.
“He timed it just perfectly,” Linder said of Chan’s death taking place just as debate on the bill was about to begin. “If anyone thinks otherwise, it’s just silly.”
It’s unclear whether debate on Bill 207 will continue, as the legislature’s fall session ended earlier this week. If the legislature is prorogued, the bill will not be debated at all and will fall off the government’s agenda. If not, it would be debated at the next opportunity for private member’s business, sometime in the new year.
Linder couldn’t recall Chan talking about the issue of medical assistance in dying much prior to his death, save for one general conversation he had with some family members about the procedure a few months back.
But in his letter to the ministers of health, Chan wrote about the importance of having access to assisted death, and of having to say goodbye to his sister, Janet, after she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. The disease had spread and deteriorated her body and mind, he said in the letter.
“We had gone to visit her at a palliative care facility in Toronto,” Chan wrote. “She did not know who we were. She passed away in a very lonely world.”
Chan also mentioned a close family friend in her 30s who asked for medical assistance in dying in the early 2000s, after surviving a horrific car accident and an ongoing struggle with fibromyalgia. The woman, Chan said in his letter, had to travel to Switzerland to receive MAID.
It struck Linder how the woman’s suffering had remained in Chan’s mind after all this time.
Chan wrote about how he became hopeful when MAID became law in Canada in June 2016. However, he added that he realized MAID comes with restrictions: On the time a patient has to make the decision, the medical conditions that qualify and the requirement that patients who request a medically assisted death must do so while of sound mind.
“I know change is slow, I know it will change. I know I cannot change anything,” Chan wrote.
“What I would like to do is plant a seed in your head.”
Staff at Minister of Health Tyler Shandro’s office acknowledged that they had received Chan’s email. However, Shandro’s spokesperson Steve Buick said the minister didn’t see it at the time it was sent. And despite medically assisted death being an issue that is largely under federal jurisdiction, Buick said the minister wished he would’ve been able to reply.
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“Every suicide is somebody we didn’t reach in time,” Buick said.
MLA Williams also offered his condolences to Chan’s family. “I would encourage anyone contemplating self-harm to reach out and seek help,” he said.
Mental health experts say it’s often tricky to pinpoint a singular cause for a person’s suicide. Linder, however, said raising awareness about medical assistance in dying was clearly the final message his stepfather wanted to send before his death.
He described his stepfather as quiet, kind and helpful — the kind of person who would pull up on the side of the road to change a stranger’s tire, rain or shine.
Chan came into Linder’s life about two decades ago, when he married Linder’s mother after meeting the family in Petawawa where he was stationed in the town’s military base. Linder said Chan, known to the family as Ken, immediately became a fixture in his life, shining a bright light on the family.
“It was a blessing for my mom to have this nice man in her life that loves, and likes to enjoy life — the simple things like nature.”
Linder said his stepfather didn’t speak much about his mental health struggles. He added Chan had likely seen and experienced things during his time in the military that people in everyday society don’t get to see, but asking for help wasn’t the norm.
“There’s a certain mentality that’s structured inside a person,” said Linder, who grew up in Petawawa. “You have to stay tough.”
Linder said he struggles with PTSD and depression, and talking about it through the years didn’t always come naturally. “It’s not easy to stay tough all the time, it feels like you’re sucking your gut for so long,” Linder said. He added he’s become increasingly cognizant of this since his stepfather’s death.
Linder said the family will be honouring Chan’s life on Saturday in Edmonton. Through his grief, Linder said it’s important to remind people to reach out for help.
“Love yourself as much as you’re able to, also others around you.”
If you are considering suicide, there is help. Find a list of local crisis centres at the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, call 911 or in Alberta, call Health Link at 811 or the Mental Health Help Line at 1-877-303-2642, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.