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This land is my land: Robert Latimer and the plundered landscape

Robert Latimer, in a classic filmic "beauty shot" – panoramic and glowing with evening light

A slow pan to a classic frame. A solitary man stands on high ground in evening light, surveying land, sky, and settlement. The soundtrack is subtle but arresting: distant wind, giving way to the soft but urgent tapping of a single atmospheric note, then a persistent throb of airy, fluttering strings. The narrator’s solemn voice begins:

Robert Latimer. Canadian canola farmer. Father of three. And convicted of second-degree murder.…”

In a mere 14 seconds, with spare and careful strokes, the argument is made. It emerges, irresistibly, from an iconic portrait – a portrait shaded in Canadian idiom, invoking the stoic endurance of a northern people. Farming: the patient work of nature’s stewards. Fatherhood: the primal calling to selfless nurture and protection. Even Canola: the quintessential expression of a nation’s self-reliant, can-do ingenuity.

Only problem is, it’s all bunk. Sometimes a man standing on a bluff is just that — a man standing on a bluff.

For nearly 20 years since Robert Latimer asphyxiated his disabled daughter Tracy in 1993, people with deep understandings of disability have laboured to call that bluff. Yet our efforts in this regard are perpetually undercut by the powerful cultural memes that are so skillfully reproduced in this short segment of the faux-documentary, Taking Mercy.

A meme, according to Malcolm Gladwell, “is an idea that behaves like a virus – that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects”. Memes build and mutate from what is comfortable and familiar. Conjure up a man who works the soil with his hands, a man who stands erect against the wind, a man who holds his rightful place on the rugged plains of the western frontier. Say no more. We know this man, this farmer, this father, this Canadian.

But this man, in this frame, a killer?  Now it is not just one man who stands sullied. Suddenly, the memes that sustain his ‘salt-of-the-earth’ persona are sorely threatened. The stakes are high. The wagons circle. Dip the killer in a redemptive wash of mercy and all is secure again in a small and tidy world. If Tracy’s death was merciful, then the crime of murder, like a mutating meme, becomes an honourable act that more comfortably settles on the shoulders of the noble figure in the landscape.

I’ve had many occasions to voice my outrage at Robert Latimer’s crime, and my horror at the wave of support that rose as his arrest and multiple trials turned through the cycles of front page news. Tracy is 19 years dead. Robert is again a free man, after 7 years in prison, and 2 ½ years on day parole.

I have no desire to rekindle the flame of this man’s still unrepentant posture that ending Tracy’s life was a blameless act. My quarrel here is not with a Saskatchewan farmer, or an Ontario mother, or any other horribly misguided parent seeking to end the life of a disabled child. My quarrel is with the clichés and platitudes that both foster and condone a very particular homicidal impulse. It is a preposterous notion that Tracy’s life did not conform to the law of nature that Robert somehow epitomizes.  The simplistic morality of pitting the “law of nature” against the “law of a nation” – the core assertion of Global’s Taking Mercy – must be exposed for what it is: a fundamentally eugenic rhetoric.

Meme-makers and media moguls, take heed. Return with us to that escarpment. Dress us in Gore-Tex and Lycra, and frame us in the dusky rose glow of evening. Fill our lungs with clean, sharp air and thrill our senses with the chatter of small hungry creatures. Haul the gear that we live by – our wheelchairs, ventilators, feeding pumps – on the same rail that carries the HD gear to capture your beauty shot. Imagine us – find us – alive and fully in our element, and witness the unfolding of a new narrative. Poised on this mighty landscape, all crumpled and decrepit and gorgeous, we dare you to doubt our will for life.

We cannot have Tracy back. But we can and shall have back this landscape. We can and shall reject the dangerous notion that Robert’s life is natural, and that Tracy’s somehow was not. We can and shall reclaim, for the young prairie woman of 32 who would have been Tracy Latimer, a place among the Maples.

My letter of complaint to Global will be posted shortly on the Supplementals page. Meanwhile, I hope you will check out some of the resources linked to the Sources page, and consider adding your own take.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. As a disabled person who has been dependent on a ventilator for over 30 years, I can tell you that Latimer is nothing less than a cold-blooded murderer. In our community, he and people like him (Jack Kevorkian, etc.) are considered to be dangerous predators.

    There is absolutely no way that killing a disabled person can be considered to be showing “mercy”, and it scares us tremendously that so many able-bodied people seem to think it is mercy to murder us.

    May 15, 2013
  2. On the good news front, a young girl in Philadelphia who was denied a kidney transplant (allegedly and with strong evidence that is was due to her having Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome) is now to receive it (from her mother). This is because regular citizens spoke out and said it was not for those doctors to decide the girl’s life was worth less

    August 13, 2012
  3. Etta #

    The recent BC decision on “assisted suicide” continues the destruction of the “landscape”. Thank you Catherine.

    July 29, 2012
  4. Did Robert Latimer intentionally end the life of his young daughter with CP, Tracy, by having her breathe in a lethal amount of carbon monoxide? Undeniably, yes! It is at that juncture that my agreement with your thesis ceases. We are unable to seek the man’s heart, we are unable to judge his compassion or empathy or love; or the lack of all three qualities. Judgement should be reserved for a higher power….
    I am the father of a severely disabled son whom I have loving cared for 14 years and hopefully for many years longer. Will I allow him to be institutionalized? Left laying in urine and feces? Left prey to the rampant physical and sexual abuse of institutions? In adequately touched, and turned to prevent bed sores? Unstimulated by human communication and human love? NO!
    Do I agree with Latimer? No! Do I agree with the legal consequences of his actions? Yes! Will I ever question his motivation or his love for his daughter? Unequivocally, NO. Will I condemn him and state that his actions de-value disability? NO!
    I have lived in this world long enough not to judge parents of disabled kids/adults…I am not god! I have learned to make No assumptions about parents of disabled kids. No answer is simple, the regurgitation of a meme or a moral imperative. It is….sorry!

    July 27, 2012
    • So we are not to judge a parent of child with a disability because they are a parent of a child with a disability. And who speaks for the child that is being abused, neglected, or, in this case, murdered? If a parent of a non-disabled child gassed their child to death, would the reaction be different? I think it would. And I think that is what is so very wrong with suggesting that Robert Latimer, through his continuing public campaign with a focus on HIS IMAGE, is not doing great harm to all people with disabilities, and by extension, harming our entire society by clearly suggesting that the murder of child with a disability is of lesser consequence.

      August 6, 2012
      • @ Mr. Wellar
        I have cared and still do for my son who is 27 who cannot speak, cannot move, is bound by spasticity and contracture and needs EVERY physical and spiritual function loving attended to every minute of every day. These choices give me the right to share my beliefs about nonjudgementalism, relativism of decision making and intractable pain. I believe that parents like me speak for their children and gods judge if that speech is genuine and true. It is a very fine line …

        August 6, 2012
      • Unless God is going to start directly intervening to stop the murder of children with disabilities, then I’m going to continue with the unbending view that they have the fundamental right to live (and not be murdered). Every person who commits a murder often has a compelling story of mitigating circumstances that I can’t speak to personally, but that does not trump the right for the victim to continue living. But to share a bit of insight into my own viewpoint which is not borne of total ignorance, after Tracy was murdered, someone close to me who has multiple disabilities (but is able to verbalize) said (paraphrasing) “that could be me…am I next?” well I am not comfortable with any response to that other than what you see here – the murder of a person with a disability must NOT be of lesser consequence than the murder of others.

        August 6, 2012
  5. This is wonderful, truly highlights the cultural response to a horrible crime.

    July 12, 2012
  6. Thank you Catherine. The frustration continues. It was simply decided by mass media that Tracy’s life did not have value and the murderer Robert Latimer was therefore just a victim of difficult circumstances. The perpetrators of this criminally false tale have never challenged themselves to address the reality that if this had not been a child with a disability, Robert Latimer would have been pilloried without any consideration of his feelings or hardships whatsoever. Instead, Tracy’s life is nothing, and Robert Latimer is the victim.

    July 11, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The Merciful Length of a Life: Ex-Human Rights Commissioner on The Corriveau and Latimer Decision. | IBEX Inclusion Blog – A blog about developmental services, employee engagement, leadership and our services
  2. “A fundamentally eugenic rhetoric” « What Sorts of People

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