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