Volunteer spotlight: Anne James
Personal Stories | September 22, 2023 | Sarah Dobec
Dying With Dignity Canada’s longevity and success is due in large part to the many volunteers who work on the local and at the regional level. We have Chapters across the country powered by people passionate about end-of-life choice.
Throughout the year, we will be highlighting the stories and contributions of DWDC’s volunteers, and what motivates them to give of their time to our organization. This is Anne’s story.
Anne James has volunteered with Dying With Dignity Canada (DWDC) since April 2017. Anne had a dear friend who had suffered at her end of life before Canada’s medical assistance in dying (MAID) legislation came into effect in 2016. When Anne learned about DWDC and its mandate, she felt compelled to get involved. Since then, Anne has been an Independent Witness for 432 people across the province of Ontario. This number has likely increased since our interview because she is a very active volunteer.
“My first witnessing was in Ajax, back when I was willing to drive that far, and I went with a wonderful young man that I have stayed in touch with. Then COVID happened and now I strictly do them over Zoom.”
Independent Witnessing is an important safeguard in the MAID application process. As an unbiased person who will not benefit from the applicant’s death, witnesses ensure that an applicant fully understands the legal document required by the province. It’s a technical step in the MAID process, However there is also a compassionate service provided by DWDC volunteers.
“There are guidelines on how we perform the Independent Witnessing task, but there is a human element that is a little different every time. Some people are quiet, some want to talk – often not about MAID – and some are quite sick, so we enter each situation with compassion. I always speak with a quiet and caring voice and make no assumptions about the situation. I’m being invited into such a sacred space, so I am always honoured to provide this simple service to people who have made a very courageous decision.”
It’s a witness that goes in, but the person that comes out.
One experience Anne recounted was very unique. “It was a few years ago when the law required two witnesses for each request form. An older couple in their 90s, who had both been experiencing health issues, were applying for MAID. The DWDC head office wasn’t sure if they should send two or four Independent Witnesses, so they sent four of us to be sure. When we arrived the couple were welcoming, offered us drinks; they even made us cookies. We did our job and when we left, we gathered briefly at the end of their driveway. It’s hard to explain but we all just felt full, full of love. And that’s why I do this.
Later, the couple’s story was published in the Toronto Star. They were both approved for MAID. Two days before their provisions, they had a party, the night before they went out to one of Toronto’s best restaurants, and the next day they left this world together.”
The role of the Independent Witness occurs once a person has decided they want to be assessed for MAID; you are called to join the person in the beginning of the journey. Anne is also interested in educating people about MAID. “I don’t think enough people know about their rights as a patient and that an assisted death is a legal option in Canada for those who are eligible. I take every opportunity to talk to people and have even organized a presentation in my building for my neighbours. I take my advocacy work seriously, and I feel honoured to participate in this important cause.”