Breaking down barriers, one headline at a time

Working to expose injustice in the Canadian healthcare system has brought DWDC’s Cory Ruf back to his journalistic roots, he writes.

My friends sometimes ask me whether I regret quitting journalism almost three years ago to join the team at Dying With Dignity Canada.

Regret quitting journalism? It feels like I never left.

The truth is, I’m busier now breaking meaty stories than I was during my days scribbling for mainstream news outlets. In my job as DWDC’s communications officer, there’s never any shortage of opportunities to use my skills as a journalist to shed light on injustice. And if the events of the last six months are any indication, this trend shows no sign of going away.

One of the most important scoops of my career came via a call I received this June. It was from a man in Winnipeg who wanted to alert our organization to a situation that was brewing in his city. The board of a local public hospital, the source said, had voted in late May to allow assisted dying on its premises. The vote came after months of internal discussions at St. Boniface Hospital about the harms of requiring desperately ill patients to be transferred off-site to receive, or even be assessed for, medical assistance in dying (MAID).

But the policy to allow assisted dying in “rare circumstances only” was short-lived. The Catholic Health Corporation of Manitoba (CHCM), a faith-based organization that oversees more than a dozen publicly funded healthcare facilities in the province, responded by adding new members to St. Boniface’s board and forcing a new vote. Just like that, the hospital’s ban on MAID was back in place only days after it had been lifted.

This turn of events infuriated our source, whom I’ll call Peter. He had internal documents describing how St. Boniface’s MAID ban had harmed dying patients, traumatized their families and upset hospital staff. In one instance, a patient went into medical distress while being transferred for a MAID assessment and then died “naturally” hours after arriving at the receiving site. In effect, the hospital’s policy deprived this poor soul of his or her right to a peaceful death.

Over the next few days, Peter and I developed a plan for how we would bring these allegations to light. With the help of DWDC’s Winnipeg chapter, we approached Jane Gerster, health reporter with the Winnipeg Free Press, with the eye-popping allegations. The exposé she wrote made the newspaper’s front page the very next day.

Local story, national implications

The restacking of St. Boniface’s board to quash assisted dying has attracted national attention, and for good reason. The CHCM’s actions are a blatant example of a large, unaccountable institution going to great lengths to keep MAID out of its facilities, at the expense of its most vulnerable patients. The debacle raises tough questions about whether it’s appropriate to allow the politics of a public healthcare institution to impede Canadians’ right to MAID.

Helping Peter raise the alarm was exhilarating, yes, but there’s so much more we must do to alert Canadians to this kind of injustice. Accordingly, we have made a public call asking more whistleblowers to come forward. We have filed a series of Freedom-of-Information requests in our search for public documents that show how facilities’ MAID policies affect patient care. In addition, we are encouraging our supporters to find out where assisted dying is, or is not, available in their local communities. The data they gather gets plugged into DWDC’s Shine a Light Progress Map, which itself has been the subject of a number of news stories.

Dealing with confidential sources, mining public documents, engaging audiences to produce crowd-sourced digital maps — this is what investigative journalism looks like in the 21st century. In my case, I get to do it as part of a team that couldn’t be more passionate, talented and supportive. Better still, my job puts me in contact with DWDC supporters from across the country.

You can see now why I chuckle when I’m asked whether I regret “quitting journalism.” At DWDC, I get to bust out my reporting chops and use them in service of a cause that matters a great deal to me. I consider it an immense privilege to be involved in this work, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to do it.