Personal stories drive assisted dying documentary ‘Road to Mercy’

DWDC supporters and staff make cameos in the film, which debuted on CBC TV in October.

It was an opportunity we just couldn’t pass up.

In 2015, Dying With Dignity Canada received a message from a group of filmmakers looking to create a documentary that would challenge viewers to think more deeply about assisted dying. Led by award-winning director Nadine Pequeneza, the team sought to produce a film that would examine the coming legalization of assisted dying in Canada by focusing on the individuals most desperate for choice. 

“They asked me whether DWDC could put them in touch with Canadians who were waiting for change and were willing to share their plight with the rest of the country,” said Cory Ruf, DWDC’s communications coordinator. “Sensing a genuine desire to go deep and get the story right, I knew in an instant that I would want to help them out however I could.”

The resulting documentary, Road to Mercy, premiered on CBC Firsthand in early October. The film offers a compassionate take on the issue of assisted dying, ultimately treating the end-of-life option as a merciful act while also suggesting that the practice represents Canada’s “journey into the furthest ethical frontier.”

While a number of documentaries have covered the right-to-die movement in Canada, Road to Mercy is the first to take a deep dive into the recent debate over this country’s new federal assisted dying legislation. To fuel the discussion, the film features the stories of individuals who want access to assisted dying, but for very different reasons. One participant was Amy De Schutter, a 29-year-old woman from Belgium who has suffered from mental illness for more than half her life. Another was the late John Tuckwell, a long-time Alberta government spokesperson who had ALS and who died before the release of the film.

“In these very early days, we know that the way assisted dying is talked about and explained in the mainstream will have a significant impact on how accessible and available it is moving forward,” Ruf said. “If people see the very real trials and tribulations that some Canadians have to face when weighing their end-of-life options, they might take a different perspective on who should ultimately be able to access this right.”

DWDC CEO Shanaaz Gokool and Personal Support Manager Nino Sekopet appear in the full 83-minute director’s cut of the documentary. They — along with Jack Brown, an Ontario man grappling with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and his wife Riemke — speak passionately about why Canadians should be allowed to make advance requests for assisted dying. However, most of this narrative was cut from the CBC broadcast, as the film had to be edited down to fit Firsthand’s one-hour timeslot.

To celebrate the launch of the film, DWDC hosted a special screening of Road to Mercy on Oct. 5, the day before its television debut. More than 100 Toronto-area supporters came out to a downtown theatre to watch the film. They were then treated to a live Q&A discussion with director Pequeneza and five people who appeared in the documentary. Gokool, Sekopet, patient rights advocate Maureen Taylor, and John Tuckwell’s sister, Cathy, were in attendance, as was De Schutter, who had flown in from Belgium to help promote Road to Mercy’s release.

“Having all those people together in one room was just unbelievable. That’s something that will never happen again,” Ruf said. 

“It was an incredible experience to be involved in a project in a small way at its genesis and then to celebrate its release with the people who made it and the people whose stories brought it to life.”