Interview with Shanaaz Gokool – CEO, Dying With Dignity Canada

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Shanaaz Gokool is the CEO of Dying With Dignity Canada. Here we talk about her work, role, and views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: To begin, so some of the readership knows where you’re coming from and how you came to be a leader in the Dying With Dignity Canada movement, what was upbringing like with family background? Was religion in it? Were human rights activists in it? And so on.

Shanaaz Gokool: It is interesting that you ask that. So, my background is in human rights activism. I like to tell people that I started my career in Nova Scotia while I was a high school student working on issues around race and inclusion and diversity.

I was part of an organization called The Cultural Awareness Youth Group. It was primarily for black high school students. It started off in Halifax, Dartmouth and went across the province. What is really interesting about that program, is that we did debates, events, conferences.

I was part of the program in the 80s, mid-80s. Most of the students who were part of the program of the time have done some interesting things with their lives. That is when I became aware of issues arounds human rights.

Partly because my parents are from the Caribbean, I was born in Trinidad. My mother is Indian-South Asian descent and Muslim. My father is a mix of South Asian, Black, and Christian. When you grow up in a household like that, there is always a balancing of rights.

Being bi-racial and bi-religious, has shaped how I view the world. What I find helpful now is that my mother is still Muslim, my father passed many years ago, and I am an atheist. But I have a real respect for people who are religious because of my parents.

A lot of the messaging we do at DWDC on around assisted dying, relates to access issues. I am very conscious of people who have a deep faith. I am very conscious that my mother is a Muslim in support of assisted dying.

That you don’t have to choose in many instances between faith and assisted dying; quite often, it is the leaders of the groups who are far more vocal and opposed. But when you start looking at who their flock is, generally, you find that they are like the rest of Canada, so they have the same belief systems as the rest of us and the same support or close to the same support levels for assisted dying.

I feel that has been helpful for me in balancing. I know a number of atheists. I know some angry atheists, for good reason [Laughing], right? People have their own stances and experiences and it really shapes how they view the world.

I am not an angry atheist. I respect religion for those who believe because I feel often a little bit of jealousy because I wish I had that comfort [Laughing]. I don’t have that. If you are an atheist and don’t have children, the future is grim.

There is no afterlife for you to go to. You don’t have children who will carry on your hopes. For me, that just means you do the best you can with what you’ve got because this is what you’ve got. I don’t know if that is more information than what you needed to know [Laughing].

Jacobsen: It reminds of when I talked to Lawrence Hill who authored The Book of Negroes. He noted in his own upbringing. His own father and mother were in an interracial marriage, but they were both atheists.

When I reflect on your own personal narrative, your own parents – father being Christian and mother being Muslim, but then being biracial too. It is an added dynamic because it is not a political belief.

It is a comprehensive worldview belief with a host of suggested practices that take, for the most part, up an entire person’s life. So, it is an interesting dynamic for someone growing up.

Gokool: Even my parents getting married in the Caribbean, when it was a thing, I tease my mother about it. My dad was Anglican. It was decided by both parents at some point when I was a little girl with three other siblings that we have to have some form of religious education.

They thought this was an important thing. They decided on a mosque. There was only one in Halifax, but they found it was too political. My father found a Pentecostal Church. The only reason we went to that every Sunday and Sunday school was because they sent a bus and then he didn’t have to drive [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Gokool: There were enough reasons with the understanding of the bases of Western democracy and Christian that he wasn’t too choosy about which branch of Christianity. It was just really funny. I went to church, but the church had a bus and so I went because of the bus.

If you go to a Baptist Church in Nova Scotia, a black Baptist Church; those are fun. It is a different kind of experience. I don’t go to church here, but I did not some research projects in the black community as a teenager. One Summer, I went to church at North Preston almost every Sunday. It was fun. It was very lively.

Jacobsen: This continued into your undergraduate education. You did political science, human rights, and equity studies.

Gokool: Yes, at York University, I went back to school as a mature student. I went back twice in the 90s and then 2009/10 to do the degree in human rights and equity studies. By then, I had left the private sector in 2006 and wanted to transition to the not-for-profit sector.

When I came to Toronto, a lot of the activism that I did fell to the wayside as I tried to find my way and struggled. So, in 2006, I left the private sector and discovered through a series of informational interviews a bunch of health-related and disease-related organizations, specifically, and social justice interviews.

I used to know about Amnesty International because my dad would take me to these conferences when I was a little girl. There was always someone there signing these petitions. It was kind of funny in a way when I started working for Amnesty for a few years, about 5 in total while I was still in school.

I think that in that work in particular- I have also worked for Lead Now for a while- shaped my human rights lens. It is the most obvious sort of pieces that I have brought to Dying With Dignity Canada.

We updated our objects of incorporation to reflect human rights work. That the work that we do on assisted dying, whether we’re talking about the eligibility criteria or the access issues that affect people all across the country.

That we look at that through a human rights lens. I feel that that experience with Amnesty prepared for my current work and to discuss this issue as a human rights issues. That feel that that is a contribution that we have made over the past few years.

Every now and then, I will see an article. In Australia, they just passed legislation. I read an article that said ‘finally a human right that I can get behind’ in reference to assisted dying. I was like “Where did they get that language from?”

In other jurisdictions where they have assisted dying, they tend not to frame it that way. But I cannot imagine framing it any other way. I think that is the role of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has played in the legalization of assisted dying in this country.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a document about balancing the fundament rights of Canadians and those rights are human rights. It all fit naturally for the organization. We transitioned quite easily into a human rights organization.

It is nice to see other jurisdictions to use the language that we use here in Canada. I think, “That is exactly how we should look at this.” It is about the autonomy of the body and the ability to make choices for yourself, as your own person – in your own personal medical circumstances.

That is something that I think has been interesting and fascinating and is great to see so many other Canadians identifying with this issue that way as well.

Jacobsen: At the start of the interview, we mentioned the early work as a human rights activist. You recently mentioned the “human rights lens.” I note two points of contact or more properly conflict with human rights lens of a secular international human rights lens on the one side and the transcendental moral law lens on the other.

From the outside, as a non-expert, view, I note those as two points of conflict inside the country and outside of it when it comes to physician-assisted suicide or the dying with dignity movement.

Gokool: Yes, there is a natural conflict. I think that it is really problematic when we look at certain contexts, whether religious or political or otherwise, and don’t apply them to the context of the day.

I don’t actually see a conflict. Maybe, it is because I think there is a conflict with certain people, with certain backgrounds and views. Sometimes, opposition to assisted dying: is it always religious? For some, it is moral. Maybe, the sense of morality has religious roots. It can be a little bit more nuanced than that.

When I look at my own other and I look at people of faith that I know who still support assisted dying, and who still support of people in the queer community to have access to healthcare that they need, and the rights of women around reproductive rights, I think that there is enough evidence.

When I say “evidence,” 85% of Canadians support assisted dying. Many of those people self-identify as having some sort of faith. I don’t know the overall numbers in Canada of people who support that identify with a particular faith.

But I think for most people that there isn’t a conflict, but for the leaders of those organizations; they’ve created a conflict. It is an unnecessary one. It is one that can result in very coercive behaviours when it comes to people who suffering.

I don’t know why. I don’t know if it is that there are just a few areas of authority that some religious groups want to cling to. But I will tell you why the support is so high in Canada and in other places.

We have done some polling, where I think it is 78% of people who identify as Roman Catholic support assisted dying. It is the one human right with so much support. It is a rare human right in this way. I worked on the death penalty and polling on abortion. I worked on other campaigns against the Guantanamo Bay prison detention facilities. When you see public polling on these issues, you do not see 85% against the death penalty for instance. You don’t see it that high. In Canada, though, you do see high support for assisted dying.

My response to that many people don’t know people in prison or on death row in another part of the world. You may not know or have a mother, sister, or friend, you yourself may not have had any example of asserting your human rights.

You may not know someone who is transitioning. Yet, the one thing we know that comes for everyone [Laughing] is death. I think that’s why you have this disconnect between the majority supporting assisted dying and the small minority who doesn’t.

Death is like the great equalizer in some ways. It is going to come for us all. We haven’t found a clever way to outsmart it. Technology and medicine have done that in some ways. But at the end of the day, everyone dies.

At the end of the day, everyone experiences it. If you have been alive, you will die.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Gokool: I think that when you look at your own personal circumstances. Some people think, “It isn’t going to happen.” But you don’t until you’re in those circumstances or a loved one is in those circumstances.

You really don’t know. I tell people all of the time, “I don’t want to have an assisted death. Are you nuts?! I don’t want to be in the position of intolerable suffering where that is my option out.” However, I am relieved that it is there as a choice for me.

In that position, I am relieved for everyone since I am able to access an assisted death. But personally, I don’t want to have intolerable suffering. Thank you very much [Laughing]. Often, I don’t find that funny.

But I work and campaign on this and am passionate, but I don’t want to be in that position. I think that’s how most people feel. Who wants the suffering in their life? That is where the comfort comes in.

You know that if you are in that position or have a loved one in that position, then there is a better option. That is why assisted dying is so meaningful.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Shanaaz.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

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