Disability Day of Mourning: Online vigils remember those killed by caregivers

Published March 1, 2021 6:42 p.m. ET

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SASKATOON -- Instead of gathering at in-person vigils across the country, due to the pandemic many in Canada and around the world observed International Disability Day of Mourning online and remembered disabled people who’ve been killed by family and caregivers.

Hundreds of people have shared their thoughts and remembrances online using the hashtag DisabilityDayofMourning, including Canadian advocate Kim Sauder, who hosts the blog Crippled Scholar.

She told CTVNews.ca by phone on Monday that this day is when “disabled people all around the world commemorate and mourn disabled people who’ve been murdered.”

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U.S. blogger and disability rights advocate Imani Barbarin said these deaths are far too often dismissed or not taken seriously and that is why she and others are emboldened to “hold fast” against those who try to erase the experiences of disabled people today.

There are no definitive national statistics in Canada on the number of disabled people killed by their caregivers or someone they trusted.

But since mid-2014, the U.S.-based Disability Day of Mourning website has been cataloging the deaths from around the world. It contains descriptions of who the victims were, as well as associated news stories, court filings or obituaries.

The website’s recorded cases date back to 1982 and those from Canada include the death of Inuk father Levi Illingayuk, whose son was convicted of manslaughter in 2018; Newfoundland woman Ryanna Grywacheski, who was killed in 2017; and Ontario woman Terri-Lynn Thompson, who was killed in 2019.

The website notes more than 60 people with disabilities in Canada have been killed since at least 1992, but it states that many deaths go unreported.

“A lot more needs to be done to recognize the realities of living while disabled and to ameliorate the horrific gaps when it comes to abuse so that disabled people can live more equally,” said Sauder, who is unaffiliated with the website.


Annual vigils -- whose origins can be traced back to 2012 in the U.S. -- are typically held in major cities across the country, including Toronto and in Burnaby, B.C,

But this year, instead of attending a gathering, Sauder took to her YouTube page to read out loud the names of 1,510 people who’ve died since the 1970s.

“I felt that it was really important to still have something to put out that put all the names out there,” she said.

Last year, at a vigil in Burnaby, B.C., organizers of advocacy group Autistics United Canada read 61 names from across the country, with some deaths dating back to the 1940s. But due to the pandemic, the Vancouver-based group held a virtual ceremony of remembrance over Zoom this year, as a way to “honour and remember” those who were killed.

Organizer Vivian Ly told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview that media and non-disabled folks far too often sympathize with the murderers rather than the victims, with some still using outdated terms such as "mercy killings.”

Ly said the pandemic has forced people to feel the “weight of all the lives that we’ve lost due to the pandemic, especially disabled lives. People who were disproportionately impacted by government policies regarding critical care, triage protocols, and financial supports.”

Trans disability advocate, Corin de Freitas, tweeted a similar sentiment in their own observance of the day. De Freitas, who uses the pronoun “they” said this year they were “thinking also about caregiving in the context of community care and the wholesale abandonment of disabled [people] in this pandemic.”

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Sarah Jama, the founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario, told CTVNews.ca over Twitter that her group co-hosted an in-person, physically distanced vigil in downtown Ottawa on Monday. She said her grief also extends to disabled folks -- and those with mental illness -- who’ve died in government-run institutions or at the hands of police.

“We grieve for the disabled comrades who died in long-term care homes because their lives mattered less to decision makers.”

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Disability advocate Sauder said the untimely deaths of disabled people have been weighing on her mind since she was extremely young. She vividly remembers the 1993 news coverage of Canadian farmer Robert Latimer, who was convicted of second-degree murder in the death of his daughter Tracy, who had cerebral palsy.

At the time, the murder sparked an ongoing debate on the ethics of euthanasia, with a 1999 Ipsos poll finding that 73 per cent of Canadians at the time believed he acted out of compassion.

“There’s a lot of empathy for parents. The assumption is that they are driven to it or that the children were ‘obviously’ suffering,” said Sauder, who urged people to use the Disability Day of Mourning and beyond to evaluate whether they consciously or unconsciously allow those sentiments to still linger today.

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