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Jim Woodford, who advocated for the right to die, lost his battle with cancer Saturday

Orillia Packet & Times

March 17, 2015

Roberta Bell

When Jim Woodford found out he was dying, he knew it was time to take up a cause that had been close to his heart for years.

And the sicker he got, the harder he fought.

“People like myself — of sound mind — should be able to choose the way they want to die,” Woodford told The Packet & Times in January. “We have a bill of rights. I have the right to do many things.”

Woodford died Saturday from untreatable cancer, two weeks shy of his 85th birthday, as he wanted to: in his Sugarbush home with his wife of 56 years, Pat, and two daughters, Lynn and Beth, by his side.

The crusade for right to die — to be able to choose to put an end to suffering when it becomes too much to bear — was one Woodford became passionate about in the early 1970s while watching his father’s long and drawn-out battle with lung cancer.

In February, Supreme Court justices unanimously upheld an appeal to the law that makes doctor-assisted suicide illegal and gave federal and provincial governments a year to rewrite legislation to that effect.

Pat said that when the change happens, there’s comfort in knowing her husband, who, in recent months, was vocal about not only his right to die, but that of others in similar situations, contributed.

“He was good at that — picking times for causes that would certainly make a difference,” his daughter, Lynn, said, curled up in the same spot on the same couch her father had been a month and a half earlier when The Packet & Times visited.

“He always had a cause,” Pat added.

Woodford, born March 29, 1930, in Toronto, was an outspoken lifelong environmentalist.

He was inspired in elementary school by a teacher with an affinity for birdwatching and took up the hobby himself. One of his first jobs at the Royal Ontario Museum, which he did while taking biology classes part-time at the University of Toronto, demanded the expertise he’d accumulated in that area. He went on to become the executive director of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists (now Ontario Nature).

When Lynn and Beth, now 51 and 52, respectively, were children, the family did a lot of camping, hiking and, of course, birdwatching.

Before the expeditions, Woodford and his wife would brush up on their bird songs.

During one trip, Beth called her father’s bluff.

“She saw what was singing and he said it was the wrong thing,” Pat said with a laugh. “But usually, he was pretty good.”

At night in the tent, Woodford would tell his daughters stories.

“He was a very funny man,” Lynn said, recalling one called Suzy Somebody who Sewed Seaweed Satchels.

“There was one about a mouse that wished he was a moose,” piped in Pat. “It was very boring when I’d read a story at night.”

In 1972, Woodford wrote his first book. It was on the Arctic and titled Violated Vision: The Rape of Canada’s North.

“Dad was never subtle. He was always clear about what he thought,” Lynn said.

When Woodford technically retired in 1995 from conservation-related work and writing (he wrote a number of other books, including, unsurprisingly, a series on the nation’s birds), he went back to school and earned a diploma in addictions counselling.

He worked for years in the detox units at Toronto Western and St. Michael’s hospitals, often with homeless patients struggling with alcoholism.

“He always connected to the humanity in someone, regardless of their circumstances,” Lynn said. “That was something that was really great about him.”

Locally, Woodford volunteered with Hospice Orillia, then in the palliative care ward at Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital.

“His whole life, he’s had that feeling around suffering and not wanting people to suffer,” Lynn said.

It’s likely what drove his environmental activism as well.

“He certainly was concerned about the Earth and future generations,” Lynn said.

The inscription in Woodford’s first book, the one about degradation in the Arctic, was to his daughters, who he said were “two good reasons to care.”

Woodford is survived by Pat, Lynn and Beth, sons-in-law Petr Hejny and Tom Forbes and grandchildren Guthrie, Silas, Matt, Shannon, Sam and Hayley, all of whom were by his side in his final days.

“That meant more to him at the end then anything else,” Pat said.

At Woodford’s request, his body has been donated to the University of Ottawa’s medical school, where Beth studied, for research.

A celebration of his life will be held at Carden Alvar — one of his favourite places (the Canadian Arctic being another) — in late May, when the weather is nicer, the flowers are in bloom and the birds are singing.

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