Warning: this story deals with topics some readers may find distressing, including suicide. The Alberta Health Services Mental Health Help Line can be reached at 1-877-303-2642. The Veterans Affairs Canada Crisis Line is 1-800-268-7708.
Four years after decorated Canadian Armed Forces veteran Ken Chan shot himself on the steps of the Alberta Legislature, his widow still has questions.
Retired and living in British Columbia, Judy Chan said the shock of his sudden, very public 2019 suicide is still with her sometimes.
“Even after all these years now, it just doesn’t seem real,” she said.
She’ll hear some bit of news and say to herself, “I’ll have to let Ken know.”
An army-green poster decorated with medals at the Veterans Association food bank in Edmonton tells the story of Ken Chan — and urges despondent veterans to reach out for help.
Especially around Remembrance Day, Judy Chan feels for other veterans.
She donated the huge Canadian flag that canopies from the ceiling at the Veterans Association food bank, 18504 111Ave.
Right after Ken’s death, she gave $50 gift cards to vets living in a care home in Edmonton, and $1,000 in gift cards for inclusion in Christmas hampers for veterans.
“It was appropriate because Ken was a veteran and he probably would have done it himself,” she said.
‘The most gentle soul’
The Chans met in 1992. He was a vehicle technician stationed with the armed services in Petawawa, Ont., with eight years to retirement.
She was waiting tables and coming out of an abusive marriage.
The man so gentle he “wouldn’t even pull the leg off a spider” was her soulmate.
“He was the most gentle soul you ever would have met,” said Judy. “Everything we did was together — we always finished each other’s sentences.”
Ken Chan retired in 2000, and went to work in the trucking industry, first driving dangerous goods and then loading and unloading for others at refineries, she said.
He didn’t have an easy life.
Kenneth Bo Ling Chan was born to Chinese immigrants in Montreal. His mother was in an iron lung for a while, and he went into foster homes.
He went from high school to the military, and then overseas to places like Bosnia and Cyprus.
“When he was in Cyprus, they got lost and went over a line they weren’t supposed to. When the Cypriots found them, they pointed rifles right on their heads,” Judy said.
After his retirement from the military, a bad case of Bell’s palsy threw Ken Chan for a loop.
“He couldn’t kiss, or drink from one side of his mouth — it bothered him that he couldn’t kiss,” she recalled.
Around 2014, he got her a rescue dog from Puerto Vallarta — a wire-haired Jack Russell terrier they named Uno, “so I wouldn’t be alone,” Judy said.
Then, a puzzling disconnect. Ken Chan withdrew suddenly and firmly from everyone close to him.
“He stayed in touch with his siblings, until he disowned us all five years ago,” Judy said.
“He had shut a door. They couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t talking to them. He had wiped all of us out of his life. Then he kept more to himself,” she recalls.
“It was almost like he went out one door and I went out the other … like you were walking on glass. No more hugs, no nothing.”
Still, there was that underlying kindness she so admired in her husband.
“He was always helping people. He did a lot of volunteering, and he was always donating for this and that,” she said.
Ken volunteered for animal causes.
He paid for a friend’s wedding, and bought a grad dress for a friend’s daughter.
“If he had any concerns, he hid them very well,” Judy said. “He’d be the last person you’d expect to commit suicide.”
Decisions before death
In retrospect, however, Ken Chan seemed to have made some decisions in the days leading up to his death.
A competitive target shooter, one day that fall he packed up his rifles and re-loaders and gave them to a friend, Judy recalls.
“My eyes aren’t as good as they were, so I’m giving these away,” he told her.
He kept just one pistol.
The Chans had been to a funeral that November, and on the way home, he said he wanted to get her a new outfit “just in case you have to go to another funeral.”
“He took me to buy clothes for his funeral,” she realized, looking back.
Ken even wrote his own eulogy — it was written in third-person, as if for someone else.
“He killed himself on Monday, and pulled an all-nighter the night before, typing up his eulogy,” Judy said.
The day that Ken shot himself with his last pistol on the steps of the Alberta Legislature, Judy Chan had a sense that something was amiss, and when the news broke, she knew.
“They said somebody shot himself on the steps of the Alberta Legislature — and I said, ‘That’s Ken,’ and sure enough,” she said.
He had written a suicide letter and addressed it to 43 people.
In the end, one issue was most important to him.
His oldest sister had MS, so he wanted better help for others like her with Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID), Judy said.
Ken Chan sent a letter to the health ministry before his death, she said.
He chose Dec. 2 at the Legislature because they were debating a bill regarding better help for people that wanted assistance in death, she said.
“Maybe he was just crying for help. I don’t know, and I’ll never know.”