The Doc Project

How Quebec's 'poet coroner' uses language to honour the dead

Dr. Jacques Ramsay chooses his words carefully, because he knows that families read his coroner reports, looking for answers.

Doctor Jacques Ramsay estimates he's written over 2,000 reports on deaths in Quebec

Doctor Jacques Ramsay at a walk-in clinic in Longueuil, Que. Ramsay works as a coroner part-time, and works as a doctor in several clinics around Montreal. (Andrea Bellemare/CBC)

By Andrea Bellemare

Even though I often write about death in my job as a journalist, it tends to be more factual than emotive.

This person was killed in a car accident, I might write.

Or, another pedestrian was struck in a crosswalk. Their age, the location and the date.

I am usually given the bare facts about the death, from the police or the coroner. But after reading 59 coroner's reports over the course of a few days, I realized how little I actually knew about death. How little the real details come through in the dry language that police use when sending out media releases.

I got a real eyeful reading those coroner's reports. I was researching a story about how often cyclists are killed when struck by heavy trucks or tractor trailers, and what happens when they do.

I discovered how much is omitted from standard police reports about road accidents, accidents that are horribly gruesome and traumatic.

I also took note of how the reports were written — how the people who died were described, how the accidents occurred, and what could be done to prevent similar accidents.

Dr. Jacques Ramsay stands outside Montreal's only children's palliative care clinic. Ramsay works here, as well as at two other walk-in clinics, in addition to his part-time duties as a coroner. (Andrea Bellemare/CBC)

I mentioned to a colleague how one coroner in particular was talking about the very foundations of our society, questioning what we want our values to be, how we want to live.

This coroner's language spoke to me because it is similar to what we aspire to as journalists, questioning the ways things are done, and providing a critical eye to the way things are.

He's like Quebec's poet coroner!

"He's like Quebec's poet coroner!" my colleague said. Then he remembered another report that this coroner, Jacques Ramsay, had written, and started looking it up.

We're journalists, we get excited about words. This is not an unusual conversation to have in a newsroom.

But more than that, I was intrigued. Coroner's reports are not easy or light reading. Who was this person who put so much effort into work that relatively few people will see?

Months later, I sit in Doctor Jacques Ramsay's office at the only palliative care centre in Montreal for children.

I ask him to read reports he had written, the same reports that I had pored over in researching my story.

"How did you know this young woman was vibrant and full of life?" I ask him about Camille  Marcotte-Gravel , a cyclist who was killed by a truck.

He tells me he interviewed friends and family, trying to get a sense of who she was as a person. He spent extra time on the small details, because after all, it's someone's life.

More than that, I discover that Ramsay likes writing, and he is deliberate in his choice of words. He uses specific language, so that the families can understand what happened. Why it happened.

And just like my colleague and I had surmised, he is passionate about justice and equality, and how words can change the society we live in.

Listen to the documentary "Quebec's Poet Coroner" by clicking the Listen link at the top of the page, or download and subscribe to our podcast.

What is Dr. Ramsay reading?

Haruki Murakami. The Japanese novelist is Dr. Ramsay's favourite author.

"I couldn't recommend him enough," he says. "I think because what he brings in his books is not just description, he goes further, and he brings more shades, more light. In that sense, it shows how life is complicated and how it's not obvious to live our life, and why sometimes death happens the way it does.

"It's not easy in 2018 to live in our society, and we need more writers that can make us think."

Mars, by Fritz Zorn, was on top of Dr. Ramsay's files at one of his offices. He was reading the book for a creative writing class. (Andrea Bellemare/CBC)

Mars, by Fritz Zorn

"It's about a young man that lives his life without knowing its direction, and finds it as he is dying. It's a very profound book for anybody that works in palliative care."

Et si la beauté rendait heureux, by François Cardinal and Pierre Thibault

(And if beauty made you happy)

"I think it's a wonderful read. It's also about sharing and it's also about taking time, about inhabiting our cities and about making them more friendly to their inhabitants."

About the producer

Andrea Bellemare
Andrea Bellemare is a reporter and producer with CBC Montreal.

She helped launch the CBC's radio station in K­itchener-Waterloo in 2013 and worked there for four and half years before moving to Montreal. Previously she's worked at CBC News Network as a chase producer, writer, story editor and control room producer. Andrea has also reported for the wire service Agence France­-Presse.

This is Andrea's second documentary for The Doc Project. Her previous doc, Right hands, wrong piano, was about a piano that could level the playing field for small-handed pianists.

"Quebec's Poet Coroner" was edited by Tom Howell and Alison Cook.