Bill C-62: Senator Cuzner Questions Ministers in Committee of the Whole

By: The Hon. Rodger Cuzner

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The Senate resolved in Committee of the Whole in order to receive the Honourable Mark Holland, P.C., M.P., Minister of Health, and the Honourable Arif Virani, P.C., M.P., Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, each accompanied by two officials, respecting the subject matter of Bill C-62, An Act to amend An Act to amend the Criminal Code (medical assistance in dying), No. 2.

Senator Cuzner: To my two friends and former colleagues, I’m down here in the far reach, although I’m sure my Senate colleagues would confess there’s no such thing as a bad seat in the upper chamber.

Minister Holland, on January 3, 2017, Corporal Lionel Desmond, from Upper Big Tracadie in Nova Scotia, using a semi-automatic rifle, took the life of his wife, Shanna, 31 years old; his 10-year-old daughter, Aaliyah; his 52-year-old mother, Brenda; and then turned the gun on himself and took his own life.

As you know, the Desmond Fatality Inquiry Final Report was released two weeks ago in Nova Scotia. The findings were very concerning around mental health treatment in my home province of Nova Scotia. I’m not in any way running down the professionals who continue to do a tremendous job for the people of Nova Scotia, but it has become obvious that there are certain realities. In the discussion around MAID, there are certain realities around access to mental health services and the delivery of those services in Nova Scotia.

The story of Lionel Desmond’s access to treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, touched on rural challenges, on challenges of race, on barriers that face veterans, on access to firearms and so on. This former Canadian soldier fell through the cracks in the health system, and those cracks in the health system resulted in this tragedy.

My difficulty is squaring that with further access to MAID for mental health conditions. There are concerns in the report’s findings. What processes are in place that will give us some kind of comfort that we can extract the lessons and learn from this incredible tragedy?

Mr. Holland: Thank you very much, Senator Cuzner. It’s wonderful to see you in this chamber, having had the opportunity to serve with you in the other chamber. I look forward to you doing phenomenal work here, as you did in the other chamber, and to our continued conversations.

First, the tragedy you describe is horrifying — horrifying in the lives that it took and horrifying in the story that led to Corporal Desmond committing the acts that he did. It underscores a mental health crisis that we have not only in this country but also in the world. One in three Canadians — and this is not dissimilar to anywhere else in the world — report having serious mental health challenges.

I say “health challenges” because that’s completely different than illness. When you have a mental illness, much in the same way as a physical illness, it is often unrelated to the things you’re talking about, namely, PTSD and trauma. This is an underlying physiological condition that is not necessarily environmental and, therefore, can be intractable. We’re talking about something incredibly rare. It’s important not to conflate these things. I want to put a firm wall between these two things because it’s not what we’re talking about here.

Let me talk specifically about Nova Scotia. I want to say how much regard I have for Minister Thompson, the health minister in Nova Scotia. She’s somebody who gets it. As a former nurse, she’s somebody who has been on the ground, somebody who understands the changes that need to occur. The bilateral agreement that was signed with Nova Scotia, the money that’s flowing through that agreement, enables critical action that we’re taking in mental health. It has to be a whole-of-society approach.

Senator Cuzner, I’ll be straight with you: It’s not going to be enough for the federal government to act alone in this. How we are treating each other in this world has to change. The hostility, the anger, the negativity, the way in which we engage with one another as human beings and in our workplaces — all of it has to change. This is sickness. The health issues that are pervasive right now exist because of how we’re treating each other. It is no accident that the more victimized somebody is, the more they face colonialism or racism, the more they’ve had PTSD, the more they’ve been subjugated, the worse their mental health. Our path out is clear, and it’s going to take a lot more than just investments.

I think it’s dangerous in this conversation to conflate these two issues because it’s not what is in front of us today when we’re discussing Bill C-62.

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