Federal Framework on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Bill

Federal Framework on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Bill

Second Reading

May 3, 2018


The Honourable Senator Kim Pate :

Now for another perspective, honourable senators. I rise today to speak to Bill C-211 also, the federal framework on post-traumatic stress disorder act, and to echo the calls of Senator Housakos, Senator Bernard, and so many other colleagues — including today Senator Hartling and Senator Wallin — for better support for those who live daily with the realities of PTSD.

Bill C-211 requires that certain government ministers meet with stakeholders to establish a federal framework relating to PTSD. This framework would cover mechanisms for improved collection of data; the establishment of guidelines related to diagnosis, treatment, and sharing of best practices; as well as the development of educational materials relating to PTSD.

Bill C-211 focuses in particular on professionals, including first responders and federal police services. From brief glimpses, notably while I worked for the RCMP during the summer that I was 18, I can only begin to imagine the stress and trauma that first responders encounter on a daily basis. I was introduced to the work of RCMP officers as I was rushed alongside them to the house of a man who had shot himself in the head, with no preparation for the horrific and tragic scene we witnessed, and no debriefing afterward.

For many of us, the events in Toronto last week brought into sharp focus the burdens shouldered by first responders such as paramedics and police officers as they provide support to other community members in times of crisis. Last week also marked the release of a paramedic standard for psychological health and safety in Ontario — a collaboration between the Paramedic Association of Canada and the Mental Health Commission of Canada. This standard is the first of its kind in Canada, and work that I hope a federal framework for PTSD can help to encourage on a national level.

While preparing my remarks for today, I had the opportunity to meet with representatives of the Paramedics Association of Canada. They emphasized the need for research and education about the risks of PTSD and other operational stress injuries in a role that, in the words of their president, can too often “ask people to deplete their emotional resources without replenishment.”

The events in Toronto and the actions of police Constable Ken Lam were also a reminder of the vital interventions of first responders that de-escalate violence — even, as we saw in Toronto, in the face of danger and horrific actions that appear to have targeted women. Though, as noted by mental health expert Dr. Dorothy Cotton, police training in “de-escalation techniques . . . pales in comparison to the amount of training an officer receives related to use of force,” these types of interventions affirm the human rights standards that we have set for ourselves and have important and enormous potential to prevent future trauma, both for members of the public and for fellow first responders.

From my nearly four decades of work with and on behalf of marginalized women, men and youth, I have too often witnessed how the lack of accessibility of and funding for mental health services has devastating consequences, particularly for marginalized peoples. They disproportionately end up in contact with police, in courts and in the prisons, instead of receiving the treatment they need.

According to the 2014 Mental Health Commission of Canada report, two in five people with mental illness have been arrested in their lifetime. Three in ten people with mental illness have had police involved in their care pathway.

This unavailability of appropriate interventions by health care providers — before an individual is ever criminalized — also has consequences for the mental health of police officers, who encounter individuals in crisis as first responders and find themselves limited in the support they can provide for what are mental health issues rather than criminal law issues. I can’t tell you how many times I have received calls from police officers pleading with me to assist them to find alternate resources to a prison cell for individuals with mental health issues.

While some first responders take extraordinary efforts to refer individuals to appropriate treatment, opportunities for treatment are scarce and criminalization is too often the default. These types of challenges are exacerbated for severely under-resourced First Nations police services. Bill C-211’s proposed PTSD framework is one vital step toward a broader goal of making mental health services available to all, particularly for those who are most marginalized.

With this goal in mind, I fully support Senator Bernard’s two proposed recommendations to ensure greater inclusivity in Bill C-211.

First, Senator Bernard calls on us to recognize “. . . the compounding trauma that marginalized professionals listed in Bill C-211 face and how that impacts their mental health.” In particular, Senator Bernard draws a link between racism, misogynist violence and PTSD. As she noted, 31 per cent of women in the military have experienced sexualized or discriminatory behaviour. They are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted on the job than the men with whom they work. According to Statistics Canada and witnesses testifying at committee in the other place, they are also twice as likely to experience PTSD.

Regarding Correctional Service Canada employees, another group of professionals named in Bill C-211, we are by now familiar with media coverage this year of stories of women prison guards at the federal prison in Edmonton being sexually harassed, sexually assaulted and bullied by men with whom they worked as well as the resulting PTSD some experienced. Some examples of the behaviour of their coworkers included water boarding, throwing a woman against a wall and choking her, slamming a woman’s face into hard surfaces and handcuffing women to chairs.

As we turn our minds to a framework on PTSD, we must understand these incidents not as isolated or exceptional events but as evidence of systemic racism and misogyny. We must be aware of how many staff harassment and assault claims have not yet received media attention or been reported at all. We must be aware, if staff are treating each other in such cruel and callous ways, what that means for the human rights of prisoners.

Senator Bernard also calls on us to expand more broadly the scope of this proposed national framework to include more of those who suffer from PTSD, especially individuals with intersecting oppressions. In seeking to respond to the challenges of PTSD, we must recognize how systemic discrimination generates trauma and makes those most marginalized more likely to experience it.

To add one more example to what Senator Bernard also so compellingly described, we know that 91 per cent of Indigenous women in prison and 87 per cent of all women in prison have experienced physical or sexual abuse and that many have disabling mental health issues, including PTSD.

Indigenous peoples with PTSD are particularly likely to be criminalized. In Australia, for example, studies have suggested that 32 per cent of Indigenous women in prison and 12 per cent of Indigenous men in prison live with PTSD. There is strong reason to believe that the situation in Canada is similar.

A 2003 study of residential school survivors in British Columbia indicated that at least 64 per cent reported symptoms of PTSD and 62 per cent had been criminalized. To give a sense of the scale of these numbers, rates of PTSD reported by members of the military — a field where PTSD is a recognized crisis — was estimated at 12 or 13 per cent in 2013.

Honourable senators, I look forward to seeing Bill C-211 sent to committee and continuing to work together to address the ongoing need to ensure fully accessible mental health services for all. Thank you. Meegwetch.