Report from Parliament | Federal government appoints first ever by Mike Cohen
by Mike Cohen
As we introduce the expansion of our mandate here at Inspirations newspaper to also focus on mental health, I thought it would be interesting to share with readers the fact that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Carolyn Bennett as this country’s first ever minister of Mental Health and Addictions after the last election, September 2021.
Dr. Bennett was first elected to the House of Commons in 1997 and re-elected in eight successive elections, representing Toronto-St. Paul’s. She previously served as minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, and minister of state for Public Health.
Prior to her election, she was a family physician and a founding partner of Bedford Medical Associates in downtown Toronto. She was also an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto. Her fight to save the Women’s College Hospital of Toronto inspired her to enter politics.
“Working in family medicine you hear about people’s difficulties everyday,” Bennett said in an interview published on the Mental Health Commission Canada’s website. “I remember seeing executive reports come in, knowing the patient was struggling with family problems and other issues, but none of those things were included. Someone’s cardiogram or body mass index doesn’t paint a full picture of how well that person is.”
She added that such a disjointed approach contributes to the stigma around mental illness. COVID-19, she remarked, has provided a new opportunity to make a change for the better. “With COVID, people have gotten better about admitting when they’re struggling,” she explained. “If even one out of every two people can speak up when their mental health is deteriorating, it will reduce the stigma and we’ll be in a much better position to address the issues long term.
“We aim to have a mental health strategy that everyone can see themselves in. That will mean looking to national standards and establishing minimum expectations to build on,” she explained. “Out of that, we’ll ensure that money meant for mental health goes to mental health through transfers, and collect more research and data in the process. Understanding those outcomes will be critical in making the best decisions in the future.”
Working with the minister of Health, and with the support of the deputy prime minister and minister of Finance, Bennett has been tasked with expanding the delivery of high-quality, accessible and free mental health services, including for prevention and treatment. Some other goals include: implementing a three-digit suicide prevention hotline, introducing a new fund for student mental health that will support the hiring of new mental health care counsellors, improve wait times for services, increase access overall and enable targeted supports to Black and racialized students at post-secondary institutions across Canada, and support the minister of Veterans Affairs to ensure Canadian Armed Forces members and veterans have access to adequate mental health resources, services and training programs.
Last May, the final report of the Expert Panel on Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) and Mental Illness was tabled in Parliament and released publicly. The panel made 19 recommendations “laying out a broad set of principles that could structure the practice of MAID for persons with a mental disorder or where concerns may arise related to incurability, irreversibility, capacity, suicidality, and/or the impact of structural vulnerability, regardless of diagnoses,” according to a government of Canada July press release. “We understand the importance of ensuring that our government moves forward with MAID for persons with a mental disorder in a way that is respectful of their autonomy, but also grounded in compassion,” said Bennett. “The Expert Panel’s recommendations support our objective of having a safe and consistent approach to accessing MAID, regardless of one's medical condition. We are committed to implementing them in a way that reflects our commitment to freedom of choice for people in Canada.”
Disability benefit bill reintroduced
The federal government has reintroduced legislation to create a monthly benefit payment for working-age Canadians with disabilities. “The purpose of this law and this benefit ... is to reduce poverty and create financial security for working-age Canadians with disabilities," said minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, Carla Qualtrough.
She added that children with disabilities can get support through the Canada Child Benefit, and seniors with disabilities can access Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, but working Canadians have been left to fend for themselves. “We're changing that,” she said. There are concerns as to when the bill will become law. Jane Deeks, spokesperson for Qualtrough, said in a statement that alongside the legislative process to create the Canada Disability Benefit, the government has to work closely with the disability community to inform the benefit’s design, work that is “well underway.”
The restoration of Centre Block on Parliament Hill, which started in 2019, continues. A trompe l’oeil has been installed on Centre Block as masonry work continues through 2022 and beyond, allowing visitors to get a sense of what the building looks like behind the tarps. In the meantime, a “temporary” House of Commons has been constructed in the West Block and a “temporary” Senate chamber is in the former train station next to the Rideau Canal. Free guided tours of these architecturally impressive spaces resumed in May. I took a nice walk outside Parliament over the summertime to view a photo exhibit placed on billboards, providing a nice history of the property and our country. The walkway is completely wheelchair accessible. In a promotional video for the new Parliament Welcome Centre, currently under construction, it is strongly emphasized that the complex will indeed be very accessible for those with mobility issues.