Diagnosed in the dock? Gun control and mental health in Canada

Canada's tendency to frame its national conversations in comparison to the US evades its own problems, including inadequate mental health care.

Elizabeth Grant
18 August 2014

On July 31, 2014, a psychiatric assessment ruled Justin Bourque fit to stand trial. Two months earlier, Bourque had enacted a lethal campaign lasting 30 hours against law enforcement officers in his hometown of Moncton in New Brunswick, Canada.

Moncton outsources its policing to the area branch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police - the Codiac RCMP. So when residents saw Bourque walk down the street and head into some nearby woods - dressed in camouflage and heavily armed with two long guns, ammunition, and a crossbow - RCMP officers answered their 911 calls.

After entering the small wood, Bourque made his way toward a cluster of houses, where he ambushed the officers responding to the call. For the next two days officers searched for the elusive gunman while the city went into lockdown. In total, Bourque shot five RCMP officers, killing three and wounding two. It was one of the worst tragedies to befall the nation-wide RCMP. 

The fact that this crime took place in a particularly mild-mannered part of a famously polite country was much noted by media - the town was described as ‘tranquil’- the kind of place where things like this don’t happen. So if it was happening in Moncton, did that mean that American-style gun violence was creeping across the border into Canada?

Despite the media and area residents’ shock at the seeming incongruity of such a crime happening in Moncton, New Brunswick is no stranger to violent, shocking crimes. In 2005, the decapitated body of 74-year old country musician Fred Fulton was found in Minto, New Brunswick. Fulton’s wife Verna Decarie was also found stabbed to death.  Twenty-two year-old Gregory Despres was quickly identified as a person of interest, having been involved in a recent conflict with the murdered couple, whose property neighbored his.

Apprehended in Massachusetts a day after the bodies were found, the case briefly made international headlines when it was revealed that Despres had managed to cross the Canadian border with the US into Maine carrying a homemade sword, a hatchet, knife, brass knuckles, and a chainsaw that appeared to be smeared with blood. The day after his arrest, Despres told a state court judge that he was affiliated with NASA and had been travelling to a Marine Corps base in (land-locked) Kansas.

Three years later, Despres was found guilty but not criminally responsible for the deaths, due to mental illness.

Both Bourque and Despres emulated (in Despres’ case, likely hallucinated) a commando-style tactical campaign. Yet while Despres’ case horrified, it was so utterly bizarre - so clearly out of left field - as to allow some sense of removal from his crime. By contrast, Bourque turned his flair for the quintessentially Canadian pastimes of spending time in the wilderness and hunting, against another, beloved symbol of Canadian culture - the Mounties.

In the weeks since Bourque’s ambush and the subsequent manhunt there has been relatively little discussion of the role Canada’s gun control policy may have played in this tragedy.

So what is Canada’s approach to gun control? First and foremost, Canadians do not have the right to bear arms, with the Supreme Court of Canada having ruled it is a privilege. Furthermore, firearm possession is only legal with an appropriate license.

In recent years, debates about gun control have centered on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ultimately successful campaign to end the Canadian Long-gun Registry (a registry for non-restricted firearms such as rifles and shotguns used for hunting) which was dismantled in 2012. The registry was instituted in 1995 in response to the 1989 Montréal Massacre. However Harper and other critics of the registry have repeatedly characterized it as wasteful and ineffective, often citing the auditor general's 2002 report that the cost had risen from $2 million to closer to $1 billion.

The registry also appeared to be of limited use, given that in 2011, its final year of existence, 11% of killings were committed with registered long guns, whereas illegal weapons that could never be registered (such as sawed-off shotguns and machine guns) were used in 12% of killings.

The failings of the gun registry aside, there remains a certain incongruity between the Conservative party's desire to be frugal on issues relating to crime prevention, and their enthusiastic allocation in 2010 of $9 billion to build new prisons. When the party’s logic for such a generous expansion of the prison system was questioned, Conservative MP and then President of the Treasury, Stockwell Day, rather ominously replied, " We're very concerned... about the increase in the amount of unreported crimes that surveys clearly show are happening."

It is a sad state of affairs when a nation's citizens are more comfortable reporting crimes committed against them to a stranger conducting a survey by phone, than to their local police department. So maybe the abolition of the gun registry was about more than trimming the fat: maybe in the Consevatives’ worldview it all makes sense. After all, in a shadowy land where only a fraction of the crime being committed is making it to the courts, who wouldn’t want easier access to a firearm?

Moncton is a pleasant, if somewhat unremarkable town. The strong presence of Acadian francophone culture - 30% of its inhabitants speak French as their first language - brings the place a particular vibrancy, with Moncton operating as a sort of focal point of Acadian culture in Canada. If it’s answers to Justin Bourque's lethal attack on the RCMP officers you want, you won’t find them on the mean streets of Moncton, in part because you won’t find those mean streets.

The province of New Brunswick’s largest town is Saint John - about an hour and a half’s drive from Moncton, and my hometown. While Saint John, too, would struggle to come up with anything that fits a popular definition of a ‘mean street’, both Moncton and Saint John have areas of poverty, and one thing that is in evidence on the streets of Saint John is mental illness.

In 1996 the Atlantic Health Sciences Corporation - responsible for the administration of health care facilities across southern New Brunswick - decided to change their approach to mental health care from a facility-based model to a community-based one. This involved closing Canada’s oldest long-term mental health care facility, Centracare, and building a new, smaller facility with a reduced inpatient capacity.

While the aims of community-based models are laudable and can be highly effective - the integrated living communities for people with learning disabilities run by L’Arche being one example - transitioning people who have been living in a care facility back into the community can also leave people isolated and vulnerable. Looking at the number of people who appear to be struggling with issues related to mental health, substance abuse, or both, in the city centre of Saint John in the years since Centracare reduced its capacity, it seems that there is an important step missing in the path from facility-based care to helping people become productive members of society.

Family members of RCMP killer Justin Bourque have spoken out, saying they saw a marked difference in his personality in the months leading up to his crime. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Bourque’s sister Sophie stated that she became aware of the effects that substance abuse was having, as well as a paranoia not previously in keeping with her brother’s character: “He started reading a lot about conspiracy theories, and he wasn’t as mentally stable as he used to be…. He kind of got paranoid that somebody was going to take his guns away.”  In the affidavit in support of a psychiatric assessment filed by Bourque’s father Victor, he described how he had seen his son go into a state of "serious depression, emotional and financial instability" following his move out of the family home and into a trailer park approximately 18 months before.

Among the evidence heard during Gregory Despres’ trial was testimony from his mother stating that in his late teens Despres’ behaviour changed dramatically. Jeannie Despres described this change, stating at the trial: "At times he seemed to think he was involved with the Hells Angels group or a military faction, or things that I had no knowledge of, or didn't understand where these ideas were coming from."

Thinking of Victor Bourque’s observations on his son’s behaviour, and the testimony of Gregory Despres’ mother, I asked a New Brunswick doctor working in general practice what options the provincial system provides for people who may be concerned for the mental health of adult family members. I was told that the system has more or less thrown its hands up in resignation because unless someone requests help, or does something to endanger the public or themselves, there’s just nothing it can do.

Although Justin Bourque has been declared fit to stand trial, it seems clear to many of those around him that he was going off the rails.

Canada’s free healthcare and its designation of gun ownership and use as being a privilege rather than a right are two of the policies most often cited to justify our self-estimation as an enlightened society. When gun crimes reminiscent of American-style violence happen in Canada, we often satisfy ourselves with a few op-eds comparing our statistics on gun control to America’s and - comforted that we still have far less gun crime than the US - we fail to penetrate the issue further. But there is more crime in Canada than gun crime, and in our national fixation on comparing ourselves with America, we allow the US to dictate our own, national conversation. In the wake of such tragedies we must consider not only gun control, but what kind of healthcare system will serve us best, too.

As the cases of Gregory Despres and Justin Bourque demonstrate, allowing people who may be in need of mental health services to self-identify through violence is dangerous and lazy. We must open a dialogue on the quality of services our communities offer on mental health care issues to match our ongoing debate on gun control. Until we take this step, the most enlightened policies on weapons will continue to come up short, and our famous healthcare system will continue failing some of the citizens who may need it most.



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