Thank you, Mr. Speaker, and thank you, colleagues.
Bill 55, Mental Health Act, will replace the existing Mental Health Act, which is out of step with national and international standards. Notably, the new act will authorize the use of community-based psychiatric treatment and provide better protection for patient rights by establishing a review board for hearing complaints.
The Standing Committee on Social Programs thanks the Minister of Health and Social Services for introducing Bill 55 within the life of the 17th Legislative Assembly. This is a significant achievement. The bill was referred to the committee on June 2, 2015. The public hearing with the Minister was held on August 24, 2015. The clause-by-clause review was held on October 5, 2015. With the Minister’s agreement, 27 motions to amend Bill 55 were passed at the clause-by-clause review. These amendments are discussed below, along with a large number of recommended actions.
During its review, the committee heard from well over 100 residents and stakeholders. Public meetings were held in Yellowknife, Inuvik, Norman Wells, Tulita, Fort Smith, Fort Resolution, Hay River, Kakisa and Fort Providence. Seventeen written submissions were received from the Northwest Territories chapter of the Canadian Bar Association; Elaine Keenan Bengts, the Northwest Territories Information and Privacy Commissioner; the Status of Women Council of the NWT; Jane Arychuk, president of Aurora College; the Union of Northern Workers; the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association; Chief Joachim Bonnetrouge of the Deh Gah Got’ie First Nation; James and Connie Boraski and Ian Henderson; an advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities; a social worker in private practice; and a handful of GNWT employees, community advocates and private residents.
Bill 55 generated a vast amount of commentary and criticism. More than 50 potential amendments were brought forward for consideration, along with roughly twice that number of recommended actions. During the review the committee simultaneously laboured over the intricacies of legal terminology and kept the big picture in view, enumerating recommended actions that, if implemented, will usher in a healthier future for the people of the Northwest Territories.
New Legislation is Not a Cure-all
In the community visits, discussion about the proposed legislation was often eclipsed by testimonies of struggle to overcome trauma, abuse, addictions, family violence and community dysfunction. The people’s pain was plain to see and seemed to stem from a few primary sources: the colonial history of the Northwest Territories, the legacy of residential schools, and failures in the provision of mental health service.
Like the existing Mental Health Act, the new act will focus primarily on treatment of people with psychiatric disorders. Each year in the Northwest Territories, roughly 200 patients are involuntarily admitted into our territory’s four designated facilities, located in Yellowknife, Fort Smith, Hay River and Inuvik. Like the existing act, Bill 55 is silent on the topic of addictions and substance abuse, even though these problems often coexist with psychiatric disorders. Indeed, it is ironic that, despite its official title, the bill defines a mental disorder but does not define mental health. In any case, the reality is that mental health and mental illness exist on a continuum. Likewise, mental health services include a spectrum of activities from prevention and early intervention to therapeutic counselling and in-patient hospital care. So, in the words of one NWT resident, “What we need is a companion act for the Mental Health Act. This here is a Mental Illness Act. We need a Mental Wellness Act. There’s a bit of funding here and there, but it’s really just a patchwork of services.” For all intents and purposes, the Mental Health and Addictions Action Plan may be thought of as that companion act, and to that end, the committee is calling for substantial enhancements to it.
At the public hearing, the Minister admitted, “There are gaps in our current mental health system and residents are falling through the cracks; it is clear that change is urgently needed. This legislation will fill in those gaps and modernize the current mental health framework.” The committee agrees that there are gaps in the system, but does not agree that new legislation will address them all. In fact, this sort of claim only generates false expectations. As legislation goes, Bill 55 is better than the existing act. But by itself, new legislation offers no guarantee of better services. Accordingly, if this report contains a primary take-home message, it is that new legislation is not the cure-all solution. By way of illustration, the committee learned that the department’s implementation plans include spending an additional $500,000 annually on new positions at headquarters, with no new allocations for services in the communities. Under such circumstances, the scope of positive change will be modest at best. Overall, stronger political will, more effective leadership and substantial new funding will be required if mental health services are going to be delivered when and where people need them.
At this time, I would like to pass the reading of the report over to my colleague Mr. Yakeleya.