Mental Health in the Legal Profession

A blue digital illustration of two ambiguous books. One is open and laying on a pillow the other closed.

by Naomi Sayers

This piece was first written when Naomi was an articling student and under a good character investigation by the Law Society of Ontario (“LSO”) as a result of her self-disclosures to the LSO. The LSO does not investigate all lawyer-licensee candidates. During that time, Naomi felt isolated and alienated from the legal profession given her experiences. To date, she stills feel isolated and alienated given the conversations around self-care and mental health fail to interrogate the ways in which colonialism and all of its misogyny and racism (and other isms) impact Indigenous law students to date. Naomi kept this piece in its original format, but she is now a lawyer. She still believes that LSO still has a lot of work to do in order to truly practice inclusivity. This represents Naomi’s views only and is not legal advice.

Self-care. It is one of those terms that seems to have been taken up by everyone and anyone. Sometimes it is used by people, organizations and institutions in an unintended way. One such way includes avoiding responsibility of systemic and institutional neglect over many years, decades even.

At the time I first drafted this piece, I was in Ontario’s lawyer licensing process. This means that I have graduated law school, applied to become a lawyer in Ontario, passed the lawyer licensing examinations, or as some of my friends have done, deferred the lawyer licensing examinations until after their articles. Completing your articles is the process of learning through doing. In laymen terms, it is like a co-op placement.

Throughout law school, I struggled. I struggled in the sense that I felt alienated and isolated from the discussions that were taking place in the classroom. This is not to say, however, that I did not do well. I felt alienated and isolated from the structure of law school. I did not see or hear about similar experiences that I went through within the classrooms. In one experience, where I enrolled in a course dedicated to social justice advocacy, I thought I would excel. I heard about how you could write an op-ed (an opinion piece that is either solicited by the editor of a major media outlet or that is pitched to a major media outlet by an individual who is not a regular contributor) or, if I recall correctly, how you could learn how to make submissions to parliamentary committees. In any event, it was a class where I already had done all the things in my advocacy work seeking to decriminalize sex work. It was also work that I continued to do throughout law school. The unique thing about this disclosure is in the fact that I went to a law school where many professors supported the complete abolition of prostitution all in an effort to save women like me, poor little indigenous women. But, I didn’t and I, most certainly, don’t need saving.

When I was articling, I was living in Toronto, completing my articles on Bay Street (almost every little middle-class white boy’s wet dream, chasing after his daddy’s footsteps) in a space that prioritizes health care, especially mental health care. However, for the profession as a whole, this does not always mean that they prioritize health care, despite saying otherwise.

When I was in law school, I kept hearing or seeing these self-care narratives literally everywhere. What was missing from these messages was the trauma-informed approach where self-care originates. For example, trauma-informed approaches acknowledge that each individual responds to their own experiences, including traumatic experiences, in unique ways. This means that sometimes your friend may prefer to be alone after expending their energy in negotiating a difficult conversation or another friend may require immediate support in the way of bonding over your choice of substance to alleviate the anxiety from a traumatic experience (Note: I am not encouraging different kinds of substance use; rather, it is about supporting an individual’s choice). Now that I am in the articling process, I see these same messages, “Practice self-care”. What is missing from these conversations, again, is the trauma-informed approach. Yet, this begs the question, can a profession support individuals from a trauma-informed approach when it has historically excluded (and arguably, presently excludes) individuals who have been regulated and policed out of the legal profession bylaws?

During the 1950s, the laws that prevented Indigenous people from hiring lawyers were repealed. This means that, throughout the time of Canada’s colonization (and continued colonization), entire generations of Indigenous communities were left without legal representation—at a moment in time when colonial Canada was passing laws that infringe on their rights. Yes, the concept of justice and the nature of Indigenous law does not always align with those of Canada’s views or concepts. However, the effects of these laws mean that an entire generation of people were literally erased, silenced and ignored during a critical point in the making and shaping of colonial Canada. This is not unintentional. While this article is not about the colonial context of Canada, it is important to understand parts of this history when talking about trauma-informed approaches to mental health care.

Mental health care and self-care discussions in predominantly white spaces translate to discussions about how a bubble bath can make you feel safe and warm. These conversations do not mean that we have conversations about how institutional racism and everyday microaggressions impact your physical health.

Trauma-informed practice is about embodying a range of principles that centre the needs, experiences and expertise of individuals who have experienced or continued to experience trauma in their lives. Trauma can range from a single occurrence to intergenerational trauma. A trauma-informed practice, ultimately, centers an individual’s control, choice and safety. It means that the individual attends to what will make them safe in that moment, by making the choices they can and in a way that they can.

When it comes to self-care, most institutions that have taken up these narratives inadvertently appropriating these terms in a way that, as I mentioned, avoids responsibility. First, institutions, like law schools or institutions who have a history of excluding racialized or Indigenous folks, that adopt a self-care approach without a trauma-informed approach tend to cause more harm. When I was law school, I reached out to a professor in law school after another professor stated that there were only two kinds of laws in Canada. This idea that there are only two kinds of law in Canada means that Indigenous legal traditions are never acknowledged. This erasure, again, means that Indigenous law students are left arguing their own existence. Then, when you have certain experiences being policed and regulated out of the profession, we have a different kind of conversation happening altogether. The question is no longer how much needs to be done to improve the diversity and inclusion of certain kinds of people. Rather, the question becomes what needs to change at an institutional and systemic level in order to address the barriers created by having honest conversations about institutional and systemic discrimination in the legal profession.

Recently, the regulator for Ontario’s lawyers mandated all lawyers to adopt a statement of principles. The statement of principles is one of many recommendations from the Racialized Licensees Report. This specific recommendation, along with the others named in the report, is meant to address the barriers faced by racialized licensees. However, the Report outlines that Indigenous licensees face “unique experiences” (The Racialized Licensees Report, p 8). The Law Society of Ontario (“Law Society”), as the Report states, “has a duty to maintain and advance the cause of justice and the rule of law, to facilitate access to justice for the people of Ontario and to protect the public interest” (The Racialized Licensees Report, p 11). In order to fulfill this duty, the Law Society must also ensure its policies, practices and programs live up to the values and principles of equality and diversity (The Racialized Licensees Report, p 11). One such policy and practice, however, includes their good character form.

While I agree with the rationale behind adhering to the good character standard, I question whether the Law Society’s policy and practice of adopting a form requirement across the board for all licensing candidates is truly an equality and diversity practice.

For example, when a licensing candidate applies to the Law Society, this candidate must disclose a range of things, including criminal convictions. However, question one on the good character form asks, whether the candidate has “been found guilty of, or convicted of, any offence under any statute” (Lawyer Licensing Process Policies, Part IV: Good Character). You must answer yes to question one if you have been found guilty or convicted under any statute. (Canadian Civil Liberties Association, p 1). The consequence of this question is that it has a wide reach for almost any person. For Indigenous people, this is troublesome.

Indigenous people who are convicted or found guilty of any offence under any statute (which does not seem to be slowing down at any rate) will have to answer yes to question one as outlined above, including those who have accessed the Gladue sentencing regime. The question, then, is not whether the Law Society is adopting equity and diversity principles in its policies, practices and programs. Rather, the question is whether the Law Society is engaging in systemic and/or institutional discrimination with its blanket form, applied across the board to anyone, especially regarding Indigenous people. Again, my issue is not the rationale behind the good character form; it is the practice of assuming that this form is applied equally in a fair manner. Sadly, the Law Society released a report on a review of its good character practices in early 2019 (Professional Regulation Committee, 2019). The facts for lawyer-licensee candidates from this report are as follows:

  1. Over a six-year period, the Law Society received 14,000+ applications from lawyer candidates with only two hundred candidates self-identifying as Indigenous.
  2. 10% of the non-Indigenous candidates answered yes to a good character question.
  3. 18% of the self-identified Indigenous candidates answered yes to a good character question.
  4. The report does not provide numbers for the Indigenous candidates who had their good character issues resolved at an initial step, at an investigation or at a hearing. The report does state that 80-90% candidates of those who did answer a good character question in the affirmative were resolved at the initial step and only 1-2% candidates went to a good character hearing.
  5. Presumably, 10-20% candidates went to a hearing.
  6. Since the number of self-identified Indigenous candidates who answer yes to a good character question is higher by 15-25% (5%-10% estimate based on item 3 above), it is safe to assume that 20-30% of self-identified Indigenous candidates went to a good character hearing.
  7. Based on the above assumption, it could be assumed that 40-60 self-identified Indigenous candidates out of 200 went to a good character hearing over a six-year period or approximately 10 self-identified Indigenous candidates went to a good character hearing each year over a six-year period.

With the conversation around the statement of principles taking place in Ontario, I cringe each time I hear or read about another lawyer impacted by racism trying to justify why this mandated recommendation is essential in ending barriers to racialized licensees. I also cringe when people assume that this is a free speech issue. Free speech for whom? It is most certainly not for the racialized or Indigenous licensees now almost being forced to write their stories, trying to convince everyone who doesn’t believe racism exists…. that racism exists!

It was only in the 1950s where laws that excluded Indigenous people from entering law school, practicing law or hiring lawyers were repealed (See Constance Backhouse, “Gender and Race in the Construction of ‘Legal Professionalism’: Historical Perspectives” in Adam Dodek & Alice Woolley, eds, In Search of the Ethical Lawyer (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016) 126 at 133). Entire generations of Indigenous people were excluded from entering the profession. That is, people like my grandfathers and grandmothers prohibited from entering the profession—two generations ago. During that time, however, my community was surrounded by several residential schools. It is very unlikely that my ancestors would have even survived long enough, sadly, to enter law school. And, undoubtedly, Indigenous folks continue to be excluded from the profession for a range of other barriers.

But I survived and I am here.

I write this in the context of acknowledging this history of denying indigenous people the illusion of freedom to enter the profession. I also write to highlight the problems with the discussion around the statement of principles, as an alleged diversity and equity initiative.

These kinds of initiatives are a distraction from the issue of racism in the profession. Preventing people from having honest conversations about the real issue—racism—is how institutional and systemic discrimination works. They allow institutions and people to say, “Look at all the hard work we have done!” And, when you critique the initiative, you are the problem such as I have done in very public spaces and have been ostracized by more senior lawyers, including racialized lawyers.

As for the statement of principles, these initiatives are merely check box approaches to the problem. Perhaps, one day, we can all have a healthy conversation about institutional and systemic discrimination without racialized and Indigenous licensees and licensing candidates carrying the burden of retelling their stories.

Naomi Sayers is an Indigenous feminist and lawyer. She tweets under the moniker @kwetoday. Views are her own.

Trauma-Informed Healthcare

wallpaper of different flowers and plants

By Hazelle Palmer

Health care is such an intricate part of everything that we do and I’ve always noticed how health care institutions interact with different populations and different communities, genders, people of different orientation, racialized groups… But some of those interactions are so systemically driven and in many ways very oppressive. I want to see that health care reflects what I think we all deserve, which is health care that is responsive to our needs, and that every individual needs to be a partner in their own health care.

Sherbourne has built a unique space which allows folks to feel comfortable and safe when receiving care. Being able to relate to experiences is really important. We hire staff who have similar lived experience, to exemplify the importance of culturally competent care. We highlight our focus on anti-racism, anti-oppression as being something that we do with all staff upon their hiring here. Being able to live those principles in the work that we do and how we do the work is so important.

At Sherbourne, we have quite a range of programs that speak to these different experiences of (lesbian-gay-bisexual-trans-queer) LGBTQ communities and I think we’re starting now to do more around Indigenous and 2-Spirit communities, but I think that we have really tried to look at and create space for (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) BIPOC youth and for LGBT youth; and overall we’ve tried to address the issues of homelessness and substance use. We’ve looked at trying to create places where people can just meet because social connection is so important. We’ve created forums where we can listen and engage with folks to get a sense of how we can improve what we’re doing already.

We’ve also been an advocate. For example, through our province-wide Rainbow Health Ontario program, we underline the importance of Human Rights and the areas that we feel still are discriminatory or infringe on the rights of people from the LGBTQ communities… We are also training doctors across the province to be able to provide competent care. Access everywhere is important.

Looking to the future, Sherbourne is beginning to focus more on marginalized populations including BIPOC populations, and the intersections they face. We understand that people can be dealing with sexual orientation but also dealing with substance use, they may also be homeless, they may be a newcomer to Canada, they may be dealing with other forms of discrimination …  or trauma that deeply affects their ability to achieve health and wellness. We have staff teams who deal with under-housed folks and those experiencing homelessness, (lesbian-gay-bisexual-trans-2 spirit-queer) LGBT2SQ, as well as newcomers to Canada, but mental health and trauma were key areas that really stood out as impacting every community.

At Sherbourne, we acknowledge the significance of trauma and so with our new mental health framework we’ve embedded trauma-informed approaches. It’s really acknowledging that many of us in some way have experienced trauma. And while that trauma differs along a continuum, when we hear stories about people’s experiences with stigma, discrimination, substance use, or even the conditions that make them have to leave home early, or the abuse they’ve suffered in their life which may result in PTSD, it tells us that trauma is really a significant factor in people’s lives.

I strongly believe that we, all have our own resilience. And organizations like Sherbourne are there to empower, to help people to find that resilience in themselves. What’s challenging about intersectionality is that the burden of all the issues we deal with is so great, that it can feel so overwhelming. … Sometimes we think about some of the systemic things that we can’t control, whether it’s within politics, whether it’s the justice system, policing, all of the things that make it really so overwhelming and so discouraging but on the other hand I always am so admiring of −, I’m a queer person myself −, I’m admiring of our communities because we’ve gone through so much, and yet we continue on. And that’s true of people who are from BIPOC communities who are also dealing with issues around race and discrimination and stigma every single day and yet we march on. And we know from our history and social justice movements that we are stronger together.

Hazelle is a seasoned senior executive with more than 18 years experience in the non-profit sector.  Before becoming the CEO of Sherbourne Health, she was Executive Director of the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) and previously Executive Director of Planned Parenthood of Toronto. Hazelle holds a Master’s Certificate in Health Care Management as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Carleton University.

Black Women, [Inherited] Mental Health and Healing Art

black silhouette of elderly black woman with a headwrap on

by Gloria Swain

When I was first diagnosed with a chronic illness along with the deaths of loved ones, I felt my world falling apart. I fell into a deep dark emotional state for several years. The treatment for my physical illness took a toll on my body which naturally added more stress to my mental health. Finally, I was officially diagnosed with depression in 2004. After being on antidepressants for a few years and struggling with the long list of side effects -suicidal thoughts, anger, weight, hallucinations – I realized I needed a way out. I was on the edge and there was nowhere else to go but down. I was alone. And I felt invisible.

Black women are strong and resilient, but we are also human and mental illness does not discriminate. We are not strangers to depression, anxiety, bipolar or PTSD but Black women continue to suffer in silence because of the shame and stigma surrounding mental illness in Black communities. Growing up I suffered from undiagnosed depression. Being born in the late 50s, mental illness was unheard of and taboo, especially in the Black community. I was born and raised in the southern United States, at the end of segregation and the beginning of integration. My parents and grandmother refused to talk about their histories growing up in Alabama or South Carolina because of the violence and racism they experienced. It was too painful for them to speak on. Sometimes I wonder if they ever had an opportunity to heal. This is intergenerational trauma. Unexplained and unspoken wounds that are passed down to the next generation. When we don’t heal ourselves, we lack the tools to create healing for our future descendants. It’s difficult to talk about mental illness, especially if you’re a Black woman whose ancestors have suffered in silence for centuries because we are constantly told that we are strong. It’s even more difficult for Black women to seek help when the people who are advocating for mental health look nothing like us. Mental illness does not see race, sex, or economical status; yet, certain communities are routinely excluded from mental health conversations.

One day, while going through old photos, I found a picture of me as young girl painting. I remembered how art had brought me so much happiness. I started painting again and never looked back. Art was not only healing for me, but it also led me into researching my own history. I successfully traced my ancestors from Africa to Alabama, one of the largest states that took part in the U. S. slave trade. I learned there is a history of mental illness in my family as well as other illnesses that has now begun to take a toll on my body as I age. Being a descendent of African slaves in America I asked myself, what mental toll has slavery placed on Black people?

My art practice, together with my own lived experiences with intergenerational trauma, challenges the narrative of the strong Black woman and the shame associated with mental illness. My creative journey started at a very young age and it hasn’t stopped. Art pushed me to get back to school and today, at the young age of 60, I have completed my masters.

As a child, art was an outlet for my frustration of trying to fit in. Today, art is a part of my journey of healing. Through art, I face the traumas that come with intersecting histories of slavery, racism, and violence against Black women’s bodies. Through art, I am an activist; I strive to create art that opens discussions around social issues within the Black community. Through art I encourage connection; art brings folks together and moves people to change. Art has become a powerful tool with which I can find healing in my own pain.

Gloria C Swain is a multidisciplinary artist who uses art to explore the history of violence against Black women, the roots of Black mental health and intergenerational trauma. Her work is part of a social movement that seeks to raise awareness for Black female victims of police brutality, anti-Black violence and those who fail to warrant media attention.

Our Constellation of Traumas

by Melisse Watson

Article and Artwork by Melisse Watson

 

When you feel sad, what does it taste like? I woke in the night with a bitter mouth and a dry throat from not caring enough to brush my teeth the evening before. That taste reminded me of sadness…not a memory; more of a familiar presence. With eyes cloudy, I watched the windows through which I imagined stars in a still night sky. No moon. Just the taste, the awareness, the reminder. The discouragement. I got up to drink it down, and as I swallowed, I couldn’t track the luke-warm temperature all the way down like you can with ice water. 

Ice water hurts my teeth I remember, so does hot tea. And I don’t like that all-the-way-down feeling anyway. I down another glass, tongue raw and upset with me. That reminder. Then I feel the water forming a new body inside of me, like a hard rain that pushes the edges of a creek to a lake, a swelling. It took with it the taste but not the feeling; I reconsider: Sadness doesn’t live as a taste on my tongue. I feel it in my stomach; that stillness, fullness, uncomfortable – that I could swallow and no longer give it a thought, even if sadness lead to my teeth falling out. I wanted to map other places that weren’t what they seemed. Other multi-dimensional, multi-verse maps to seeing myself better, like: anxiety in my hands, or the breaking of my own boundaries as an aching in the thighs deep as marrow.

In sharing many conversations with community around trauma; whether in passing or in disguise, reflection or in overflowings, I have heard and witnessed the anchors and burrows that trauma creates in our bodies, in some of our disconnect with spirit, and our quality of emotional and mental wellbeing. When I sat that night and asked myself what I would reclaim, what came to me was a map of sorts. Similar to the way I imagine a surgeon has a map of the inside of a body in their mind’s’ eye, or a chiropractor with a map of one’s bones, a cartographer or astrologer or traditional knowledge keeper – a map of the stars. A father, a map of the most certain way to keep his daughter safe – ‘map’ does not hold with it enough substance to describe the reclamation I imagined. I reconsider: not a map at all. Not drawn with elevation or terrain or roadways – but sets of places that connected and intersected one another, unmarked, without a legend for anyone else to see but yourself. I watch myself draw a line from my lack of self-esteem to my arched posture, with another pause between the two to name my fear. As the lines join points in pencil from my organs to my bones to my joints to the space around me and to each other. I reconsider; ‘constellation’ is much fuller and is responsible for reaching to hold the condensed light to the vast darkness. The ways we may reclaim our trauma and with it, ourselves, lies in the design and existence of the universe, and the patterns and connections that have lead those who migrate and journey home since the beginning – whenever and however we began.

Another reminder comes forward;

It has been two nights in a row without sleep, listening to and willfully feeding my addictions, leaning out the window to watch the night and to feel out these new body parts and transplants and fusions. Parts and connections that can reside outside of oneself, at any length and distance. Parts of oneself that can transform and shapeshift and awareness points like stars that sometimes take hundreds of moments to realize. A reconsideration of responsibility to oneself, and to others – two, four, six legs and more. Imagine, if you felt fear in all one hundred of your legs and they still carried you-you’ve got to have respect for that. And as a respectful gesture to ourselves – to the selves that battle patriarchy, phobias, ‘isms and skisms. Even with the capacity to be harmful to others (and we all have that capacity), we swallow the first stones. Always carrying them for miles before spitting them up. I see you. I see us.
I reconsider; maps have been made to tell a means by which we will find what we are looking for if we follow it’s guidance.

The whereabouts of people, places, elevation, dead ends.

Maps in textbooks that make the south smaller in scale so as to teach more than geology

Maps of our bones and body systems that are either able-bodied, or sick — no intersections, no autonomy

Maps of our genetic code, what washroom to use and how to have sex.

Maps of where our families came from except for the maps that they burned or buried with us.

And maps that tell us how to get to happiness, stability, how to put pieces together, fix what is broken, maps of manuals and each individual critical washer and bolt that are only manufactured in scarce, inconsistent, inaccessible amounts.

And if you do not have the map, then you will be lost.

I am tired,
I am tired,

I am tired,

I have been up for two nights now, and two days,
Exhausted for well longer than what the map of good self-care would say

What about when we don’t have access to these directions?
What about when we experience harm and there are no roads marked to bring us back from them?

What happens when I don’t feel love in my heart when I really reconsider love,

What if I feel love in my fingertips because they have such sensitivity, and reach, and motion?

And in my kidneys, because they are so unprotected.

I reclaim the ability to feel, name and indicate with a point and line with no legend for anyone. So that I may understand myself better. So that I may treat myself better. So that I may care to brush my teeth and not wait until I’m so thirsty to have water. And go to bed. Go ahead and design the constellations of your being; of yourself entirely, not just the weight. Reconsider all the ways we are told our trauma has to be designed to be valid. I consider that boundary crossing.

I keep tracing those points with my fingers, counting steps so I can see when complexities push up against them, maybe see them coming. What is the texture of being compassionate to yourself? In my case, reaching to feel for it (fingertips or kidneys) would reveal to myself enough. That, and not having such an obscenely dry mouth.

Note to self:

Draw a kidney, instead of a heart, on all letters and thank you notes from now on.


Melisse Watson
Melisse (Coyote) Watson is a polyracial Black-Cherokee identified queer artist driven by the capacity for art to provoke and contribute to social justice, community building and healing within systematically oppressed populations. Melisse is a multi-disciplinary artist and transformative justice community animator who began their arts practice in visual arts and poetry. Since, they have mounted an award-winning piece “I Was Born White” in the Toronto Fringe Festival, performed with Ballet Creole, Ill Na Na Dance Company and Drawing With Knives Co. Melisse has been inspired and determined to build a culture of rehabilitation, community restoration and shifting a paradigm of oppression through the arts.

Walking With Our Demons & Finding Our Way Home

A Crazy Half-Breed Femme’s Reflections on Mental Health & Reclamation

by Gesig Selena Isaac

 I cannot talk about reclamation without talking about its relationship to my mental health. For me, these things are intrinsically connected. I cannot talk about one without talking about the other. I think for a lot of us who are trying to seek out traditions and parts of our culture, and ourselves, this is true. It can be confusing, exhausting and sometimes very lonely. It can also breathe new life into our lungs and push us forward. Many obstacles can come between us and our culture; being estranged from blood family, unstable housing, being low income, mental health. There are also many ways we can seek out Reclamation; elders, community members, schooling (both formal & informal). Whatever way we choose, our e orts are both beautiful and valid. Mental health has very much shaped my path to Reclaiming.

Above: Rose Earrings beaded by the Author 

It has also taken a lot of time to get here; to seek out and find something that works for me. Reclaiming has been, more than anything, a creative outlet. I can tell you that for most of my life I carried around what I can best describe as a dam, weighted on my chest.

Holding back a barrage of water that needed to burst forth and ow. I knew something had to come out. ere was this limitless energy that I couldn’t necessarily name but knew was there. Sometimes in my mind, I visualized this energy as being a wooden chest that was waiting to get busted open.

My depression never was the cute kind. It was never the kind that could be transformed into something productive. I wasn’t making art about it. I wasn’t writing zines about it. I was very much in bed about it. And if not that, going to work and bursting into tears about it. When I think about what I’m going to write next I feel like a fraud. Sometimes, I feel like a fraud. Thirteen months ago I put my Crazy ass on medication. It helped. A lot. It blew up that dam and it busted open that chest. It helped me to see how my anxiety was manifesting in ways that I wasn’t able to realize, or even conceptualize, at the time. I knew it was holding me back but I hadn’t realized fully the extent it was doing so. I have Dreams now. Like, Real Live Fucking Dreams and goals and shit. Thirteen months ago if someone asked me what my life Dreams and Goals were I would have a) broken down and cried and curled up into a ball or b) fucking ran. I am not advocating for medication. I am talking about my own personal experiences. I am lucky. I know very well that this is absolutely not the experiences of most people who enter the world of Psychiatric medicine. I am telling you this because this has been a part of my path to Reclamation. I am invested in and committed to maintaining my Culture and Traditions in ways I am happy and very proud of. I do not know if I would have come to this place hadn’t I made that choice to medicate. When I write this I hear the voices of some herbalists telling me I just need to pull myself up by my “Spiritual Bootstraps” and “Stop feeling sorry for myself ” or “Depression is an ailment of the Spirit.” at’s fucking ableism and fuck that.

In the past year or so I feel like I have come to terms with that fact that mental health is an area in my life where I struggle. For a long time I was in a sort of pseudo denial about it and with that came a lot of anxiety and turmoil as to what my next steps in life might be. Today is my second day of school. I’m enrolled in an “Aboriginal Visual Arts” program at a Cra s College on the East coast. School for a long time was never something I had considered. I floated around for a very long time in cities where I felt out of place and inadequate. Finally, I honoured my Virgo rising self and finally, acknowledged and accepted that routine and a schedule might be one of the many things my crazy heart and brain may need. There were a couple of other schools I was previously interested in and frankly still am. Ultimately, I settled on the one I am in now because it is relevant to who I am as an Indigenous person. It is specific to where I come from geographically. e other schools were either in Northern Alberta or just outside of Yellowknife. rough making this decision a lot of questions came up for me like, What would it mean for a half-breed Mi’gmaq such as myself going to Northern Alberta to learn craft mean? My teachers wouldn’t be Mi’gmaq. My teachers would be Blackfoot and Metis or Dene. Would I have a place there?

I was in Toronto recently and there was an art show opening called ‘Indian Giver.’ It was a beautiful show. Later, I read an interview with one of the artists*, Sage Paul, she said: 

“Across Canada there are 500 different Indigenous nations. There are some commonalities but we’re all pretty different. So, for example, I would never use a headdress in any of my work because I don’t have a cultural connection to it. I have a feeling of protection over it but it’s not part of who I am or my nation… Our language and culture have been taken away from us so, for me, a lot of the artwork is one of the things that’s been constant… Clothing and textile identify who we are, especially because we are an oral culture. There are very specific c visuals that you can place to nations: the types of oral work on a mitten or moccasins, for example, can place us geographically.”

 


1. www.thefader.com/2016/06/08/setsune-fashion-incubator-toronto-indigenous-artists

 

Reading that helped solidify my decision. I understand the need to grab on to a Nation’s culture that isn’t yours when trying to navigate your way back to your own roots. These things can be cyclical. They can lead you back to yourself. But when given a chance to learn from your own people, about your own ways: take it. I want to know more about what it means to be Mi’gmaq. What makes us unique as a Nation. That being said, we all do what we can to get by in this Colonized world. Not everyone has access to the places they are from or money to go to school. Like I said before our efforts are beautiful and our efforts are valid

There were definitely a lot of “sexy” elements to going up North. Hide tanning and welding were both a part of the different curriculums. Having a chance to see the Northern lights was also a huge draw for me. In the end though I knew what the right choice was.

In class I learned of Maliseet scholar Andrea Bear Nicholas. She writes extensively of the ubiquitous dream catcher and Medicine Wheel. She is adamant that neither of these beliefs were ever apart of the Mi’gmaq teachings. She writes:

“To Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, and Passamaquoddy Peoples of the Maritimes:

It has been repeatedly brought to my attention how completely our people have been fooled into believing that the medicine wheel is somehow part of our traditions, especially our spirituality. While I had long had concerns about its origins, what woke me to the hoax was an event that occurred several years ago at a national conference of Aboriginal women scholars. It occurred when I raised the concern and prefaced my remarks with an apology to those whose tradition it might have been. Immediately a chorus went up with virtually everyone in the room saying loudly that it was not their tradition! And these were Aboriginal women scholars from across Canada!”

 


2. http://www.tobiquefirstnation.ca/treaties/MedicineWheelHoax2007.pdf

 

It is not a part of our oral traditions. These are important things for me to know. If I had sought out formal education at any one of the other schools I don’t think I would have heard of this. It is a part of my Reclaiming work to know what is and isn’t ours to pass on, to Reclaim.

The more we talk about our demons the more room is made for the good stuff. The stuff that feeds us. It can be vulnerable and messy at times but in the end I don’t think we have much other choice. Let’s honor our own processes, learn everything we can and share it.


 

Gesig Selena Isac
Gesig is a mixed race, half-breed Forest-Femme demon. She currently resides in wolastoqiyik territory.

Black Mental Health & Self Determined Futures

by Louise Boileau

A friend went to a youth shelter when it was cold. He was in distress, having a mental health crisis. He was told firmly to leave, or else they would call the police.

In July 2015, police arrived at subsidized housing unit at Eglinton West and Gilbert Ave, and murdered Andrew Loku within 20 seconds of seeing him. His house was a block up the street from Horizons for Youth, a shelter where my friend was living at the time.

The question has come to my mind helplessly many times: Where does a Black person in a mental health crisis go when they need help?

Left Illustration by Eli WiPe 

There is no safe place to go in this city when experiencing crisis where a black person will not be treated as a threat; including in one’s own home, be that a shelter or a private residence. It is a tired fact and one that requires urgent attention, that Black youth are treated as a problem in Toronto, on many institutional levels.

If reproductive justice is the ability to raise children in a community that is free from violence, it must also encompass mental health, and our ability to receive culturally relevant supports without being isolated or removed from the community, whether it be by child welfare, push out from school, incarceration or institutionalization.

 In the school system, Black youth experiencing anxiety, depression and trauma (which can manifest in many ways), are often summarized as having behavioural issues and are discarded. Expulsions as early as grade one show the incredible reach of anti-Blackness – that a child could be considered not worthy of an education and so lacking in hope for their potential that they should be isolated from their peers and “expelled” from opportunity. The treatment of Black students, and the problematization of Blackness at early ages is consistent with Black overrepresentation in the criminal system.

 Although Black communities represent 3% of the general population in Canada, we represent 9% of the prison population. People with mental health challenges are overwhelmingly filtered into the prison system. So, the chances of a Black person with mental health challenges spending timae in prison at some point in their life is extremely high. Furthermore, mental health challenges such as psychosis and paranoia are so extremely stigmatized, those who experience these symptoms are ostracized and isolated especially when they are most in need of support.

A Punitive Model Across The Board

When you begin to look at the methods of management in the education system, prison and hospital systems, the approach to Black students, youth and adults are very coordinated.

It seems that each uses a punitive approach to trauma, where Black people are being punished, ostracized and further traumatized for needing support, expressing anxiety, depression or distress, even though we are experiencing some of these things as a direct result of the hostile environment we are in.

In psychiatric hospitals in Ontario, there seems to be a chronic issue of overuse of force and restraints. On paper, restraints are meant to be used as a last resort measure. For those who are unfamiliar, to place someone in restraints is to secure them to a bed using straps. First, however, the person is forcibly sedated, sometimes by as many as 8 people (as a friend recounted), and then have their pants brought down so that they can be injected with a sedative in the buttocks. Then they are transported to a bed, and secured with the restraints for an unspecified period of time. A friend recounts being placed back in restraints whenever a nurse who didn’t like them would come back on shift. When she left her shift, they would be released. This is against standard protocol which dictates that restraints are to be used only in extreme situations, where staff either fear the “patient” will harm themselves or somebody else. So their discretion on using restraints lies on their perception of whether or not the “patient” is a threat. It is unreasonable to assume that anti-Blackness never plays a role in their decisions.

Placing a person in isolation is another approach, on paper, used to maintain “patient” or worker safety. However, I have also known it to be used in reaction to something a “worker didn’t like” about a patient, where the patient was then placed in isolation for a period of weeks, and was disallowed from contacting family or advocates. The use of isolation has drastic negative mental health impacts on any person, as has been documented in relation to the use of solitary confinement in prison and remand centres, where most of Canada’s imprisoned population are kept awaiting trial.

Remand facilities receive no resources or training in terms of caring for a person undergoing mental health challenges. Their primary go to, for the “safety” of the person imprisoned (the inmate), is to place them in solitary confinement. Furthermore, people are often denied their right to healthcare, medications or otherwise while in remand. The numbers and demographics of solitary confinement in Canada’s prisons and remand centres is not publicized, similar to the numbers and demographics of deaths inside both prisons and psychiatric institutions.

A Picture of The Mental Health System in Ontario

The mental health system in Ontario is a network of services and institutions, that follow two models intended to work together. The first is the the community based model which is meant to allow people access to support while staying within their communities. and The second is the institutional or medical model, which includes both inpatient and outpatient programs such as CAMH. The community model of mental health services is relatively new and certainly not perfect. Many services are rarely accessed by youth of colour, or and present services are often not culturally relevant.

Only two services in Toronto, that I am aware of, provide services focused on racialized people, and there is only one that provides counselling specifically for Black people in all of Canada. Across Boundaries, and The Substance Abuse Program for African Canadian and Caribbean Youth (SAPACCY) which runs as a program out of CAMH.

The SAPACCY program began in 1996 from community concerns over the amount of Black youth incarcerated for drug related crimes. It was proposed to the ministry and then amalgamated into the CAMH Queen and Shaw location. The SAPACCY program, due to lack of allocated resources is currently hanging on by a thread with only one counsellor with an unusually large caseload, and an even larger waitlist. The waitlist includes only those people who qualified for the services because they are in the catchment area. CAMH recently received a donation of $100 million. It appears they are determined to allocate these funds entirely towards “high-risk” research and the hiring of “top scientists,” in the midst of our current housing and resource crisis. What they intend to research, and how this is suppose to help anyone, I am unsure.

Toronto Police Services & The Mental Health System

The mental health system in Ontario maintains a tight relationship with Toronto Police Services (TPS). The Mobile Crisis Intervention Team (MCIT), which is intended to respond to mental health crisis, is a partnership between Toronto Police Services and participating hospitals. The team is a mental health nurse and a police officer (who may or may not be trained by the TPS in mental health awareness). To what extent they receive any training on de-escalation is entirely unclear. The Mobile Crisis team is only available between the hours of 6am and 11pm. TPS is usually the first point of contact for people undergoing mental health crisis. Police officers may bring the detained person to a hospital, where they will be kept for anywhere from an hour to several weeks if admitted. Or they may be charged with an offence and placed in remand.

To call the police in the case of a crisis, is to risk the death of yourself, your family member or friend. But this is the only option presented in a mental health related emergency. Even if a person calls the MCIT, they are still calling the police. There is little assurance that this is in anyway a safer option. At the many times I have made a list in my head of the greatest risk to my family members’ life, police interactions was always the one I feared most.

 The only route made available to access mental health care in crisis is the trauma of police services, and the trauma of psychiatric institutionalization. If we must cope with the pain inflicted on us by those systems that we are asked to call supports than we have very few options at all within the current structure of mental health care.

Community-Led & Self Determined Futures

Because of shame and exhaustion it is often difficult to seek out community or support services. Although we must teach ourselves how to navigate systems and how to survive, there is little space to share these tools with each other.

Intercepting the Pipeline to Prison is a project, lead by Black youth, to address the intersection of mental health, anti-Blackness and criminalization. It is a project created to share survival skills and strategies and to document our experiences. We have developed workshops in three streams: Youth Justice and Advocacy, Family and Community and Creative Solutions. The workshops provide skill building on safety tools for interactions with police, getting access to advocates while in remand, daily self care and coping methods, discussing mental health in our families, the ways we do support and advocate in our families and communities and how to strengthen them, and designing the kind of supports that we would like to see gain funding. In these community conversations we will have the opportunity to pool our knowledge and skills and create take-away resources for each other. The workshops are written from a lived experience perspective, with supports from our organizational mentors such as Legal Swipe. The Project also includes a short documentary interviewing Black youth on their experiences surviving, accessing services, living and creating.

We are creating spaces where we are able to talk about things we have never felt safe bringing up in mental health care spaces, institutional or otherwise: Anti-Blackness as we see and feel it in the mental health system, Caribbean perspectives on mental health, spiritual affliction, “pray it away” and stigma in the Church, spiritual or religious supports that we need, how the option of medication can be complicated by medical trauma, self-determination and the need for supports where people look you in the eye and understand you beyond the idea that you are an impossible problem.

 We believe it is within the community; friends, family, partners and chosen family that long-term support for mental health come from. And any service or support that a person seeks along the way should strengthen their chosen support circle.

 There are many directions to work in and issues to tackle; prison reform and abolition, deinstitutionalization, and the creation of Black-focused mental health supports that strengthen the community. There are conversations and actions happening now in regards to Anti-Blackness in the Peel Board lead by community, the scrapping of the SRO program (s/o to the many people who worked tirelessly for that), the Black Youth Action Plan, and the 10 year health accord that will see $1.9 billion allocated to mental health initiatives in Ontario over the next decade.

 It is a very important time to document our experiences, demand resources, and lead solutions as we connect the conversations on Anti-Blackness to mental health and the criminal system.

 If you are interested in getting involved in the project as a youth, mentor, interviewee, creative collaborator, researcher etc., or you have questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch by email at interceptingthepipeline@gmail.com or by phone at 647-207-9376. We are also interested in Indigenous community collaboration on the project.


Lou Boileau
Lou Boileau is a mental health advocate and writer of creative non-fiction and short stories. She works in the areas of youth work and food justice. She is based out of Tkaronto. Her work in mental health and advocacy is from lived experience, and family support caregiving.

Eli Wipe
Eli is queer artist residing in Toronto. They are an aspiring illustrator and writer. You can contact them at piscesprincx@gmail.com. Check out their bigcartel: piscesprincx, or their instagram, twitter and tumblr by the same names

Justice in our Schools

Building Safety for Black Youth Living with ADD and ADHD

by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

 I recently caught up with Leroi Newbold, a bad ass teacher working in the Toronto District School Board doing amazing work with youth. This interview I did with him focuses on how Black youth living with ADD and ADHA are being impacted by ableism is schools and transformative solutions.

Shabina: Can you introduce yourself and the work you do? 

I’m LeRoi Newbold. I’m a community organizer with Black Lives Matter – Toronto, a parent, and an educator at the Africentric Alternative School at Keele and Sheppard in Toronto. On a daily, I teach Grade 1. I’ve taught Special Education and have taught in a “behavioral” classroom in the system. I work with Black kids who are struggling with being educated in a system that is oppressive, and I try to share some tools with them about how to resist in that system, or how to be successful through understanding how that system operates.

I am the co-founder of St. Emilie Skillshare in Montreal, which began as a skill-sharing organization to provide free studio time and photography/silkscreen lessons to people living in of South-West Montreal, and queer/trans *BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour). I am the founder and director of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto Freedom School, which is an arts based program to teach Black Liberation, political history and political resistance to young Black children (4-10 years-old). We especially focus on Black Liberation work done by and to support Black *cis women, queer, and transgender people, poor Black people, Black people in prison, and Black people living at the margins of our communities. We teach kids how to organize, how to use arts to communicate, and how to fight back against police violence and oppression.

I am on the steering committee of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto. So….we support people who want to speak out about police murders of their family members, and police violence. We also try to create space for Black artists making work in Toronto, hold systems accountable for state violence, encourage people to rely on each other for safety instead of police, and support alternatives to traditional schooling for Black kids etc.

 Shabina: What is an IEP and how are Black youth impacted by them?

An IEP is an Individual Education Plan. On paper an IEP is a seven page document that is written to outline how a child is going to get support over the course of a year in the Special Education system here in Ontario. The IEP outlines accommodation, which are things that a child might need to be successful in school like extra time on exams, different exam formats, condensed work etc. In some cases it outlines modifications, which is when a child’s whole curriculum is altered so for example, a child might be enrolled in Grade 4, but according to their IEP, they are working on elements of a Grade 2 curriculum as a point of departure.

On paper an IEP is a collaborative (so written together) by parents, classroom teachers, Special Education teachers, and principles. IEPs are in theory positive because they are personalized and student based. They outline a student’s strengths and needs, and the idea is to use a student’s strengths to address their needs. So for example, an IEP might stipulate that a child is very strong in music and that those strengths should be used to address their need to develop stronger reading skills or skills in mathematics. IEPs are also technically documents that hold teachers accountable to a plan for how to address a student’s needs, who may need support academically or even socially/emotionally.

The problem with IEPs is sometimes they are in fact not collaborative documents. Sometimes they are documents that teachers write and ask parents to sign without even properly explaining what they are. Sometimes they are documents that confuse parents because a child’s report card is reporting on their progress on their IEP instead of progress in the classroom. For example, a parent is seeing A’s on a child’s report card, but not understanding that their child is working below their Grade level. Sometimes IEP’s, are documents that criminalize kids and put families in danger because the IEP states that 911 should be called when a child does a certain behaviour, even though the child is 5 or 6 years- old. Sometimes IEPs are a problem because they lead to an actual lack of accountability. For example, a child may never fail a grade in school, but might remain on an IEP that says they are working at a Kindergraten level while they are enrolled in Grade 2, and then again while they are enrolled in Grade 3, and then again while they are enrolled in Grade 4. There is a lack of processes of accountability for teachers to ensure that the plan written in the IEP is met and that the child learns the things the IEP says they’re going to learn.

Shabina: Can you talk about some of the barriers set up for Black youth living with ADD, ADHA and other ‘behavioural disorders’ in the public school system?

One barrier is that ADD and ADHA are often treated as behavioural disorders. ADD/ADHA are not behavioural disorders. ADD and ADHD affect the executive functions of the brain. So in an educational setting, a child might need support directing their attention to a particular task or instruction. What a child does not need is escalating punitive measures related to the struggle they have with focus or attention, and therefore their tendency to get up and wander around or “distract” other kids. Punishing a child for the executive functions of their brain is very violent and very ableist.

This can be exacerbated by the fact that Black children are often read as defiant in a way that is not appropriate. In “Educating Other People’s Children” Lisa Delpit writes about the way white teachers tend to give verbal directives. She writes about how white teachers tend to give verbal directives in a way that is very passive aggressive (Ex: would you like to read a book? Ex: Is that where we put the scissors?). For Black children whose parents speak to them in very direct ways in their up-bringing, passive aggressive ways of speaking and interacting can be very confusing. Black children will often take what is being said at face value, and respond by saying, “No, I don’t want to read a book.” And then the child will be read and labeled as defiant even though they are just being honest. Passive aggressive verbal directives can be an even bigger problem for children who have communication based learning disabilities or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) because passive aggressive communication can be hard or impossible to understand.

Another issue for many Black communities and families is that education has been used as an instrument of colonization. So because of this, parents and families don’t trust the education system here even though education is a priority for Black families. There is also a breadth of research to suggest that Black communities have diminished trust in the health care system because of racism, mistreatment by physicians and having received substandard health care. Because of this, diagnoses for Black children with disabilities like ASD or ADHD might happen later in life or not at all. It is very hard for parents to effectively collaborate with teachers around things like IEPs when there is little or no trust there.

Shabina: How do you see the school-to-prison pipeline affecting Black youth with disabilities?

There has been a shift for people from talking about the school-to-prison pipeline to actually talking about schools as carceral (jail like) spaces. The case of a 6 year-old Black girl who was recently handcuffed at school by police in Mississauga clearly demonstrates how schools can act as carceral spaces for Black kids (especially Black kids with disabilities). A 6 year-old was handcuffed by police at her school because she was having an outburst, and potentially punched her principal. The child was 6 years-old, so weighed less than 50 pounds. For an adult principal (who is an authority figure within a school), being punched by someone who weighs less than 50 pounds and is 6 years-old might be surprising, but it does not present a threat to safety. When police arrived on scene the child was banging her head against her desk, which suggested that she was in emotional distress. It is likely that the child needed support processing her emotions, and that maybe she needed attention (maybe a hug) from an someone who cared about her and whom she trusted. The fact that the child had apparently had many incidents such as this, suggested that she may have needed ongoing social/emotional support. Instead, the police were called. Instead of de-escalating the situation, the police then handcuffed the child by her wrists, as well as by her ankles. This was an act of excessive and humiliating violence, and one that will be potentially traumatic for a very young child. What leads an adult principal (trained to support children) to seek the assistance of a police officer (whose job is address crime) in calming down a 6 year-old child is anti-Black racism.

In 2008, Toronto Police Services implemented something called the SRO (School Resource Officer) program. The SRO Program is part of TAVIS (Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy). TAVIS is a program that was implemented to curb gun violence by increasing police presence in specifically designated areas of Toronto, which included many Black neighbourhoods. The SRO program specifically placed police officers in a number of schools across Toronto with the goal of improving relationships between youth and police. By 2011, about fifty schools had School Resource officers, including a large number of schools in majority Black neighbourhoods, and including not only high schools but elementary schools (serving children from 3 and a half to 12 years-old). This means that Black children increasingly have police present in their schools, and police brought in to assist with conduct issues and conflicts between students and between students and teachers. This affects Black children in many ways.

This affects Black children and youth psychologically. They may wonder why it is a necessary to have a police officer present in their place of learning to survey them constantly. It affects Black children in terms of increased violent incidents with police. We remember the case of Spring Valley High School where a police dragged a teenage Black girl out of her desk and threw her against a wall. It affects Black children with disabilities because Black students with behavioural “exceptionalities”/disabilities are often the ones being suspended and going through other punitive processes at school. It affects Black children with disabilities because they are then at an increased risk being referred to Ontario Youth Corrections due to their behaviour at school. It affect Black children because youth are one of the fastest growing prison population in Ontario, and so are Black women.

 Shabina: Can you talk about some transformative models used to implement disability justice within a classroom to keep Black youth in particular safe, nurtured and humanized?

The Black Panther Party for Self Defense created a school called the Oakland Community School, and the school did not use punitive measures such as detention, suspensions, expulsions, or even timeouts. Instead they had something called the Youth Justice League. Through the Youth Justice league, youth (in the presence of an adult) would be responsible for addressing conduct issues that occurred in the classroom. For example, a young child who did not do their homework would go to the Youth Justice League for what they called “course correction”. The youth would ask the children why for example, they didn’t do their homework. The child would then outline the reason why they didn’t do their homework. The youth justice league would suggest ways for the child to correct the issue. They would ask the child what support they needed in making the correction. This is an example a transformative justice model because the Oakland Community School transformed the circumstances in which education took place. It transformed dynamics of power so that Black and Latinx communities decided what kind of education was appropriate for their children. It transformed dynamics of power in that it gave opportunities to youth to experience the same power as teachers (decide on course content, co-teach lessons etc). In an event that a conduct issue arose it gave power to children in terms of being accountable to each other rather than an authority figure. They were given a chance to talk about their level of engagement in what they were learning, and being given support to address their own behaviour. This is crucial for children with disabilities because punishment is not appropriate when your what is seen as inappropriate behaviour might happen because of a cognitive disorder or something else beyond your control. Disabilities justice means that transforming the spaces that we are part of to be accessible and sustainable and to prioritize people with disabilities. People with disabilities cannot be honoured within an educational institution that corrects atypical behaviour through punishment, isolation, violence, or humiliation.

Shabina: How can teachers stand in solidarity with Black youth living with ADD and ADHD?

1.Teachers working within the system should recognize ourselves as an arm of the state, and therefore an arm of state violence. We must, wherever possible, intervene in the routine intervention into and harassment of the Black family by police and Childrens Aid Society.

2.Nerotypical people and neurotypical adults must take leadership from people with disabilities in how to transform our classrooms and educational spaces into spaces that are accessible.

3.Educators must respect, love, and share power with Black families, students, and communities


Leroi Newbold
Leroi Newbold is a parent, community organizer, and educator and curriculum designer.  Leroi is inaugural staff and Grade 1 teacher at Canada’s first public Africentric School.  He organizes on the steering committee of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto and is the director of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto Freedom School.

Shabina Lafleur-Gangji
Shabina is a queer mixed race weird witchy lady from Guelph who is into community organizing and revolution.

Mental Health in Detention

black and white photo of butterfly

Finding Freedom

By Mina Ramos

Since 2013, different individuals detained at the Central East Correctional Centre (CECC) for immigration reasons have been fighting for their freedom and to end immigration detention. M was involved in the initial hunger strike in 2013 that started a series of organizing from within the CECC. 

Although he is now released, M still works with several different organizations to support migrants coming into this country and to end immigration detention. I sat down with M to talk about his experience balancing his mental health while in detention and his ideas as to what can be done to create a world centered on humanity.

Mina: What was your overall experience like while in immigration detention?

M: Throughout the whole ordeal, it was basically CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency‎) going back and forth with the country I was born in trying to confirm my identity and CBSA trying to get identity documents for me. It’s hard to describe the feel of being incarcerated in a maximum security prison. You’re going through the routine on a daily basis as to what they want you to do, how they want you to live, down to what they want you to eat. The conditions there were horrible. I can’t tell you enough about what people who are incarcerated go through. Communication was the biggest aspect of it. You’re going through so many different things and you want to talk to your lawyer but that was so hard because with the system that is setup up you are making collect calls. Sometimes the people you have to call, can’t call take collect calls because there is a menu and they have to setup up calling you direct. Sometimes instead they’ll set up a meeting to come visit but this is also hard for them to make the time for because the jail I was in was so far away.

As far as hygiene, healthcare, medication, all they could really do was issue you anti-depressants. That was the easiest thing you could get. Once you’re on these pills, it alters your mind and you are pretty much dependent on that. They are so quick to issue these pills. There is so much more to healthcare that they don’t seem to understand. First of all, if of you need a psychiatrist, there is no help. For the time I was in jail, I never once saw a psychiatrist because CBSA knows that if a psychiatrist diagnoses you with mental health issues it becomes more difficult to deport you. So they deny you this access.

It’s an everyday fight because you are locked up with people who are sentenced with crimes and regardless of your viewpoints on prison, it messes with you that you have no convictions while on immigration hold, but are still in jail because you are an immigrant. That takes a toll on your soul, on your mental capability just to be human. You have to understand, you don’t even know why you are there in the first place and they will never really tell you because all it is is that they are trying to deport you but for whatever reason they can’t put you on the plane. So you are just there wasting away. You start to lose ties to your family outside who can’t visit you often. When they do, the visits are only twenty minutes. In twenty minutes you can’t really have an actual conversation. I would tell my family not to come because I didn’t want to put them through that strain. The fact that you are in a prison uniform alone discourages you everyday.

One time, I went to go see a doctor and I will never forget this scenario; when I was in the elevator and I was in chains. There was a kid in the elevator and he’s looking at me and asks his father “What did this guy do”. This was a four year-old kid. So, him seeing me would probably remain in his brain the rest of life. He probably has never seen something like this. He’s looking at me like, “this man is in chains. Why? I don’t understand.”

This is the type of image that CBSA projects.

Mina: You mentioned you had to deal with the stress of being in jail and then on top of that not knowing if you would be deported or released. How did you deal with that?

M: I don’t know. I don’t want to say I was strong-minded because that would send the wrong message. What CBSA tries to do is break you into submission. Everyday you go onto the range and manage to play games. it becomes your entire life that just repeats. Everyday you get up and do the same things. The lack of communication to the outside world makes it that jail is all you think about. You’re with thirty to forty people in the same situation. Naturally there is drama. People are frustrated and when they are frustrated, it leads to violence. There was a lot of violence. Some of it I am not proud of, but order has to be maintained in any society. In a jail society, there are so many power struggles and to deal with this you have to be strong mentally and physically. During all that stress, the only outlet that I had was working out. I made sure that I built my body and stayed healthy as much as that could help me. Even working out though is not pleasure. You had to get your mind in the fact that anything could happen. You see people stabbed and passing out. Immigration detention is a situation where people can die. I told myself I am not going to die in here and that kept me strong. I decided I would organize myself and make sure I let people know what was going on. A lot of times organizing and building awareness from inside jail on what I was going through is what kept me going.

 Mina: What specific mental health resources were there why you were in jail?

M: It wasn’t about the system diagnosing you. It was about telling the nurse “I can’t sleep” or I am thinking about this or that. The dominant prescription they would give you is Seroquel and it has some major side effects. That stuff was everywhere, it was like water. There were so many people on it and it would get your mind weak and people were being taken advantage of. You’re not really sober enough to understand what is going on around you. You are basically sleep-walking and attracting violence.

Mina: It’s been over three years since you’ve been detained. What was your transition out of jail like and how have you managed to keep yourself grounded?

M: Listen, I have seen so many psychiatrists since I’ve been out and the most common thing they say is that I have PTSD. They say man, you have so much trauma something really serious must have happened to you.

I don’t like to believe this because I like to stay strong especially when dealing with my kids and my daily outside life. I have a very supportive family that has helped me throughout. There are slips that happen. There are different ways that I cope. Every morning I tell myself today is gonna be a better day. That’s it. Sometimes I drink a lot. Me knowing myself before I went through this whole dilemma, I was taking care of myself and I was able to work and provided for myself but the stress that is related to this doesn’t allow yourself to see you that way. And there are minimal things that the public healthcare can do for you. Half the help I am seeking I am paying out of my pocket. The damage is done. You got to understand I spent three and a half years in maximum security prison. There is no freedom and you’ve been told this over and over again while you are in there. This has such a huge impact on what your life is during and after. Not everyone has the same experience than me, but I can tell you about my foundation. Some of the experiences I’ve been through before this all happened, I think equipped me to deal with everything CBSA put me through.

So here I am, three and a half years later and I notice that I am not myself. When I am dealing with my kids sometimes I yell. Sometimes I get aggressive even though I know that it’s not their fault.  Who do I blame in this case? I can’t blame anybody, it’s my life. That’s what I mean when I say the damage is done. I can’t find any answers to it, it doesn’t matter how many psychiatrists I see a day, I am still struggling. Some of the people I have been locked up with are also released but they are doing way worse than I am. Some of them turn to drugs. Some of them can’t cope. There has been instances where people got deported to their own countries and commit suicide. It’s so hypocritical, some people came here to seek refuge, get incarcerated, get deported back to the country where they were seeking refuge and then kill themselves. Where is the guilt? The government has to respond to these situation? If Canada is supposed to be a safe haven of the modern world, then why is this happening? What are people supposed to do? The system dedicates itself to keeping this image in the world. They say come here but the reality is that they detain you. Imagine people come searching for a better life and end up in prison. This is something that a lot of people can’t cope with.

Is Canada here to help or is Canada here to destroy? What they are doing is violence.

 Mina: Since you’ve been detained, you’ve been organizing in different ways to work with people to carve out a little bit more humanity in the world. Part of this has involved working to end immigration detention. Beyond these things, what does it mean to create a liberated world that takes into account the trauma that people have gone through?

M: My principle is pro-humanity. My principle is anti-detention. There has to be an alternative to this. I mean I understand that prisons are supposed to create opportunities for employment and economy for communities, but human nature dictates otherwise. Human nature tells us how to be humane regardless of what your status is or the crimes you have committed. So, for an entire institution to be built on this, people are making money somewhere. It costs two hundred and fifty dollars a day  to keep someone in immigration detention and this is taxpayer money. This is where your money is going.

These thoughts are what inspired and sparked myself and others to go on a hunger strike back in 2013. For me it lasted thirty-two days in order to have some sort of affirmative response. I had to starve myself just to get the bail program and and for CBSA to listen. During this time, they came to me and said, you have to stop and I told them this is my god-given right. I was sickened with their laws so I had to do something. I had to organize people to make them understand that we don’t have to be in this situation and I had to help them believe this.

Moving forward, we got to centralize the people who have been through this. You got to get to know them. You have to understand that they’ve been through so much atrocity that some of these people are not in their right minds now. So you have to organize some basic foundation that people can lean on. We have to get people their basic needs as in what they need to survive. We have to get people work permits. Most of these people are willing to work but you can’t even get a work permit even after everything you’ve been through. There are no workshops that are guaranteed to you, nothing that really helps you along the way once you are released. We need this.

In order for you to understand my trail of thoughts, you have to put yourself in my position. I’ve witnessed death and people being kept in some pretty seriously inhumane conditions. On the flip side, when speaking out about this I’ve had people approach me to tell my story for their own personal gain. Don’t take mine or anyone else’s misfortunes for personal gain; ever. To understand what goes on in these maximum security prisons you have to be in one. No matter how much you read about it or speak to people about it, you will just never understand if you don’t go through it. Bigotry, in whatever way it plays out has no place in my world. If you do approach me or anyone else who has gone through this don’t ask hypocritical questions and devote your life to making real differences.

I am not a genius in politics. I don’t understand politics. What I do understand is humanity and this is the basis of what society was built on. We neglect humanity as much as we want, but my fight is not just for me and if people actually believe in humanity, people like Justin Trudeau should be booking time to talk to me.

I am not saying I would put myself on the front lines, because it takes a whole body of people to do this work, but I do work with certain networks and people who are on the same page with me. Governments have to think twice about their principles and philosophies about what it means to be human. I come from a small country but I see my people mobilize, which is my foundation, which is my root. Me being in Canada, I struggle everyday with mental health. I struggle with addiction. I am not ashamed to say it. What I know is that humanity as a whole will one day conquer. Because we are people of different backgrounds but one thing that we have in common is that when we centralize as humanity no one will defeat us.

I am going to Manitoba today and I am going to be there to support people who are now coming into the country. Even though I have been through what I have been through, there is no way that I cannot support this people. These are times where I feel and I know that I can make a difference.

So yeah, this whole idea turns into who is in control and about who is dictating people’s lives and how we carve freedom from that.


Mina Ramos
Mina is a mixed race queer who is based out of Brampton ON. She is passionate about ideas, thoughts and issues ground- ed in resistance movements of all kinds and the intricate connection to spiritual- ity but speci cally organizes in the realm of migrant justice

The Lion’s Call

blue illustration of old school key

by Aaron James Preclaro

“There needs to be a lot more emphasis on what a child can do instead of what they cannot do” –Temple Grandin

Speaking as someone who was born with multiple disabilities, the above quote really speaks volumes in my mind. From the moment I entered the world on December 11th 1998, I had an immediate understanding of the word “adversity” as I had been diagnosed with things such as hydrocephalus and mild cerebral palsy; in addition to epilepsy from ages 3 to 10. Growing up, I was fully aware that I was different, some examples were that I had a team of adults who were specially trained to look after me in school, I was subjected to one grade level of math for three years and I wore a custom made brace on my left leg. These reasons made me the outcast in school and it didn’t help that I had a lot of trouble understanding other people’s emotions and picking up social cues.

I have always been open about living with multiple disabilities but the turning point really came when I received my diagnosis of mild autism spectrum disorder in the seventh grade. At the time when I got tested, I didn’t really know what I was in for but I knew that it was requested by my elementary school’s department of special education.

Upon reading the psychiatrist’s letter a couple of weeks after being tested, I was initially shocked but came to realize that every little thing I had done throughout my life made sense, such as: walking around in circles, voicing my thoughts aloud without a care in the world if other people heard me and only being engaged in a conversation regarding whatever topic I was crazy about; whether that was a celebrity, a television show or a movie. Then I further explored my diagnosis through countless hours of research, and it wasn’t long before I decided that I wanted to become an advocate for those in the community with disabilities. I dreamed of being the voice for people who didn’t have one. Six years later and I continue to find ways to raise awareness.

However, regardless of how many times I’ve told my story over the years, I’ve discovered that not everyone will be as receptive as I would hope. I first learned this lesson through an experience I often refer to as The Lion’s Call; which started when a former friend of mine asked for my help on a paper for her psychology class- detailing the life of someone who defied the expectations of society. I saw this as a chance to have my voice heard, so I gladly offered my assistance. Unfortunately the response my friend received for the paper was unlike anything I had ever expected to hear. The professor was glad that my friend valued me like a younger brother but she was curious to know if due to my disabilities, I fully understood what it meant to identify as transgender. Did I know what I was asking for by identifying this way or was I just imitating something I saw on TV?

Naturally, I was upset and I told my friend how I felt. She told me that she didn’t think the feedback was that bad; which only escalated my pain. But I could not see past it. The thought of a respectable adult questioning my capacity infuriated me but it brought me to a point of clarity; which turned into a lesson that I preach to the audiences who are willing to listen. If you’ve met one person with a certain disability, you’ve only met one person. Different conditions affect everyone in a variety of ways. You will never meet two people with the exact same story because they have different gifts and talents to offer the world. I’ve found that my strength lies beneath the ways in which I am able to articulate my feelings through writing.

One of the most common subjects I have found while living life openly with multiple disabilities is roadblocks or hurdles; meaning even though I try not to let anything get in the way of achieving the goals I have set, there are just some things in life I am not able to control but I can improve on. That being said, I believe that my greatest hurdle is my struggle with anxiety and depression; a common factor in every diagnosis I have received throughout my life.

Much like every other mental health issue in the world, anxiety and depression present themselves in various forms depending on the person affected. In my case, my brain processes things such as sound and sight a little differently than others. For example, a room filled with countless people socializing and having fun might be fine for someone else. But in my eyes, it is an immediate anxiety provoking situation. My brain goes into overdrive thinking about ways to escape; if not that, the deepest darkest thoughts then start fighting for space.

When I reflect on the ways in which my anxiety and depression have affected me and my disabilities, one word comes to mind: accessibility. Upon hearing or seeing this word, I instantly think about whatever anyone may need to make themselves feel comfortable in unfamiliar situations or the tools that they require achieving success in general. While attending school, I had an individual education plan (most commonly referred to as an IEP); which is a legal document detailing the accommodations necessary for me to feel safe and comfortable such as: frequent breaks and walks, the use of assistive technology and a quiet space to calm down and process my feelings whenever I became anxious.

Despite the fact that I am not currently enrolled in any kind of post-secondary education, I still believe that my needs continue exist and my accommodations are applicable elsewhere. There are some times when I am surrounded by my friends and I know I should feel happy but then it just comes a point where it gets to be too much and all I can hear are warning signals in my head telling me to get out but I can’t. I would just be really sad if my anxiety was the reason I had to leave a solid foundation of friends behind.

Overall, I think accessibility is the key to maintain the feelings of security and happiness in people. But the only way to really know for sure is to ask. We all process the world in our own ways and require different tools to in order to achieve their definition of success, so why not do everything you can to help them? It should be our honor praise people for what they are able to contribute to the world. Whether disabled or neurotypical, we should embrace the gifts that each of us has because we are the people who will change the world.

 


Aaron-James Preclaro
Aaron-James Preclaro is an 18 year-old transgender man of Filipino descent. He has spoken to a variety of audiences about his disabilities and gender journey.