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Ontario PTSD legislation for first responders celebrated by some, but nurses left out

New rules approved at Queen's Park hailed by expert as good first step

Councillor Cheri DiNovo, paramedic Shannon Bertrand

Paramedic Shannon Bertrand, left, and Toronto NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo welcomed Tuesday's legislation that recognizes post-traumatic stress disorder as a work-related illness for first responders.

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Advocates for first responders say too many people will be left out of new legislation passed at Queen's Park Tuesday that makes it easier for first responders to claim insurance benefits for work-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The Ontario Nurses' Association (ONA) says the province's 60,000 nurses are outraged the province has excluded them from the bill in a news release.

ONA Vice-President Vicki McKenna says nurses are "shocked and so disappointed" the government didn't include them in the legislation, especially after the organization met with the labour minister during the process of crafting the bill.

Others argue on-the-job trauma often leads to other mental illness such as depression and substance abuse that won't be covered by the legislation.

The legislation, introduced by the government in February and passed unanimously today, will apply to the province's 73,000 first responders including police officers, firefighters, paramedics, workers in correctional institutions, and First Nation emergency response teams. When a first responder is diagnosed with PTSD, there will be an assumption it is work-related.

In the past, injured first responders have needed to prove their PTSD diagnosis resulted from a workplace injury in order to access benefits from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

Advocates for first responders have called for the new rules for years, arguing that forcing an injured worker to prove the cause of their PTSD diagnosis is too onerous and often re-traumatizing.

NDP says key groups left without coverage

NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo, who introduced five unsuccessful bills that would recognize PTSD as a workplace injury, says more work needs to be done in this area.

"We wanted to see the nurses, parole officers and bailiffs covered," she told CBC News.

"I say to those groups that should've been covered but weren't: 'We're still fighting for you.'"

Paramedic Shannon Bertrand, who spoke alongside DiNovo at Queen's Park after the bill passed, told CBC News she "couldn't be happier" with Tuesday's news.

"I wish the bill could be expanded to include other groups, but I think that's coming down the road," she said.

"I think we've set the pathway for other groups and I'm just happy for me and my colleagues."

Ontario's Labour Minister Kevin Flynn told reporters it was gratifying to see the legislation being passed unanimously.

"Society hasn't paid enough attention to mental health issues and post-traumatic stress disorder is a big part of that," Flynn said.

"So, it was gratifying to sit in the House and look around and to realize that an action by this legislature can change and affect lives in a really meaningful way."

Nurses not included

Nurses with PTSD, the ONA's McKenna said, are still struggling to get support. Getting a claim through the WSIB, she said, is like climbing a mountain.   

"We have cases under appeal now that have taken a decade," she said.

McKenna says some nurses who have been unable to work since seeing colleagues die during the SARS outbreak in 2003 have never received compensation. 

McKenna says it's difficult for nurses to have to "fight so hard — when it's clear that this is what they're experiencing."

She adds being included in the legislation would encourage nurses to talk about workplace stress and come forward more often.  

"Nurses who need assistance and support would seek it.  And they would be healthier, and be able to be in the workplace," she said. 

Vince Savoia, the executive director of the Tema Conter Memorial Trust, an organization that supports first responders dealing with "operational stress," says Ontario has made a good first step with the new legislation. 

"We have to start somewhere," he said.

"PTSD is quite high in the emergency services field.

Savoia said the legislation could be improved by covering nurses, doctors and social workers who witness trauma on a day-to-day basis. 

In Manitoba, he said, all occupations are covered. 

"Obviously we'd like to see that type of legislation in Ontario. But this is a very, very fantastic first step."

Legislation brought tear to former police officer's eye

A Cop's Ordeal 4:26

Ralph Thistle, a former Toronto police officer, told CBC News the legislation brought a tear to his eye.

Thistle blames PTSD for breaking up his family and leaving him homeless. He would eventually spend three months in jail, as well. 

"I'm so pleased the next generation of men and women joining first responders will have the support I didn't receive," he said at Queen's Park.

His daughter, Kyra Thistle, who accompanied her dad to the legislature Tuesday also lauded the government's move.  

"When you see the person you love the most in the darkest place they can be and there's nothing you can do to help, that's where the main struggle is. I'm glad this bill has passed so no other families have to go through the same situation we went through."

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