Cpl. Ron Francis's lifelong friend and lawyer is making a plea for help for police officers and other first responders who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, in the wake of the suicide of the RCMP veteran, known for his stand on smoking medicinal marijuana while in uniform.
Francis, a 21-year Mountie veteran who was on medical leave from J Division in New Brunswick, died around 4 p.m. Monday. He was 43.
"He ended up unfortunately falling ill to the post-traumatic stress, and the treatment that he should have received just wasn't there for him at the end," said T.J. Burke.
Burke is calling on the provincial and federal governments to develop something to help first responders "receive actual treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder."
The RCMP have had 16 documented incidents of suicide among serving members over the past nine years, and 15 suicides among retired members.
Those figures do not include Francis's death, "as it is up to the coroner to determine the cause," communications officer Sgt. Greg Cox stated in an email.
It's unclear how many of those suicides may be related to PTSD.
Marijuana a 'red herring'
Francis made national headlines in late 2013 when he went public with his belief he should be allowed to smoke medical marijuana while in uniform to help him cope with PTSD.
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In recent months, Burke has also represented a Fredericton city police officer and an ex-member of the Canadian military who have been charged with crimes while, Burke says, they were dealing with PTSD.
"We're seeing people, first responders — EMTs, police officers, soldiers, firefighters — coming forward saying they have post-traumatic stress disorder," said Burke.
"What's happening is it's manifesting in such a way because they are not receiving treatment, they are committing what society calls criminal acts. We're seeing them in court cases."
While Francis gained national notoriety in his quest to be allowed to smoke prescribed marijuana while on the job, Burke says that was never the major issue at play.
"Ronnie's whole goal was never smoking marijuana," said Burke. "It was about bringing to light that the RCMP was not providing adequate services to its officers that suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
'The marijuana was always a red herring. It was always the issue concerning post-traumatic stress disorder.' - T.J. Burke, lawyer and lifelong friend of Ron Francis
"The marijuana was always a red herring," he said. "It was always the issue concerning post-traumatic stress disorder.
"For 21 years, he served as a proud member of the RCMP," said Burke. "He had no disciplinary issues.
"What the public saw was a man who was very sick in his last year of life and that is the unfortunate thing," said Burke.
"He was more than a person who smoked marijuana in uniform."
RCMP call death 'a terrible loss'
Assistant commissioner Roger Brown, the RCMP's commanding officer for J Division in New Brunswick, confirmed Francis's death Tuesday "with great sadness."
"I know there will be much speculation about why this happened and assumptions may be made," said Brown. "The RCMP had been working with Ron to do everything we could to get him the support he had asked for and needed."
Brown said the RCMP were dealing with Francis as recently as Sunday to try to provide assistance to him. Francis had been on extended medical leave.
"Cpl. Francis was a very proud member of the RCMP for almost 22 years and will no doubt be missed," said Brown in a voice shaky with emotion.
"He helped shine a light on post-traumatic stress disorder affecting emergency first responders," he said. "Mental illness, as you well know, is something that carries a stigma and it is important as a society that we not only continue to talk about this very real issue, but we work together to find ways to address it.
"This is a terrible loss for the RCMP family and the community."
Brown said the issue of PTSD for first responders "is real."
'This was a cry for help and a need to raise the awareness as to what PTSD really is within the organizations we all work for.' - Roger Brown, assistant commissioner RCMP J Division
"It's unfortunate that the incidents that became very public to his own doing, that's only a very, very small snippet of who he was and what he actually did.
"This wasn't a pot-smoking issue. This wasn't a red serge issue. This wasn't a uniform issue," said Brown.
"This was a cry for help and a need to raise the awareness as to what PTSD really is within the organizations we all work for."
Brown said he is confident the RCMP did everything it could do to reach out and respond to Francis and provide him with the support he needed.
"Unfortunately, the turn of events yesterday really brings this into focus with respect to how much an issue this really is."
Francis case was before the courts
In September, Francis was set to stand trial on six counts arising from incidents in December 2013 and January 2014 when he changed his plea to guilty on three of the charges.
Francis pleaded guilty to two counts of assaulting fellow officers and one count of breaching an undertaking to not possess or consume alcohol and non-prescription drugs.
The three other charges were withdrawn.
Just before he entered the guilty pleas on Sept. 3, Francis told reporters: "I'm hoping what I've been through will help others. But right now, I'm the one who is sort of in crisis."
A sentencing hearing had been scheduled for Nov. 3.
The charges came out of a confrontation with fellow RCMP officers and Fredericton police on Dec. 6, 2013, when Francis was arrested on a mental-health warning.
The incident came one week after Francis turned in his ceremonial red serge to the RCMP after making national news with his assertion he should be allowed to smoke prescribed medicinal marijuana to deal with his PTSD.
The RCMP stripped Francis of his uniform and placed him on medical leave in November 2013.
Francis said the national police force needs to change its policies and provide more resources to officers.
In January 2013, the RCMP offered to pay for Francis to attend a treatment facility in Powell River, B.C. for three months. Francis left the facility after three days, saying he couldn't get settled and felt like he was being watched.
Francis was Maliseet and a member of Kingsclear First Nation, near Fredericton. In his most recent court appearance, and when he turned in his red serge to the RCMP, he carried with him an eagle feather.
The close-knit First Nations community asked to be left alone on Tuesday to grieve, but Chief Gabriel Atwin issued a written statement, describing Francis as a "man of honour and service.
"Most importantly, to the youth in our community, Ron was a role model. He proved that it was not impossible to rise above the challenges and roadblocks that face our youth," Atwin said.
"The depth of the loss we feel only proves that a life of service to one's community earns the respect of all."