Bill C-54, the not criminally responsible reform (NCR) act, is currently being studied by the House of Commons justice and human rights committee, and on Wednesday MPs heard a range of opinions on the emotionally charged issue.

Some victims have been lobbying the government to change the NCR system, arguing that their rights aren't respected by it, but some mental-health advocates are concerned about the effects of the reforms, and Canada's corrections investigator Howard Sapers has also raised questions about whether it will result in more mentally ill people in prison rather than in hospitals.

The government says the reforms, which include the creation of a new "high-risk accused" category that would mean tighter restrictions on some people, will not affect access to treatment and that they strike a better balance between the need to protect the public and to treat people with mental illness who commit offences.

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson testified at the committee on Monday that the provinces support the proposals and that he's talked to many victims, but opposition MPs have been raising questions about who else was consulted in the drafting of the bill.

On Wednesday, many of the witnesses, including representatives of mental health groups and criminal justice organizations, said their input was not asked for in the drafting of the bill.

Common themes in the testimony of the 11 witnesses who appeared were that proposals aimed at supporting victims are welcome and that there needs to be more health care for people with mental health problems. Here are some snapshots of what the witnesses had to say.

Isabelle Gaston, victim

Isabelle Gaston is the ex-wife of Guy Turcotte, a Quebec man who killed their two young children in 2009 and was found NCR. He has since been released from the hospital. 

Gaston, an emergency room doctor, told the committee that she does not lack sympathy for people with mental illness, but that it cannot be forgotten that crimes took place. She said the proposed reforms are prudent and that the bill gives her confidence that a better balance will be struck.

"I believe the horrific deaths of my children demand that the system do all it can to protect my safety and that of other citizens," Gaston told MPs.

Gaston said she does not currently feel safe and that the system is playing Russian roulette with her life. She said the notification of someone's release is crucial — her sister once ran into Turcotte — and she wants people found NCR kept in detention in hospital longer to allow more time for assessing their risk to society.

Dr. J. Paul Fedoroff, Canadian Psychiatric Association

The Canadian Psychiatric Association is objecting to the bill. Fedoroff reminded the committee that most people with mental illness do not commit crimes and that one in five Canadians are affected by mental illness.

"Any one of you at this table could have a relative who is declared an NCR accused," he told them. He said everyone agrees that victims of crimes deserve respect and support, but that the bill won't actually do that much for them, because, for example, they are already notified when someone is released. (The bill would make it a requirement for victims to be notified about a release and could order non-communication orders between the accused and the victim.)

Fedoroff said the bill will, however, increase the burden on the criminal justice system, make it harder to transition NCR accused back into the community, and risk stigmatizing people with mental health problems.

"For the sake of all victims, including potentially your own relatives, I hope you will reconsider the merits of this bill carefully," he said.

Carol de Delley, victim

De Delley is the mother of Tim McLean, who was slain on a Greyhound bus in 2008. Vince Li, who was an untreated schizophrenic at the time of the attack, was found NCR and remains detained in a Manitoba hospital, but has been granted privileges that include escorted visits into the community.

"I believe that my son died in the horrific and very public manner that he did in order to shed light on the issue of NCR so that positive change could result and the safety of the public would be ensured," she told MPs.

De Delley talked about how she has had little time to grieve the loss of her son because of Li's trial and multiple review board hearings and because of her work campaigning for changes to the NCR system. De Delley said there should be more treatment and support for people with mental illness as preventive measures, but that their rights should not overshadow victims' rights. "What about the victims?"

She wants, for example, access to information about an NCR accused's treatment and wants to know who would be held responsible if someone reoffended. De Delley said she doesn't have all the answers on how the NCR system should be reformed but she is determined to see it changed.

Kim Pate, Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies

Pate said the creation of a high-risk accused category will not be helpful. "We would hate to see a return to some of the asylums of the past," she said. The bill would allow for review boards, currently tasked with deciding when someone can be released, to hold hearings every three years instead of annually.

Pate said she'd like to see more resources put into health services and for all of the recommendations for the Mental Health Commission to be implemented.

Erin Dann, Criminal Lawyers' Association

The Criminal Lawyer's Association supports the provisions in the bill aimed at enhanced victim engagement, but takes issue with the other proposed amendments, particularly the high-risk accused category idea. That designation would do nothing to help identify people with mental illness and get them access to treatment before a crime is committed, she said.

"It's the CLA's position that if this government is committed to preventing the criminal consequences of serious mental illness it must devote more resources and support to the provincial authorities responsible for mental health," she said. There needs to be a bigger role, for example, for community-level mental health services and more training for police. The high-risk designation could disrupt a person's treatment, she also said.

David Parry, Canadian Bar Association

The Canadian Bar Association supports the measures aimed at victims but recommends against the others being adopted.

Parry told the committee that long-term public safety is best achieved through treatment of a person with mental illness and reintegration into society. "C-54 does little to encourage this," he said.

The high-risk category is "self-defeating and counterproductive" to the goal of enhancing public safety, he said.

Parry said the restrictions that a high-risk accused would be under are "punitive."

"The objective ought not to be punishment because the accused has not been convicted of a crime." Parry said that the very small number of high-profile cases of NCR should not be used to set policy for all NCR cases.

Catherine Latimer, John Howard Society

The John Howard Society supports the provisions related to victims, but says the rest of the bill is fraught with negative consequences. Latimer said the review board system is working properly and that there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. She outlined why the John Howard Society is opposed to the high-risk designation and the provision that would allow review board hearings to be held every three years instead of one. 

The John Howard Society is concerned more people will end up in prisons, which are ill-equipped to deal with serious mental illness, rather than in hospitals. Latimer said the high-risk category will disrupt therapeutic treatment and that the decision to give the designation should not be in the hands of a judge.

Latimer said bill C-54 will not enhance public safety and that the real challenge that needs to be dealt with is the number of people in prison with mental illness who are not getting the help they need and who will be released into the community. "This is where as a society we need to marshal our efforts and our resources," she said.

Chris Summerville, Schizophrenia Society of Canada

Summerville appeared at the committee on behalf of his organization and eight other national mental health groups. None of them was consulted about the bill when it was being written, and Summerville said he found it awkward to be pleading with the government to work with the mental health community on a bill that is entirely about mental health. He urged MPs not to rush the bill. "Let me be crystal clear: there are negative impacts and unintended consequences of this bill," he said.

Summerville said the bill does little to help Canadians understand the complexity of mental illness and that while his group fully supports more involvement of victims in the NCR system, he asked why the bill doesn't include more services for victims. Rather than introducing a bill that enhances services for victims, and help for people with mental illness, it is moving to create a more punitive approach that stigmatizes people who are ill.

Summerville said the government shouldn't interfere with the good work that review boards are doing. If bill C-54 isn't scrapped entirely, he urged them to remove the high-risk accused category, saying there is no evidence to support that the brutality of the offence is linked to future risk. "They are patients, not criminals."

Lori Triano-Antidormi, victim

Triano-Antidormi's testimony may have surprised some of the MPs. Her son died after being stabbed by a schizophrenic woman in 1997 in Hamilton. The woman remains detained in a hospital.

Triano-Antidormi does not support the bill and said it makes her upset. She said it is "stigmatizing and punitive and does not reflect an accurate understanding of serious mental illness."

She said that drawing attention to the brutality of a crime, as a judge would be required to do when determining a high-risk designation, "serves instead to perpetuate a myth that people with mental illness are violent."

Triano-Antidormi said she doesn't understand how this bill will enhance public safety and that the review boards are functioning properly. She said her family was left unprotected not because of flaws in the NCR law but because of gaps in mental health care.

"Bill C-54 would not have protected my family but an improved mental health system might have."

Triano-Antidormi said no one disputes the measures to support victims, but the other provisions are ill-informed and not evidence-based. She told MPs that the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach makes no attempt to understand the complexity of mental illness.

"As a victim, I ask this government work with both the mental health community and victims to create a bill which will actually be effective in enhancing public safety rather than one that will only negatively impact people with mental illness."

Wayne Marston, NDP MP

Marston shared a personal connection to the issue with the committee. He said that in 1949 his mother strangled his sister and she was designated NCR. "I didn't know until I was 12 years old," he said.

His mother spent 10 years in the hospital. "It's a really hard balance when you talk about a sick person as opposed to a criminal," he said.

Marston said it's up to MPs to craft the best legislation possible. "This is a flawed bill, we can do better," he said.

Coincidentally, Marston is the MP for Hamilton East–Stoney Creek and lived blocks away from Triano-Antidormi when her son was killed.