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The Current Transcript for May 12, 2016
Host: Anna Maria Tremonti
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I am in my second term. I actually think I’m a pretty good president. I think if I ran, I could win. But I can’t.
[Crowd cheering and applauding]
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: Term limits are a time honoured tradition and law for the US presidency, but in Canada, we're different. Prime Ministers can and do serve for more than a decade. Now there's a proposal that the Conservative Party impose term limits on the party leader. There is no such tradition in any major Canadian federal party. In fact, both the Conservatives and the Liberals have been more inclined to try to stab their leaders to limit their time at the helm. And this latest move seems a direct swipe at Stephen Harper. We'll start there in a moment. Also today, death and dining.
You know, it started in England where they have coffee and cake. A death café is an open place to talk with strangers, generally, about anything related to death.
AMT: You heard her, a death café, a place for lively conversation that confront fears of dying. What began in a basement in the UK is now an international movement in 35 countries with meetings across Canada. We'll let you in on their conversations in half an hour. And, oh, there’s cake. And sometimes you just know it’s time to get out.
The emergency department, the staff there were acutely aware because they could see, literally, the flames something like 500 metres away from the hospital.
David Matear oversaw the medevac of Fort McMurray's hospital from newborns to critical care to long term care patients in one and a half hours. He's calm about it now. Hear him in an hour as we follow-up and get your feedback on the stories we've been covering.I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. This is The Current.
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Conservatives discuss 2-term limit for party leaders
Guests: Kady O'Malley, Eric Adams, JJ McCullough
AMT: By the time he left office, Stephen Harper had spent almost ten years as Prime Minister, making him the sixth longest-serving leader in Canadian history. While term limits are a fixture of US politics, they have never taken root in Canada. Some would like to see that change. According to a draft of resolutions leaked earlier this week, the Conservative Party of Canada will discuss limiting party leaders to two terms, when party delegates gather at their national convention later this month. Kady O'Malley is a political reporter with the Ottawa Citizen. She first reported the story this week and Kady O’Malley is in Ottawa. Hello.
KADY O’MALLEY: Good morning.
AMT: What are the proposals, Kady?
KADY O’MALLEY: Well, this particular proposal would actually impose a limit and it’s interesting – it’s eight years after continuously serving as Prime Minister, which means that if you were leader of the party and you failed to form government and you were able to survive a leadership review, your clock wouldn’t start ticking. I’m not entirely sure what the logic behind that specification is. My guess, it’s because, as noted, like most parties, the Conservatives do have a mechanism where if the party fails to form government after an election, they get a leadership review, which means if they get stuck with someone the party thinks is maybe a dud, they can get rid of them before the next election. This would kind of build in a safety mechanism that would ensure that there was also a refreshing when they do continue to form government.
AMT: This is interesting. Who’s suggesting this?
KADY O’MALLEY: This is two riding associations in British Columbia and it’ll be discussed at the constitutional workshops when the Conservatives meet in Vancouver later this month.
AMT: So, do they have a problem with the term limits of—Did they have a problem with the term limits of the Conservative leader before this last election?
KADY O’MALLEY: Well, this is why the Conservative Party is in a particularly odd position. Stephen Harper is, for all intents and purposes, he was the first leader of that party, because he was the one who was leading it at the merger. That earned him an enormous amount of loyalty within the party itself. Now that they’re kind of—There’s a vacancy at the top. I think, maybe, they’re looking at other measures that they would have preferred to have maybe put in before now, but didn’t want to propose while Stephen Harper was still in the job, because he was really seen as the man who created the Conservative Party, so you don’t want to be mean-spirited at a convention while he’s still leader.
AMT: But what is really behind this then? What’s the fear?
KADY O’MALLEY: I do think it’s actually ensuring that they have that safety mechanism. The notion would be that after eight years probably most leaderships are going to be—sorry, eight years as Prime Minister—most leaders are going to be tire, perhaps, the chance of winning a third term is quite low. This would ensure the party was able to have a process where they could install a new leader in a fairly orderly fashion in time to maybe win government again under a new leader.
AMT: What other proposals are they suggesting that would curtail the power of the party leader?
KADY O’MALLEY: One would ensure that instead of the party leader choosing the executive director of the party, it would be up to the national council – that’s the elected board of representatives of the membership. The reason why that’s interesting is because even the resolution mentions that there was some controversy over a choice made by the former Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who, you might recall appointed Dimitri Soudas, who had been his communications director. And that appointment did not work out particularly well, as the resolution notes. So, this is kind of a way to make sure that never happens again.
AMT: So, it sounds like there was festering over time that they could never address while Stephen Harper was the leader, am I right?
KADY O’MALLEY: Absolutely. I think that you would see some constitutional proposals in the past that would kind of edge in on the leader’s power. This is the first time I can recall where there’s like half a dozen or so that would in one way or another make the leader less powerful, give either the membership or national council more of a say in what goes on. And I have to think it’s not a coincidence that, again, this is happening when there’s a vacancy at the top. So, if they can put those rules in place, it won’t be seen as a reaction to a particular leader.
AMT: And how binding would these resolutions be if they pass?
KADY O’MALLEY: Oh, they would be—I mean, the party’s constitution is the law of the party. Once it’s in place, unless you change it, that’s the rules of the game. There’s no real voluntary option there.
AMT: Okay. These are federal Conservative Party proposals. Have other parties shown any interest in this kind of a term limit?
KADY O’MALLEY: You know, I’ve never seen any constitutional proposal like that in any other party, but in most cases, I think they’re happy with the status quo for, I think, all parties now, which is, after you don’t win election you go to leadership review. That does give the membership the opportunity to say, you know what? We made a bad pick last time. Let’s choose someone else and try to win the next election. Of course, that doesn’t kick in if your party wins and forms government, which is what the Conservative measure would address. So far, it doesn’t look like the other parties have any particular concern about that, but who knows? Maybe the Conservatives are setting a trend.
AMT: So, if that had been in place while Prime Minister Harper was still Prime Minister, what would that have meant?
KADY O’MALLEY: That would have meant that, if you sort of do the math, I believe, he would have had to, at the 2014 convention when the party met in Calgary, he would have been obliged to step down. And at that point, it would be a very orderly process. It would not be him stepping down because of, you know, outrage or, as you mentioned, the stabbing in the back or the front. It would be just the rules and, presumably, the Conservatives would have had a new leader in place for the fixed election date and who knows how everything would have turned out.
AMT: It’s interesting, because we did see, as the last election approached, we saw stories floating that, you know, if you vote for the Conservatives, they’ll get a new leader soon. And we know that they were trying to make that point behind the scenes, too.
KADY O’MALLEY: They absolutely were, but I don’t think that was particularly convincing for the voters. And, perhaps, that’s one of the things that’s sort of driving this is the notion that no longer will they have to rely the leader deciding when he should step aside for someone else. It’ll be a built in mechanic so it’s nothing personal, very clinical. You’re just out after eight years.
AMT: At the same time, you could have a popular Conservative prime minister forced to step down ahead of an election while the opposition faces no such constraints.
KADY O’MALLEY: You absolutely could. And I’m not actually sure how they would deal with that. I suppose—I mean, the party could always pass an emergency resolution at another convention waiving that particular rule for a particular prime minister. Although, that would seem to kind of defeat the purpose.
AMT: Hmm. Fascinating. And so they’ll decide soon?
KADY O’MALLEY: Yeah, they’ll decide—First, the resolution will go to a closed-door workshop. If it passes there, it goes to the floor of the main convention.
AMT: Okay, Kady. Thanks for your time today.
KADY O’MALLEY: Thanks so much.
AMT: Kady O'Malley, a political reporter at the Ottawa Citizen. She’s in Ottawa. For more on the implications of the Conservative Party considering term limits and whether that might open the door to a possibility of set terms for politicians, nationally and provincially, I'm joined by two political watchers. Eric Adams is an Associate Professor at the University of Alberta's Faculty of Law. He is in our Edmonton studio. JJ McCullough is a conservative writer and political commentator. He’s in our Vancouver studio. Hello, gentlemen.
JJ MCCULLOUGH: Hello.
ERIC ADAMS: Good morning.
AMT: Well, JJ McCullough, let’s start at the beginning here. This is coming from two riding associations. What do you think of the idea that the Conservatives want limits on their party leader?
JJ MCCULLOUGH: I think it’s a great idea. Frankly, I would go further than these proposals do. I think it’s really great. I mean, I think that one of the ways that you get governance is by imposing limitations on the power of the politicians. And I think that we want our Prime Ministers to govern as prime ministers, to not govern as kings or dictators. And I think, historically speaking, one of the reasons why prime ministers, I think as the years go on, tend to govern in an increasingly authoritarian sort of manner. This affects Liberals as well as Conservatives. It’s because they have this promise of endless power. They have a promise that they could theoretically govern forever, keep running for running for re-election, keep running for re-election. And I think that term limits, as we’ve seen in America, sort of impose a restraint and discipline on leaders, makes them a little bit more restrained in how they exercise power and also makes them a little bit focussed. They only have a set number of years in office and so they’re going to make the most of them.
AMT: Eric Adams, what do you think?
ERIC ADAMS: I think it’s a good old fashioned bad idea and I say that for two reasons. One is that if you try and legislate term limits, you’re dealing with an automatic constitutional problem. Section three of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms says we have rights, not only to vote, but to also stand for election. And, obviously, a term limit would impair that ability to run for office. If it’s just a rule of the party, it seems to me, again, it suffers from a number of fatal flaws. The first being, there’s really no such thing as a term in Canadian constitutional law. Governments hold office for only as long as they have the confidence of the legislature or parliament. So, you might see, for example, one government fall and call an election after 18 months. You might have another hold office for something close to five years. And so this idea of a term, which comes from the American political system, doesn’t really have a nice crossover into Canadian politics. I guess, secondly, when you look at Canadian political history, you can look at the famous politicians of Bill Davis, Peter Lougheed, Allan Blakeney, Gary Doer, all incredibly successful premiers whom observers place at the top of a list of our most successful Canadian premiers – all of them stood for office for three times at least and were successful. Why? Because electors said those are the people we’d like to have governing our province. In my view, we already have a pretty effective term limit and it’s called an election.
AMT: Okay. Well, JJ, how much of this is about Stephen Harper, do you think?
JJ MCCULLOUGH: I’m sure that a lot of it is. You know, frankly, I, as a conservative person myself, I think that the election was probably not winnable, in part, because I think voters were tired of Stephen Harper. I think that voters do have a period of time in which they kind of get sick of seeing the same guy on television all the time, hearing the same leader’s voice. They want to have a little bit of freshness. But I think that one of the problems with our system is that we don’ t have smooth dignified exits for our leaders.
AMT: We have a lot of stabbing. [Laughs]
JJ MCCULLOUGH: We do have a lot of stabbing. And, you know, what could have happened? Prime Minister Harper could have been forced out in this big messy affair. Prime Minister Harper could have resigned and then some other guy could have been sort of a Kim Campbell-esque successor. I do think that some of these short serving successors undermine the dignity of the office, as we’ve seen in, I think, a number of provincial governments as well, you know, Prime Ministers or Premiers who only serve for a couple of months. I think that term limits provide a dignified exit, allows for a smooth transition of power, as we’ve seen in the United States. And I think that would be a good thing. I think it would help improve public moral and our democracy.
AMT: But, JJ, what about the fact that, Eric makes the point, that we’ve got a totally different system. How do you bring in US-style term limits with a parliamentary system?
JJ MCCULLOUGH: Well, people used to say how do you bring in fixed election dates? I mean, people use to throw up their hands and say, oh, that’s unconstitutional, can’t do that. Now fixed election dates are pretty much the law of the land in every province. We’ve adjusted our political culture. I mean, that’s one of the advantages, I think, of a somewhat uncodified system as we do, is we that we can modify our political culture in tune with the spirit of the times is. I think that, frankly, a lot of polling data suggests that this is an idea that Canadians would like to see implemented and so it behooves us to try and figure out a way to make that compatible.
AMT: It’s interesting. I was going back and thinking about what other systems where this has happened. Remember Tony Blair actually had agreed to step aside for Gordon Brown and that didn’t really work for Mr. Brown or the British electorate. I’m trying to think of other examples where—Like, isn’t part of the issue that you have such a popular beginning, popular leader who gets so much power, whoever follows them has a really hard time bringing the party forward.
JJ MCCULLOUGH: Yeah. I think that is sometimes the case. At the same time though, votes will often say that in theory they want term limits, in theory they believe that the leader’s power should be limited in this way, but in practice, yes, people do tend to often re-elect the same politicians again and again and again. So, I think that sometimes term limits can be a way that voters can be saved from their own worst impulses.
ERIC ADAMS: I’m just not sure we see this problem playing out in Canadian political history, frankly. I mean, what problem are we trying to solve? It seems rather hypothetical to me. When we look at Canadian elections at the federal and provincial level what do we see? We see popular politicians who are good at their jobs being re-elected and ones whose time has come to an end, the voters turf them out. And I think that’s happened over and over again. If you could point to examples of autocratic and tyrannical leaders that somehow have managed to clench their fist around the Canadian the electorate’s heart and just rode the parliamentary system for decades, in Canadian law, then you say, okay, maybe we’ve got a problem to solve. We just, frankly, don’t see anything like that.
JJ MCCULLOUGH: Well, I think that most Canadians would—Most Canadians do posit that the Prime Minister’s Office is too powerful, that Prime Ministers do run roughshod over the branches of government. And I do think that one of the ways that you can help curb that kind of power is, as I said earlier, let the Prime Ministers know early on that you’re only in office for a set eight years, make the most of those of eight years, you don’t have an endless promise of governing for 15, 20, you know, however long MacKenzie King stood in power. I think that—
AMT: 21 years.
JJ MCCULLOUGH: Yeah, 21 years. I mean, it seems a little bit preposterous in democratic society.
AMT: Okay, but then does someone else from the party get to take over the country? Or—
JJ MCCULLOUGH: I don’t think so. I think that we should have an American-style system in which we combine term limits and fixed election dates. For instance, right now, President Obama is limited to eight years in office. Hillary Clinton is not installed as president to run in the election. They’ve set it up in such a way that the presumptive heir to the party leadership is able to run in an election and if she wins, then the transition of power happens at that time, not before. I think it would be much more healthy if you have somebody running to be the prospective future Conservative Prime Minister, future Liberal successor to the incumbent party, rather than allowing them to be incumbent Prime Minister or incumbent Premier, which has all sorts problems of advantages of incumbency.
AMT: Well, in fact, didn’t Jim Prentice talk about this for Alberta? That there should be term limits on the party leader?
ERIC ADAMS: Yeah, people might forget this. The life of a butterfly government of Jim Prentice, one of the things he suggested is that there should be legislated term limits and I pointed out in The Globe and Mail, as I’m doing now, that really, again, the constitution precludes any kind of legislated attempt to do that. You’ve got to do it through some kind of mechanism in the party to make that work in Canada. And I think the Charter has a real political wisdom here, which says that not only can you vote in elections, you can stand to run in those elections and that really those choices are to be made by the people that should be making those choices – not party constitutions, but by the electorate. And, again, if we look to the American example and we can see all kinds of problems related to term limits and that you have an entire year of the presidency in which the legitimacy of the President to govern is questioned by not only the members of the public, but by Congress as well. So, for example, President Obama can’t put forward a nominee to the Supreme Court. Why? Because he’s a lame duck president during something like 12 or 14 months of his presidency. Why would you want to import that kind of ineffectual government into the Canadian context? It doesn’t make sense.
AMT: If we look as well just at the parties for a minute—Again, you know, Brian Mulroney wanting to replace Joe Clark, Paul Martin wanting to replace Jean Chretien, ugly little battles all. A Liberal party trying to oust John Turner as leader halfway through the 1988 election campaign. Conservatives floating the idea in The Globe and Mail and behind the scenes, that if you vote for Conservatives, we’ll get Harper to step down. This seems to be more of internal party battles than the electorate, does it not?
JJ MCCULLOUGH: Well, I think, as I said before, I think that Canadians have a problem being abruptly switched in office, right. I think that there’s a problem where it’s like, you know, you vote for Brian Mulroney. You’ve wanted Brian Mulroney to run the country; you didn’t want Kim Campbell to run the country. You know, you voted for Pierre Elliott Trudeau; you didn’t want John Turner to run the country. And I do think that one of the ways, and frankly, what happens too in our system as well is that some of these Prime Ministers who are not elected, who sort of succeed to office can hang around a long time, can manipulate the advantages of incumbency, can call their own election date, and this kind of thing. And I think that leaves a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of Canadians. And so I think that one of the advantages of imposing term limits, when combined with a fixed election date, is that you can create an orderly succession of power that does not allow a sort of protracted period in time in which an unelected Prime Minister, installed by the party, who often gets to that office by back-stabbing the incumbent, is able to hold office for a long period of time and govern in the name of no on who elected him.
AMT: What do you think, Eric?
ERIC ADAMS: I think this is, again, a classic misunderstanding of the Canadian political system. It actually works pretty well. I mean, we’ve got a parliamentary system of government, which says we don’t elect presidents, you’re not electing the leader of that government, you’re electing a house of parliament.
JJ MCCULLOUGH: No one thinks that way, though.
ERIC ADAMS: I actually think you’re wrong. I mean, from that—
JJ MCCULLOUGH: [interjects] I mean, people think they’re electing the Prime Minister and I think that’s appropriate considering how powerful the Prime Minister is.
ERIC ADAMS: What people are voting for, I think, are in local elections an MP who is going represent their views and they’re going to choose that person.
JJ MCCULLOUGH: No one thinks that way, sir. No one thinks that way. Everybody knows—
AMT: Come on, JJ. When we go into the ballot box, unless you’re in that riding.
JJ MCCULLOUGH: No, but the media, who do they cover? Who do we watch in the leadership debates? I mean, it’s preposterous to argue that we all just think we’re electing an MP. No, we’re electing a Prime Minister, because the Prime Minister enormously powerful and would be extraordinarily inappropriate and undemocratic if the people of Canada had no means to choose who was their head of government.
ERIC ADAMS: Just let me finish. So, you’re electing a person from a political party who represents your values and that political party can make decisions about who is leading that party and that’s a system that works remarkably well, incredibly durable in the countries that have used it and I think that’s playing out in the Canadian example currently.
JJ MCCULLOUGH: I think that what Professor Adams is saying is a somewhat undemocratic idea. I mean, we elect MPs as a means to electing a Prime Minister. I mean, it’s almost like an electoral college at this point. We elect our MPs because we want to have some control over who becomes Prime Minister, and I think to, sort of, say that we should delegate so much authority to deciding who holds this very important office of Prime Minister of the country, by some measures the most power head of government in any Western democracy, to a political party that is very unaccountable to the public, I think that’s a very undemocratic spectacle and I think that whatever professors can say that the system is supposed to be. I think that Canadians have evolved the political culture—
AMT: Okay. We’re going to have to end it there. I mean, the system is actually what he says it is, though. You can argue the other side. But you know what? I think you should both show up at that convention later this month. We have to leave it there. Thank you both.
JJ MCCULLOUGH: Thank you.
ERIC ADAMS: Fantastic. Thanks so much.
AMT: That’s Eric Adams, Associate Professor at University of Alberta's Faculty of Law, and JJ McCullough, conservative writer and political commentator. He’s in Vancouver. Let us know what you think. Go to the website, cbc.ca/thecurrent. Tweet us, we are @thecurrentCBC. Fine us on Facebook.
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Death cafes serve up life and death conversations
Guest: Jon Underwood
AMT: Hello, I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and you're listening to The Current.
Welcome, everyone, to our sixth Death Cafe here at the Belljar Cafe. Hi. My name is Linda. Linda Hochstetler. I'm the host of the Death Cafe.
AMT: Well, it's not what you think and certainly not as morbid. A death cafe is a meeting, usually, in a coffee shop that is very much alive with bubbling businesses and caffeinated activity. People order espresso, a little cake, sometimes a beer, and settle in for an evening of conversation about death.
So, the thing to know is that there are no rules for tonight. The only rule is that you be respectful. A death cafe is an open place to talk with strangers, generally, about anything related to death. There's no agenda. There's no pre-set list of questions you must answer. It's simply a place where people know that they can come to talk about anything about death and dying, because many people find that no matter how much death is around us, they actually have no place to talk about it.
AMT: So death cafes try to confront that problem and bring conversations about dying into the light. It is an international movement that started in England and has now spread to 35 countries, including Canada. In a moment, I'll speak to the man who started the movement. But first, let's go back to Linda Hochstetler’s noisy death cafe in Toronto and join one of the tables.
SALLY: So, I’m Sally. And this is my second death cafe. I’m drawn to the conversation about death because I’m afraid of dying, like probably most people are. The very first one I came to was a really good opportunity for me to start thinking about what was I really, really afraid of.
MINDY: I'm Mindy. I’m here because I'm an artist and I'm actually working on a project about death and grief. And I started working on it because a very good friend of mine lost her son about a year and a half ago. And I had never experienced grief of that magnitude. Like, I really just wanted to talk to people about all the different ways people grieve.
ANDREW: My name is Andrew. I'm a funeral director. I'm the fourth generation in my family of funeral directors, so I’ve been around it my whole life. When I was young I thought everybody's dad owned a funeral home. Would I have done this if I wasn't a funeral director, I think I would be interested in it as well. I'm not really here on a professional level of any sort. I really experienced the first loss of a person a year ago. It was a co-worker. And I was sort of really surprised. Or not surprised, but I was extremely emotional about it. It was the first time that I found that I could relate to the people I was helping at work.
MINDY: Death and grief should not be something that’s shoved under the rug. And I don't think I quite realized how much it was shoved under the rug until I started working on Grief Landscapes, because people are turning away from me and I'm not even grieving right now. I just sort of bring up that topic of death and it’s like... Change the subject pretty frequently. And so I thought it would be really refreshing to just come somewhere where people are clearly not scared of the topic.
SALLY: I've had that cocktail party thing where like, oh, yeah, my dad died and he had a really good death, and I look up and all of a sudden, like, people are trying to get out of the conversation. I mean, do you get the same thing as a funeral director? People find out what you do and they’re-- Are they fascinated or are they kind of like, let’s change the subject?
ANDREW: Some want to know everything and some want to know absolutely nothing. Or they think it's morbid to talk about death or something, but, you know, I don't think it is.
MINDY: In working on my project is that there’s so much—I even feel weird saying here, but I shouldn’t—there’s so much beauty in death and that feels very taboo to say, that when I talk about what I'm doing and the stories I'm getting-- And some of them are very awful and tragic and very sad, but almost when people talk in their recounting their experiences to me that that there's often things about that experience that are also beautiful. But I feel weird saying it.
LINDA HOCHSTETLER: I'd love to be a little fly-on-the-wall of a lot of these people's lives for the next couple of weeks, because what I hear is that conversations here are just the scratching of the surface and they take them out and take them out to friends and family who, probably, ultimately are the ones who need to hear it and so this is just where it starts and then it moves from here. So, there's a real kind of ripple effect of Death Cafes. That's what I like so much. I feel like, this is just one evening, but it ripples out to many more conversations that really are important.
AMT: Some of the conversation at a Death Cafe in Toronto. More than 200 of these events have taken place across Canada. Jon Underwood is the man who started the Death Cafe movement. He joins me now from London, England. Hello.
JON UNDERWOOD: Hello.
AMT: What are you thinking as you listen to that bit of conversation from the Death Cafe in Toronto?
JON UNDERWOOD: Well, I’m just feeling really happy to be providing Death Cafe and to be offering people a space where people who want to talk about death can actually go and talk about it in comfort without being sold anything, without being told what they think is wrong or just to reflect and air out this subject which is important to everybody.
AMT: Why do you start the Death Cafe?
JON UNDERWOOD: It's a long story really. I first got interested in death and dying through Buddhism, which I encountered getting on 20 years ago, and death is very important in the Buddhist teachings. And Buddha said that death is something to be understood. It’s something that's worth reflecting on. And that really struck me, because I'd never sort of figured that out myself before.
AMT: So you go from being fascinated and thinking about death and dying. How do you come up with a concept of a Death Cafe?
JON UNDERWOOD: Well, I decided to work around death and dying and I got really excited and for a few weeks I could hardly sleep. I was having so many different ideas, because you could move from the not dealing with death to having to deal with it at any time. And if you haven't, kind of, prepared for it, you're just relying on the resources that you've got, because it's kind of too late at that point. I was telling my family about my ideas for this and then my stepfather gave me a clipping from paper in the UK which talked about the work of a guy called Bernard Crettaz. And he's a Swiss sociologist who established something called Café Mortel and that involved talking about death in a public place with food and drink. And I just thought that is beautiful. That is it. That's what I want to do. So, really, I got the idea from him.
AMT: Okay. So, tell us about your first Death Cafe.
JON UNDERWOOD: First Death Cafe took place in my house. And I asked my mother, Susan Barsky Reid, to facilitate it because she's really good with people. And she said, sure, I'll facilitate it, but what exactly is a death cafe? I thought, good point. I have to work it out. And Bernard Crettaz had written a book about Café Mortel, but it was all in French, so I couldn't understand it. So I made it up, basically, and had people come and write down their feelings about death and write down what they are proud of, what they've achieved in their life and then what they wanted to achieve before they died. And looking back, it was very controlling, the way I'd structured it, but despite that it was a very beautiful experience and the group of people that I had invited said some amazing things and the quality of the dialogue was really exceptional.
AMT: So, what was the conversation like?
JON UNDERWOOD: Well, the thing that stayed in my mind, and usually I don't talk about what people discuss in Death Cafes, but this particular individual wrote about it herself afterwards, so I think it's okay. Most of the people there I knew, but there was one woman who I had never met before and she shared the she has panic flashes about death every day, you know, several times. Just that she's walking along she'd suddenly, sort of, freak out about death. And despite this being a daily occurrence for her she'd never mentioned it to anybody. And she said the reason for that is she thought she'd be committed, but in this context, the Death Cafe, in front of strangers, she was actually able to mention this and people didn't say she was crazy. They listened to her. They drew her out. And from her perspective, that was really important and really, really useful for her.
AMT: Well, you know, the fear of death and dying came up at the Toronto Death Cafe. We've got some more tape here. Let's listen in on that exchange. This is two of the people there. They were the youngest of the crowd. Andrew is 27 years old. He's a funeral director and he's talking to Amy. She's 31.
ANDREW: Are you afraid of dying? There's just something that came up. That's why I'm sort of…
AMY: I very much was when I was a teenager. I think I went through some sort of phase where a friend of my parents got sick and died and it was the first person I knew, that I knew that didn't exist anymore. And all the sudden, I developed this intense fear to the point where every single day I was convinced that I was going to die. Like, I actually was very anxious and I couldn't be left alone with my thoughts because I thought, like, oh, for sure, you're sick. For sure, they’re going to find something wrong with you. Like, you are dying, you are dying, you are dying. I went like this for months and months and months. I didn't tell anybody about it, just tried to keep going until the anxiety was so great I’d actually throw up when I woke up in the morning, because I couldn't take it anymore. And then I finally talked to someone, like my parents about it, and it went away. But there was that lingering thing, even to the point where when they had the Terry Fox Run at school, I was almost superstitious about it. I didn't want to go near it, didn’t want to look at the posters, I didn’t want to think about it, because this idea of somebody getting sick and dying when they were young frightened me. And now I wouldn't say that I have those kinds of fears and I don't know where that change happened. I’d have to really about it, but for some reason-- I don't know.
AMT: Well, that is Andrew and Amy talking at the Toronto Death Cafe. Jon Underwood, how common is it for you to hear about fears of dying in a Death Cafe?
JON UNDERWOOD: It's quite common. But extreme fear, such as the person in your clip mentioned, is not so common. But I think it is a scary thing. I mean, I work with death day in, day out. And it hasn’t stopped me being scared of it. I'm still scared of dying. But I think the attitude in society where death is often marginalized and pushed to the side lines and there aren’t spaces where people can talk about it actually makes it more frightening, at least for me. Like, it's so scary that we can’t even talk about it and I think that exacerbates latent fears about death.
AMT: It's interesting. She talks about being younger and seeing young people die and some of that fear and not being able to talk about it, at first, at all. So, it's not solely adults or end-of-life issues, huh?
JON UNDERWOOD: No, it isn't. I mean, children aren't daft. They know that everybody dies. After a certain age, they know that and they know that death can happen at any time and they sometimes see people around them die. So I think wanting to talk about it is really natural. And I think that the Death Cafe and the growth of it, the spread of that is indicative of a new openness regarding death and a willingness to open up the subject for the general good.
AMT: A few minutes after Amy told Andrew about her fear of dying, that we heard in that clip, she seemed to have a revelation about when she lost that fear. Listen to her again.
AMY: I was with my grandfather, not exactly when he died, but right before he died, a year and a half ago, and it was a very strong, very powerful experience for me, because I'd never been with somebody that was dying before. And I went by myself. I walked in the room and everything that I was expecting about being with somebody that was dying wasn't there. I just felt so peaceful and so calm and present. And I just thought there's nothing here to be afraid of. It definitely changed me. I will remember how felt sitting in that chair beside his bed forever. It was no chaos, no desperation, no fear. It was just a man breathing in and out. And I felt like this is all we ever do really.
AMT: Jon, do you find people often make their own discoveries when they participate in a death cafe?
JON UNDERWOOD: Yeah, I think they do. Because there are many places where people can go to talk about death and dying and the people who do go to death cafes are people who want to have that conversation. Just having an opportunity to air out these thoughts, which have often been sort of chewed over internally sometimes for years and years, can sort of freshen things up and you can get that reflection. I think it normalizes death in a way that can be really helpful for people. And so when people talk about death and dying, it tends to illustrate their humanity. So people tend to bond with each other very quickly and strong friendships are formed. I’ve even heard of people starting dating from meeting at death cafes even.
AMT: That’ll be a good story.
JON UNDERWOOD: Yes.
AMT: How varied are the people who attend?
JON UNDERWOOD: They are varied. What is possible to say is that most attendees are women and of those women they tend to of, say, over 35, though it's not uncommon to get younger people there. It tends to be people from privileged groups as well.
AMT: Why do you think that is?
JON UNDERWOOD: With regard to the privileged groups, I think if you're subject to trauma, then it makes it more difficult to discuss death and dying in a comfortable way. Talking about death might trigger that panic and that fight-or-flight reflex. So I think having a conversation about death in the way that we do about death cafes is an extremely privileged thing to be able to do, because we've got enough space from death to be able to explore it in comfort. And that's about as privileged as you can get.
AMT: Now, for many people, their religion or their spirituality comes into focus when they're thinking about death, if they want to talk about it. Where does religious thought and perspective come into play in these cafes?
JON UNDERWOOD: Well, generally, death cafes are open to any religion and non, and we certainly don't have any agenda of bringing people into line with certain views. We kind of stick with the thinking that one person, one truth, many people, many truths. And the only way that it plays out in our death cafe is that people shouldn't be proselytizing to each other or attempting to convince people of the rightness of their views around death and dying. But, actually, it very rarely happens. What happens more is that people find sort of similarities, points of learning from people of different faiths, and there's a lot of respect in the conversation and recognition that faith can really help, with regard to death and dying, but that faith is a kind of personal matter.
AMT: One of the participants at the Death Cafe here in Toronto had an observation at the end of the evening. I want you to listen to her.
The thing that surprised me - and maybe it's because I'm not somebody who very willingly talks or thinks about death, in fact, rather unwillingly talks and thinks about death - was how much of the conversations actually turned out to be about life, that it almost inevitably point to back to thinking about how it is that you want to live and that gets very closely related to how it is that you think about death. And then in all the conversations tonight, I think we spent as much time talking about life as we talked about death, because it really is not separable.
AMT: So they came to the death cafe and they talked about life. What do you think?
JON UNDERWOOD: Mm, yeah, that happens a lot. And, you know, life and death are interdependent. And I think the best preparation for death is to have a great life. If you are willing to recognize that life is impermanent and that one could die and that could happen at any time and one's got a certain amount of time left, but it's unclear how much, then the question naturally arises: How do I want to use that time? What's important for me? What do I want to look back on at the end of my life and say, yes, that was what I want to do. I'm proud of that. I'm pleased with that. And, of course, that's different for everybody, so that's another reason that we don't have any answers to offer. The only answers that you can find out at Death Cafe are your own.
AMT: What do you say to people who find it too difficult to talk about death?
JON UNDERWOOD: No, absolutely. I mean, Death Cafe is a service for people who want to talk about death. If you don't want to talk about death, if you’re not comfortable, that’s absolutely fine. When I started organizing death cafes a member of my family said the problem with this, Jon, is that no one wants to talk about death. And I thought, yeah, that's a big problem. This is never going to catch on. But it has.
AMT: So, you go from not thinking that it’ll work at all to having it spread to 35 countries.
JON UNDERWOOD: Yes, indeed. Yes. Marvellous.
AMT: How has your participation in this movement changed your own outlook on death and on life and death?
JON UNDERWOOD: It sort of makes me cherish what I've got and gives me a deep source of satisfaction with the positive things in my life. And during the time that I've been running Death Cafe I’ve had two small children. And I recognize that a one point, inevitably, we will be parted. And so really that gives me the incentive to really get the juice out of our relationship, to not take it for granted and be complacent, but really work hard and enjoy, as much as I can, my time with them. And that's really made a clear difference to my relationship with my kids and that's something I'm really grateful for.
AMT: Do you talk to your children about life and death differently than your own parents talk to you?
JON UNDERWOOD: I probably do. I don't really talk to them about it, as in raise the conversations, let's have a conversation about death now. Rather, I’m able to listen to them when they raise these issues and answer their questions honestly and not try and close the conversation down or say, you know, this is too scary for you. My father-in-law died in 2011 when my son was quite young and he saw the deterioration and he was anxious after that. He was talking about what happened, if me and his mom died. And, fortunately, we were able to be present with his concerns and eventually he said to us, well, if you and mom die, where am I going to live? And we thought that was a really practical question. You can understand why he was asking that. And so we're able to discuss the various options and eliminate some things and identify some things. And after that he stopped being anxious. So I think working with death just has allowed me to be more present with it and allowed my children to feel a bit more comfortable with it too.
AMT: You wanted this movement to make a difference. What impact you think you've made for people who attend?
JON UNDERWOOD: I don't know. It's hard to say. I wouldn't claim too much, because only a couple of hours talking about that death, but hopefully it will galvanize them to do what they want with their lives a little bit more, to give them a bit of a boost to pursue their dreams. And then when those people do encounter death and dying, perhaps they’ll have a few more resources to fall back on, a bit more resilience, a bit more confidence. And so if that's the case, I can feel very, very pleased, because I think those are marvellous outcomes.
AMT: And what have death cafes taught you about life?
JON UNDERWOOD: That…hmm… What have death cafes taught me about life? That people are so precious. It's like, when someone dies it's almost as if they're sort of recast. You look back on their life when they're not there anymore and it seems to sort of imbue them with a sort of sacredness almost. They seem to become sort of superhuman and they seemed so special. People who were close, to me anyways, my personal experience, after they've died they've seemed such special people. And working with death has helped me see people as more special when they're alive. And I think that's the main gift that I've got out of it.
AMT: Well, that's a good place to end this conversation, to think about that. Jon Underwood, thanks for your time.
JON UNDERWOOD: Thank you. Thank you.
AMT: Jon Underwood started the Death Cafe movement. He joined us from London, England. Let us know if you have ever attended one of these events or what you think of the idea. How comfortable would you be talking to strangers about death over coffee and cake? Tweet us. We are @thecurrentCBC. Find us on Facebook. Email us from our website, cbc.ca/thecurrent, and click on the Contact link. If you're joining us partway through you can also go to the website. Listen right there or download the podcast. Go to the App Store or iTunes Play, I think that's what it is. But you can download the podcast. I'll correct myself in a minute. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti. This is The Current on CBC Radio One and Sirius XM and online on cbc.ca/thecurrent.
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Fort McMurray hospital evacuation was 'calm' while flames raged close
Guests: David Matear
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: Hello, I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and this is The Current.
[drum beat music]
VOICE 1: Explosions and fire raging sounding like wind turbines. It's crazy.
VOICE 2: In my opinion, this was an illegal fire. You don't crawl up into a ball and cry about it.
AMT: Well, just a taste of the week that was on The Current and it's time for some listener feedback and joining me to help read through your tweets, your posts, your emails is Stephen Quinn, host of CBC's afternoon show throughout BC's lower mainland, On the Coast. He is this week's Friday host of The Current. Hello, Stephen, welcome back.
STEPHEN QUINN: Hello, Anna Maria. How are you?
AMT: I'm fine but I've been mangling the app thing, okay so it's the app store or Google Play [laughs]. Because I have my app, I keep forgetting where to get my CBC app because I only listen on my app. I don't even own a radio anymore. I listen on my CBC Radio app.
STEPHEN QUINN: I still have a radio in the bathroom.
AMT: There you go.
STEPHEN QUINN: I never have to be away from it.
AMT: [laughs] I drag my little app everywhere I go.
STEPHEN QUINN: [laughs] Dragging your app around.
AMT: [laughing] Carry your app carefully. Okay, I’m going to stop now. Let's get to it. Yesterday we heard from firefighters who fought the Fort McMurray wildfire. Earlier this week we heard from residents who were forced to flee their homes, a lot of feedback on our firefighters by the way, people were riveted by what they had to say. And as the flames roared into the city, hospital patients had to be moved out of the way. David Matear is the senior operating director of the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre, the hospital in downtown Fort McMurray. He helped lead the evacuation. He was among the last to leave that facility. He joins us now from Westlock, Alberta, hello.
DAVID MATEAR: Hello, Anna Maria.
AMT: Well, tell me what was going on in the hospital when that evacuation order first came.
DAVID MATEAR: There were a lot of very worried people around, obviously. There were individuals on staff that had families within the area who were receiving the same types of information through multiple sources, through radio and through our communications. In general, as staff worried about our families, we wondered what they were doing, where they were, and we realized we were going to have to move our patients. We were in charge and responsible to our patients and moving them out of immediate danger. At the same time, worried about family members and other members of the community and how they were faring.
AMT: I’ve seen pictures of the hospital, you've got a pretty good vantage point there. Could you see the fire coming?
DAVID MATEAR: In some parts of the hospital, you could and that was one of the issues, actually, because as we were planning our command centre, you could see the horizon and the sort of red glow on the horizon as the fires were coming more towards the hospital. And another part of the hospital, it was much, much closer, and that was the emergency department where the staff there were acutely aware because they could see literally the flames, perhaps something like 500 metres away from the hospital.
AMT: Wow. Okay, so you had already moved some patients, but how many patients did you actually have in the hospital when the order came?
DAVID MATEAR: 105 patients that were in the hospital at that time.
AMT: What ages? What kinds of patients?
DAVID MATEAR: All sorts of ages, all the way through from critical patients in emergency departments in ICU through to long term care patients that had mobility issues, wheelchair bound, etcetera. So, the full range of patients you would normally want to see when you went into a hospital.
AMT: And so, what did you do?
DAVID MATEAR: So we prioritized, actually. We made sure that we had communication with all of the managers across all of units, whether they supported clinical services or not and gave the directions that we needed to make sure that we were moving those patients out into an area waiting for buses to come for the evacuation to take is north of the city.
AMT: So that's where you went, you went north?
DAVID MATEAR: We went north because there's one highway that runs through Fort McMurray, a single highway which goes north-south, the 63 and south was blocked. It was blocked because of fire, so there was no chance of us moving patients south at that time and so we had, with Emergency and Disaster Management, identified a location where we could move to that was safe. And from that location then we air lifted all of our patients to safety in Edmonton.
AMT: Over a course of how many hours?
DAVID MATEAR: Probably around about 18 hours from the start of the evacuation to the last patient was airlifted from the airport.
AMT: And so as these patients are going out and they are getting closer to being Medivac-ed, you've still got all sorts of stuff going on inside. People must be worried. Just describe that scene for me. How many things were on your mind?
DAVID MATEAR: Well, lots. Our staff were on my mind, our patients were on my mind, and all of our leaders. We had to assess the status of our staff to find out whether they were able and capable of following through on some of the important tasks we had ahead of us to evacuate patients. Some of those decisions had to be made around letting some staff go that were having great difficulty coping with the situation, and redirecting the other people who were able and willing to lead the evacuation in the right direction; to make sure that we properly used the resources, but at the same time we're very sensitive to the state of people within our organization.
AMT: You would have had a lot of people whose kids, and homes were-- they didn't know, right? They just didn’t know what was going on with their own families.
DAVID MATEAR: That's absolutely correct and you could see it in everybody's eyes.
AMT: What about your own life, or your own family, your home?
DAVID MATEAR: Yeah, well I lived downtown in an apartment and my dogs were in the apartment, and I remember sitting in one meeting towards the end where we were given the mandated evacuation order and we received news that the provincial building in Fort McMurray was under voluntary evacuation, which is very, very close to my building where I live. Knowing that there was nobody there to get my two dogs out of my apartment, was a little worrying. Luckily there was a neighbour who went back to the building and took the dogs and took them down to Edmonton, so that relieved me, but other than that, I’m sure there was a lot of other people had an awful lot more on their mind than I did.
AMT: And what about the patients, how worried were they? What were they saying?
DAVID MATEAR: That was a very, very interesting part of it because they remained very calm throughout. In fact, we commented on that throughout the events and then afterwards so even when we had them in the lobby of the hospital waiting for buses to evacuate them, there was a sense of calmness, and I think that's a testament to our staff and how they handled and managed the situation and managed patient care.
AMT: So, the staff was very reassuring to their patients?
DAVID MATEAR: Absolutely.
AMT: You were the last one to leave the hospital?
DAVID MATEAR: That's right, yes, me and Protective Services. There were a couple of the leaders that formed the last group to leave the facility.
AMT: What did that feel like?
DAVID MATEAR: We weren’t very sure we're going to see it again because the flames were that close and we didn't know. There was some satisfaction in knowing we had everyone out of the facility, so all patients had been safely transported out of the facility, all staff were safe and out of the facility, and even the emergency crews had done whatever they could do, and we were really locking it down and then leaving it. But, a job well done almost under difficult circumstances so, mixed emotions leaving the facility, not knowing whether we'd ever go back there but hoping, and on the other hand, satisfaction that everyone got out safely.
AMT: What do you know about the hospital and damage?
DAVID MATEAR: At the moment, Protective Services have been in the hospital, we've had a Disaster Management team in there. They’ve assessed and it looks like minimal damage, actually. They vented the building so we're sending teams up to do assessments of various functionalities of the building, but we're hoping that there's not too much in terms of damage to the building.
AMT: So when you say minimal damage, did the fire reach the hospital?
DAVID MATEAR: The hospital was not on fire at any time, but there was smoke throughout.
AMT: What about the patients, did anyone suffer from that move?
DAVID MATEAR: No, I think that's one of the huge successes; nobody suffered, there were no injuries associated with the move, everyone was placed in an appropriate facility in Edmonton. We'd already planned, before we were transferring, we had all of the information for all of the patients with their needs and that was sent to our northern operations centre. They were already liaising with Edmonton to make sure patients got to the right facilities for their needs.
AMT: And where your dogs?
DAVID MATEAR: My dogs are in the hotel [laughs], probably about two miles down the road from where I'm sitting now.
AMT: And what about your own home, then?
DABID MATEAR: I believe that that is still standing and our building was not damaged in any way.
AMT: Well, thanks for talking to me, good to hear that you have something to work with. You didn't lose your structure and you can start thinking about when to go back.
DAVID MATEAR: Absolutely, it’s so important. Thank you so much, indeed. Bye bye.
AMT: Bye now. David Matear is the senior operating director for the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in Fort McMurray.
STEPHEN QUINN: Well, the highway through the city may have reopened but Fort McMurray residents are still waiting to hear when they can return to their community. On Thursday, we spoke with Crystal Mercredi who fled to Lac La Biche, about 300 kilometres south of Fort McMurray and she shared her feelings about how the evacuation plans were handled.
There were two school buses full of kids right in front of him [teary]. Sorry. It was really poorly handled by our school system. The kids should not have had school yesterday. They evacuated us so late. So late that people were stuck in traffic and people are calling the radio station saying, we're in Abasand and the fire is coming for us and we're bumper to bumper and we can't move. Come and save us. Get the police to direct traffic. We're trapped, we're sitting ducks, were the words that used on their video. It was handled really poorly. The evacuation was way too late.
AMT: Crystal Mercredi’s comments struck a chord with many of you. Andre Carrel wrote from Terrace, British Columbia with this suggestion: To be prepared requires a willingness to pay for planning and preparedness at the risk of never having to make use of that planning and preparedness. This is what we do when we purchase fire and accident insurance. Why can't we apply that kind of thinking to government emergency services?
STEPHEN QUINN: Deborah Dean from Calgary wrote in to express her anger with our coverage: Why is The Current already playing the blame game while houses are burning in Fort Mac and people are being evacuated? None of the above is helpful. Try respecting the people are doing their best to deal with an overwhelming situation and please respect their strength at this time.
AMT: The Fort McMurray situation made Glen Noctor think about preparedness more broadly. He posted: There needs to be more planning for everyone! Families need to be planning, neighbourhoods etcetera. Something as simple as a place to meet! No one is prepared and there's one way out on the number one! Fort McMurray is 80,000 people, not one or two million people. By the way, Stephen, CBC’s Briar Stewart posted last night on our internal alerts, the number now from the province is that 94,000 people actually evacuated the city in that time period, so it's even higher than the original numbers, which were something around 83,000 thousand, it is 94,000 people got out of the city in that short time.
STEPHEN QUINN: All right, thank you and on to the next story. Last Wednesday we spoke with director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril about her documentary, Angry Inuk.
We call ourselves people of the seal. Almost all Inuit communities are coastal and our staple food is seal. We often use the bones for games or making jewelry, and the sealskins, we use a lot of sealskins at home ourselves domestically. We still eat as much seal meat as we used to but, we don't live in sealskin tents anymore and we don't wear full sealskin clothing all the time so nowadays, we have excess seal skins that we can sew.
AMT: Alethea Arnaquq-Baril argued that anti-sealing campaigns and the EU seal ban are having catastrophic impacts on the Inuit way of life.
STEPHEN QUINN: We heard from many of you after the interview aired. Monica Towle from Vancouver writes: Killing animals for pleasure and profit is indefensible, whether they are slaughtered behind closed doors or on ice floes. It is particularly offensive to hear Inuit championing the commercial slaughter of seals for the fur industry while simultaneously insisting that they honour and respect the earth and all of its inhabitants.
AMT: Caryn Douglas of Winnipeg disagreed. She writes: Thank you for bringing Alethea Arnaquq-Baril's voice into my kitchen tonight. I pray I can be open to learning from the depth of wisdom people like her, instead of being tied to my own limited views.
STEPHEN QUINN: Justin Jaron Lewis was thankful for the history lesson. He posted this on Facebook:I was most shocked to hear that Inuit were forced into a settled, town-style life in the 1950s and 60s within my lifetime. There is so much I don't know about colonialism in this country.
AMT: Well, switching gears to another story. Tuesday on The Current, we heard from a Toronto woman who lost her job while on maternity leave.
I was shocked. I was three months into my mat leave and I was really devastated. It's my lifeline. We’re a dual income household, like many Ontarians are. We rely on my income, we rely on my maternity leave, we planned our pregnancy as you're told you should and it just kind of got taken out from under me.
STEPHEN QUINN: That was Gilary Massa. She's fighting to get her job back. After that story aired, we received a statement from the Ryerson Students' Union, the organization that employed Gilary Massa. It reads, in part, quote “Ms. Massa was not fired because she was on maternity leave. The position she held was eliminated and she was laid off in accordance with a collective agreement between the RSU and the union. Moreover, as soon as Ms. Massa was laid off by the RSU, the previous executive reached out to the University to see if a position was available for her there at a comparable salary,” unquote.
AMT: Well, this story resonated with many of you. Brian Bekkema in Victoria says he took six months of parental leave after his daughter was born. He writes: My workplace waited until two weeks before my return to tell me that my position was no longer available. They offered a 'similar position' with a 30 per cent pay cut. I refused that position and was sent away with no severance or other compensation. We had no savings to fight. Instead, I was forced to find other work immediately in order to keep a roof over our heads.
STEPHEN QUINN: On Facebook, Peach Wood writes: I wasn't exactly fired on my mat leave, but my boss stated on my return that as a mother I was no longer "fit" to be a sales rep. He wanted me to be available on-call 24/7, which I agreed to, but he still felt my job was better for a person with no kids. I went from sales plus commission, to part-time working cash in the front of the store. So naturally I quit, but really, they pretty much let me go.
AMT: Leigh Wood from Calgary had a different view. She writes: I sympathize with the woman about the handling of her situation. But this echoes the cocky attitude of young women I worked with who thought they were immune to massive energy sector layoffs because they could get pregnant and go on leave.
STEPHEN QUINN: And finally, Susan D. tweets this: Firing women on mat leave? Discussing equal co-parenting tasks? I keep checking the calendar. Is it still 1972?
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Charlie Angus calls for permanent solution to address Attawapiskat suicide crisis
Guests: Charlie Angus
AMT: Okay, moving on. This week the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Carolyn Bennett endorsed the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people. Amidst the applause there was criticism of the government for failing to come up with a permanent solution to the wave of suicide attempts by young people in Attawapiskat. Charlie Angus is the MP for the Timmins-James Bay riding which includes Attawapiskat. He's the NPD critic for Indigenous and Northern Affairs. He was in Attawapiskat earlier this week and he joins me from Ottawa, hi.
CHARLIE ANGUS: Good morning.
AMT: What's changed in the months since the state of emergency was declared there?
CHARLIE ANGUS: Well, what was concerning coming up to the 30 day mark on the state of emergency was we couldn't really seem to get a clearer picture of what was happening on the ground from government officials. That community has been crying out from day one that that the children in very, very high risk situations, there are no mental health workers to help these children and so, sometimes they're being Medivac-ed out for two days after they hurt themselves and then they're just being flown back into the same situation without any treatment. And what was disturbing was the government was telling media and reassuring everybody that there were teams on the ground doing these specific tasks when, in fact there weren't. The problem we have here is, there's a lack of coordination. There are some great people being involved in trying to find solutions but we need to go from this reactive band-aid response to a much more proactive solution that perhaps maybe we can learn from Attawapiskat and use it in other communities. But, there was certainly a lot of chaos between the various jurisdictional players and what the needs actually are on the ground.
AMT: The government says it did fly in medical teams, you’re saying they didn't?
CHARLIE ANGUS: Well, the province sent in an emergency medical response team which has never been deployed in a situation like this before, so they were there for 30 days, they've been extended. They're certainly doing some good work but there are problems. Their mandate is to be at the hospital, so they're basically acting as backup for the nurses and that when there's-- we've had a few nights where it's been pretty tense in the community with a number of young people hurting themselves, but that is a separate thing than the work that's needed in terms of working with the children, talking through their issues, the kind of severe mental trauma that some of these young people experienced as young as six, that's been the question. We actually have young people going through this cycle of crisis at the hospital, being flown out, and being put back in without ever actually being treated and that's going to create long term problems if we don't get to that issue.
AMT: Okay, let's go through some of that. First of all, without ever being treated, you can't treat that in two days.
CHARLIE ANGUS: Well, Anna Maria, this is why we've been saying we need a long term mental health solution for the children in the community. This is the concern is that the idea that in 30 days, everyone will say job well done and go back to their various jurisdictions and these young people are still dealing with some very, very deep issues.
AMT: So, they need permanent workers?
CHARLIE ANGUS: Yes, we need for the young people and a lot of the spike of this very self-destructive behaviour that is happening in the in the under-18 category of children so we need a male and female permanent worker to work with them and to start working through this. Now Health Canada said that they will do that and that's good, but what I think what was concerning on the ground is this isn't the first time we've seen this movie and we had a horrific suicide crisis in James Bay in 2009 where we lost a whole number of young people and the province came in with a response and said they’d augment workers, that we'd have better child welfare teams on the ground, and as soon as the media stopped paying attention they laid everybody off, closed group homes and that sets the stage for the next round of crisis. Unless we're going to do this work permanently in the long term and help rebuild some of these families, these kids are going to continue to fall through the cracks.
AMT: Okay, well we did receive a statement from the Minister of Health, the Federal Minister of health, Jane Philpott, on the situation in Attawapiskat. I’ll just get your reaction. It reads in part, and I'm quoting, “Two additional mental health counsellors from the Anishinaabe Nation Crisis Response Unit were dispatched to add to the complement of two permanent youth counsellors already in the area” end quote. It goes on to say that the government is committed to funding two additional permanent mental health workers for youth, as well as a case manager and that today, a Health Canada senior manager will be in Attawapiskat to discuss with the First Nation leadership how best to use those resources. Does that help?
CHARLIE ANGUS: I'm a little confused by that statement, but I do know that the deputy minister is going up there today, I think that's a really good sign. I will take them at their word that they're going to get these two mental health counsellors into the community and I hope we're going to get them soon. But again, we shouldn't have to be going through this. It should be a very clear pattern in terms of if a crisis happens that there should be a coordination team on the ground and, unfortunately for Health Canada, that has not been the case and it wasn't helpful for them to be saying that they had the mental health workers for the children when they weren't on the ground.
AMT: So, what's the problem? Is it money, is that they can't get people to live up there permanently? What's the problem?
CHARLIE ANGUS: I’m not really sure. We've been dealing with the suicide crisis in numerous communities. I would hope that we go from reactive here to proactive, which is, what lessons can we learn from Attawapiskat so that in another community, say northern Manitoba, northern Quebec, if this happens, what will we do? Should we send in a team immediately to assess the situation? What are the teams on the ground that we can bring to bear? What are the resources?
AMT: But that was my question to you, and also you know Attawapiskat better than most, what would you do if you had unlimited funds at your disposal, what would you do?
CHARLIE ANGUS: Right now what I think is really important is getting everybody from the various jurisdictions working together to put the focus on child-centred responses as opposed to, well this is our mandate and that's their mandate and sometimes our mandates overlap--
AMT: Okay, but how do you do it? What is a child centred response? You're saying they're taking the kids out because they don't have somebody there, they're taking young kids out for a couple of days, what would you do?
CHARLIE ANGUS: Child centred response would be who should be at the table? The police should be at the table, the school should be at the table, the drug counsellors, the child welfare workers, the mental health workers and to say okay, we have a child in crisis. What can we do with the family? Do we have the support for them? What does the child need? Flying a child out, Medivac-ing them out in an emergency for two days and then flying them back is not a solution. The solution is, does this child need long term treatment in a special facility? Okay, let’s find that. That's what's not happening right now, this child centred response. It’s reactive all the time. The other element, which is starting to be put in place, we have incredible young people in Attawapiskat, we haven't had the support for them in terms of programming, so we have a commitment to get a youth centre built but we need to be to build a social structure around them. The has offered to step in, Right to Play has offered to work with the community, so we could start to build a very long term positive future for young people and that that will make a huge difference.
AMT: Charlie Angus, we have to leave it there. Thank you for your time.
CHARLIE ANGUS: Thank you so much.
AMT: Charlie Angus, NDP critic for the Indigenous and Northern Affairs portfolio. He joined us from Ottawa.
STEPHEN QUINN: Well, now it is time to give credit where credit is due. This week, The Current was produced by Idella Sturino, Howard Goldenthal, Ines Colabrese, Lara O'Brien, Julian Uzielli, and Sarah Grant.
AMT: Josh Bloch, Pacinthe Mattar, Sujata Berry, Liz Hoath, Marc Apollonio, Hamutal Dotan, John Chipman, Karin Marley, and our intern Paula Last.
STEPHEN QUINN: Special thanks to our network producers, Michael O'Halloran in Calgary, and Anne Penman in Vancouver.
AMT: The Current's writer this week is Shannon Higgins. Our web producer is Lisa Ayuso. Our technicians are Gary Francis and Jennifer Rowley.
STEPHEN QUINN: Our senior documentary editor is Joan Webber. Our senior producers are Richard Goddard in Toronto and Cathy Simon in Vancouver. And the executive producer of The Current is Kathleen Goldhar.
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