Mentally ill Cree woman can go home to Saskatchewan, board says

After enduring sexual and physical abuse as a child, Marlene Carter attempted suicide several times and has spent most of her adult life in prison or mental health institutions. Her family believes she'll be able to get better at a facility back in Saskatchewan with more culturally relevant treatment.

Marlene Carter's family, advocates hope she can get more culturally relevant treatment in her home province

Marlene Carter, 44, is seen here after her Ontario Review Board hearing at the Brockville Mental Health Centre. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

The family of a mentally ill Cree woman is hopeful she'll get more culturally relevant treatment after a provincial review board recommended moving her from a facility in Brockville, Ont., back to her home province of Saskatchewan.

Marlene Carter, 44, has been a patient at the Brockville Mental Health Centre since the summer of 2014, when she was moved from the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon after assaulting guards there.

At an Ontario Review Board hearing this week, her advocates argued she needs mental health treatment that caters to her Cree background, including smudge ceremonies and cultural teachings, and that she should be closer to her family and home community of Onion Lake Cree Nation, Sask.

The board agreed to make an initial recommendation to move her back to Saskatchewan, with a detailed official decision to come on where exactly she'll be placed and how she'll be treated.

Marlene Carter, left, and her sister Peggy Harper, originally from Onion Lake Cree Nation, Sask., following review board's decision to send Marlene to an institution in Saskatchewan. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)
"It's just an overwhelming feeling," said Carter's sister, Peggy Harper, who flew in from Onion Lake for the hearing in Brockville.

"Understanding that Marlene is coming back to Saskatchewan, that there will be resources available to her, because there are people wanting to work with her, especially the cultural aspects."

Algonquin elder Albert Dumont, who's worked with Carter for more than a year in Brockville to help connect her to her Cree background, agrees.

Treatment included electroshock therapy

"It was the first time that she'd smudged in many years," he said, following the hearing. "And she talked about her dreams, and we talked together about healing and about maybe becoming a better person, a stronger person."

Although where she ends up in Saskatchewan is still up in the air, he hopes she still has access to cultural treatments, and he wants provincial health and justice officials there to remember the "many, many traumas that she experienced."

After enduring sexual and physical abuse as a child, Carter attempted suicide several times, and eventually fell into drug and alcohol abuse and crime, spending most of her adult life in prison and mental health institutions.

She has a deep scar on her forehead from repeatedly banging her head on hard surfaces while in custody. Treatment for her mental illness has included electroshock therapy.

The hearing was Harper's first time seeing her sister in years.

"To see ... the extent of the injuries that she's inflicted on herself has left me speechless," she said.

Carter has been in custody at the Brockville Mental Health Centre since August 2014. (Waubgeshig Rice, CBC News)
During her time in the Brockville facility, Carter attacked several nurses and staff, most recently on Jan. 6, and there are still two outstanding assault charges against her.

While she sat restrained in a wheelchair near her sister and her lawyer, five staff members read victim impact statements at the hearing, detailing post-traumatic stress following Carter's attacks, and fear of returning to work in the forensic treatment unit.

"Our hearts go out to anyone who's ever suffered any trauma because of Marlene's actions," said Dumont.

"They're often assaults that are generated when she's trying to stop someone from stopping her, historically, hurting herself, or when they were trying to put her in restraints or do other kinds of usual forcible treatments," said Kim Pate, of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

Pate, who's known Carter for more than two decades, is encouraged by the board's recommendation.

"There's some disagreement as to where's the best place for her," she said. "We think she should be in her community with the appropriate supports: therapeutic supports, cultural supports, and that she could be there, and that would not pose a risk to public safety."

During breaks in the review board proceedings, Carter talked casually with her sister in Cree, her first language, and turned to acknowledge her stepmother, watching via video link from Saskatoon.

Peggy Harper flew to Ontario to support her sister during a hearing to move her back to Saskatchewan. 1:06

'The Cree for her was good'

"I think that Cree for her was good," said Harper. "It was a long time, she said, before she had spoke with anybody. And it felt good to speak in her language."

Carter spoke briefly with her supporters and reporters in the hall of the mental health centre once the hearing adjourned.

She said she was "happy" with the recommendation to go back to Saskatchewan, and added that she looked forward to being out of restraints.

She has three sons, in their teens and 20s, who live in British Columbia.

"Hopefully in the future, once there's less restraints, that she can actually be integrated back into the community with visits, getting to know her family, getting connected with people who she is related to, I think that's really important for Marlene," said Harper.

"To date, the only family she's had has been institutions."