Learning lessons from Arizona

Elizabeth May

We have all learned a lot more about Arizona this week.  We now know that it has the least restrictive gun control in the US.  We know that there are exemptions at gun shows where even the rudimentary form that has to be filled out in the gun stores is not required. 
We also know that Arizona spends less on mental health than any state in the US.  It is a recipe for disaster: lax gun laws and inadequate help to those with mental illness. Allow that mixture to stew in a marinade of what Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik described as “a mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”
I leave it to those in the US to do their soul-searching, although Sarah Palin’s video response suggests she doesn’t understand the meaning of the term.  Still, I believe there are lessons for us in Canada.  Yes, thank God, we are a country where people do not legally carry concealed hand guns.  We are not a gun culture.  We can and must improve our gun control laws, and measures to combat smuggling, but we are markedly ahead of the US in this area.
However, we have no bragging rights when it comes to mental health services.  We have allowed far too many people in need of help to go without.  It was just last week we heard the tragic interviews from Nova Scotia with the family of Glen Race.  Although it seems clear that he murdered 3 people, it was not possible to listen to his mother and brother’s description of their efforts to help him, without feeling immense sympathy for him as a person suffering from a terrible disease.  In his university years, he developed schizophrenia. His family was unable to get help.  When they feared he might become violent, they went to the police, the RCMP, only to be told they could not intervene if he was not a threat to himself or to others.  In jail, he could finally get medication and help.  The victims of Mr. Race were, of course, truly and ultimately innocent victims.  But Mr. Race and his family were victims of a system that could not support them. 
These stories of random acts of violence by people who themselves are in need of help are becoming all too common.  One event that really tore into the heart of Victoria was the June killing of a Grade 10 student who was waiting for a bus. Justin Wendland was a much loved young man with no connection to his killer.  The man who stabbed him turned himself into police 15 minutes after the murder.  Cory Daniel Barry, 39, was charged with the killing and was described as a person struggling with mental health issues.  He was a street person and local merchants knew him as gentle.  In earlier years, before deficit cutting and cut backs, he might not have been on the streets.  Institutionalization is a harsh word, but steady care and mental health services could have saved that beautiful 15 year old boy’s life.
Thursday morning, on CBC's The Current, I listened to the raw, searing pain of people who suffer from mental health issues or who love those who do.  Story after story made it clear, as if we didn’t already know, that we are failing to provide the kind of mental health and addiction counseling that so many of the members of our society desperately need.  
How much longer can we afford to turn a blind eye to the need for improved mental health services?
Meanwhile, there is more we should learn.  While Canadian political culture is not steeped in vitriol and hatred, the trend lines are not good.  We are allowing increased levels of incivility to creep into our culture.  Abuse and vilification of political opponents is becoming increasingly commonplace.  I mentioned the nastiness of anonymous postings on websites in my last blog.  That new anti-social use of social media is a large part of the problem, but it is not the full extent of it.  Mainstream media is turning nastier.  Even before the Sun Media TV channel gets to the airwaves, its “star” players, people like Ezra Levant and Lorrie Goldstein, are bringing a level of rude, boorish behaviour to Canadian radio and TV.  Our political discourse has dramatically worsened in the last five years. The heckling and abuse in Question Period set such a low bar that citizens turn away in disgust.  Treating each other with respect is a foundational aspect of a decent society.  "To disagree without being disagreeable” has long been a Canadian way of discussing differences.  We are losing that. 
Now is a good moment to reflect, as so many are now doing in the US, how we can reverse those trends that nurture intolerance.  Political discourse, from local issues that divide communities to dialogue in the House of Commons, needs to be examined, rabid partisanship and character assassination explicitly rejected, and our behaviour towards each other held to a higher standard.