I'm calling the meeting to order.
This is our 16th meeting of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security. I want to welcome our guests, our witnesses, here. Thank you for taking the time.
Just before we begin with the witnesses, you will have noticed that the clerk has sent a notice regarding supplementary estimates (A). Because we couldn't do the scheduling for the minister to come on the mains, I have requested that the minister make himself available for the supplementary estimates. I'm just looking at the opposition and for everyone to know that he's available probably June 2 or June 9. I'm going to be suggesting he come on June 2 for that meeting, and that gives time for us to prepare for the minister's appearance. He's very anxious, of course, to come. I just wanted to let the committee know that he would be appearing there and obviously there can be a full range of questions because almost everything gets related to those things. I'm sure that makes you happy.
We welcome Mr. Vaughan, Ms. Jolibois, and Mr. Gourde.
Thank you for being with us today.
Welcome to our study. Just so you know, we've been looking at post-traumatic stress disorder and operational stress injury and how it affects emergency responders, first responders, and particularly federal emergency safety officers. We have been looking at whether or not we can make some recommendations to the Government of Canada regarding how we can improve the health and safety of those Canadians who keep us safe. It necessarily also has some implications for people not under federal jurisdiction so we have other guests as well trying to get a handle on this important issue.
We have two guests with us today. We have Mr. Boissonneault, who comes from Brant County but he is also from the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, the national organization; and Scott Marks, who comes from the International Association of Fire Fighters.
Mr. Boissonneault, you have 10 minutes, then Mr. Marks has 10 minutes, and then we'll have a round of questioning before we have the correctional officers come in.
Welcome, thank you.
Mr. Chair, esteemed members of the committee, I want to thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today and to address the issue of critical importance.
My name is Pierre Boissonneault. I am the fire chief for the Country of Brant, Ontario, and the president of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs.
Founded in 1909, the CAFC is an independent not-for-profit organization representing approximately 3,500 fire departments across Canada. As the voice of fire services in Canada, the CAFC promotes the highest standard of public safety in an ever-changing and increasingly complex world. The CAFC acts as a national public service association dedicated to reducing loss of life and property from fire. Our vision statement is “uniting Canada's fire service leaders”, and our mission statement is “connecting Canada's provincial/territorial allied associations and external stakeholders for the advancement of public and firefighter safety”.
Firefighting is a physically demanding occupation, as is widely accepted, but greater attention to mental and emotional stresses of the role is needed. There is currently no national-level plan in place to support public safety officers coping with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and other operational stress injuries.
In his mandate letter to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, the Prime Minister listed the following among top priorities:
||Work with provinces and territories and the Minister of Health to develop a coordinated national action plan on post-traumatic stress disorder, which disproportionately affects public safety officers.
With a view to fulfilling his mandate, Minister Goodale organized a national round table for PTSD that took place on January 29, 2016, at the University of Regina. The full-day event was chaired by Michel Picard, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, and brought together academics from across this country, representatives from various levels of government, as well as leadership from organizations representing first responders and emergency workers.
Addressing participants via video message, the minister said:
|Over the years, I have heard repeatedly from the public safety community that more needs to be done for those suffering from PTSD. We routinely ask public safety officers to stand in harm’s way to protect and keep Canadians safe, and for that, they deserve the highest level of support and care. I am sorry to have missed today’s round table, but I look forward to hearing the outcomes of the conversation. A national action plan on PTSD will not only support the health and well-being of the public safety community, but will also contribute to the safety of Canada.
The CAFC commends Minister Goodale's commitment to this very important initiative as we face a number of challenges on the path to ensuring mental health and wellness for all our public safety officers from across this country.
Dr. Nick Carleton of the University of Regina, who has spoken before this committee in recent months, highlighted the difficulty in calculating the rate of first responders who will develop PTSD due to the stigma associated with mental illness. Nevertheless, he stated that the figure could be as high as 35%. Culturally, there is a discomfort in addressing mental health issues that stems from a lack of understanding, and it fosters cynicism about an illness that can be associated with poor behaviour or declining performance.
Further to this, more than half of those with mental health problems will not seek treatment. Among firefighters, the stigma of mental illness acts as a barrier, preventing individuals from making use of mental health services. They fear negative impacts on their careers and lack the knowledge of how to access services that are available to them. We must work quickly to alter this perception. According to the The Tema Conter Memorial Trust, 16 first responders have died by suicide so far this year, in addition to the 39 suicide deaths in 2015.
Another challenge lies in the composition of the fire services in Canada. In addition to full-time departments, there are also composite and volunteer departments, each of which presents a unique set of challenges. As one would imagine, volunteer departments may lack the resources to properly administer support programs, and a lack of personnel rules out peer support in many instances. That being said, the provision of a mental wellness program could be a key incentive for recruitment and retention.
In order to address these challenges, the CAFC has partnered with other organizations that are working toward the same objectives.
In September of last year, we launched the mental wellness road map initiative in collaboration with the International Association of Fire Fighters, the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and the University of Regina. Working with key stakeholders, this long-term initiative hopes to identify the tools required to support the fire service in recognition, prevention, intervention, and treatment of mental health issues facing firefighters across this country.
These initiatives alone are not enough. Funding is required for research on mental health issues among firefighters, to improve the capacity of the fire service and health professionals, to quantify their prevalence, and properly guide diagnosis and treatment efforts. Educational programs that improve mental health resilience and literacy, and provide the skills and knowledge to help firefighters better manage potential or developing mental health problems in themselves or a colleague, is especially important in addressing these barriers.
Appropriate training programs and supports to prepare firefighters to effectively address their mental health needs need to be developed, implemented, and funded on an ongoing basis. PTSD should be officially recognized by provinces as a workplace hazard for firefighters to ensure that they are able to access workplace insurance coverage. We need to continue to work on our coordinated national action plan on PTSD, collaborating with the provinces and territories to establish consistent practices across this country in assessment of mental health as part of recruitment; to recognize the role of mental health in overall wellness; and to recognize the importance of an investment in mental wellness support for firefighters in education, training, and support programs to current and former fire service personnel and their families.
As the fires rage in Fort McMurray, the eyes of the nation are upon our brothers and sisters who unflinchingly head towards the flames, combatting the spread in the interest of public safety. In extreme heat, through thick smoke, their unwavering commitment propels them onward in an area where all others have been evacuated.
Day and night, this nation's public safety officers stand tall in the face of danger, in order to protect their friends, families, and members of their communities. Surely, the latter individuals must want to protect these brave men and women from the dangers that they are not equipped to overcome.
On behalf of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, I thank you for the opportunity to be consulted during this study and to speak before this very committee.
I look forward to answering any questions you may have.
Thank you very much.
I am honoured to have the opportunity to share with the committee our views on this timely and important subject.
By way of background, the International Association of Fire Fighters represents more than 23,000 full-time professional firefighters in Canada. We are first on the scene in virtually any emergency, whether it's a structural fire, a highway accident, a serious medical call, a hazardous materials incident, or any other emergency. As I speak, many of our members are tackling the devastating wildfires in Fort McMurray and the surrounding areas.
It's well-known that firefighting is a dangerous and physically demanding occupation and that firefighters suffer high rates of workplace injury and illness. Less known are the mental demands of the occupation, including the effects of being regularly exposed to scenes and images that anyone would find disturbing and difficult to see.
For too long, post-traumatic stress disorder has been a hidden secret amongst firefighters and other first responders. Haunted by the effects of the job, but feeling the stigma of appearing weak and unwell in front of our shift mates and our families' and society's expectations, too few firefighters struggling with the mental health implications of our profession have reached out for help. Too often, firefighters have turned to alcohol and other drugs to deal with their difficulties, with marriages and other relationships crumbling under the strain. In many cases, fear of the financial implications of stepping away from a career becomes another reason to stay silent.
Tragically, PTSD has claimed the lives of numerous firefighters across Canada who succumbed to dark thoughts they could not shake and committed suicide. Last year our affiliate in Surrey, British Columbia, IAFF Local 1271, experienced the pain of two members' suicides in a seven-week period. As Chief Boissonneault mentioned, the Tema Conter Memorial Trust tells us we have lost 16 first responders so far this year to suicide in Canada. It's a sad and shocking number.
There's no specific time frame for PTSD, which can manifest itself at any time. Given the nature of our profession, firefighters are vulnerable to or more susceptible to PTSD, as we are repeatedly subjected to traumatic circumstances within the communities in which we live. While statistics surrounding PTSD and first responders are limited, it has been said that up to 15% to 20% of firefighters suffer from PTSD.
We must also be aware of the potential cost implications of PTSD. According to Dr. Suzy Gulliver, a professor at Texas A&M University, PTSD can be 100% disabling. Every trained firefighter taken out of service by PTSD costs the community, not only in training expenses but in an immeasurable loss of knowledge and experience.
We must try to avoid PTSD from developing into a chronic, disabling condition. Recently, there's been growing awareness of PTSD in firefighting and a growing willingness among firefighters to acknowledge that they are potentially affected by PTSD and to ask for help.
At the same time, there is growing acceptance that PTSD is a direct result of certain professions, including firefighting. In 2012, British Columbia and Alberta became the first Canadian provinces to formally recognize the mental health aspects of being a member of emergency services personnel, with legislation deeming PTSD to be presumed the result of a firefighter's occupation for purposes of workers' compensation. Since then, Manitoba and most recently Ontario have added this important protection, enabling first responders to obtain faster access to treatment.
If we're going to address mental health and PTSD in the first responder community, we'd better know the exact scope of the problem and what we're up against. That's why we've called on the federal government to establish a national action plan for post-traumatic stress disorder, and we applaud the government and the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness for the steps they have already taken in this direction.
We recommend that the plan consist of five key elements—best practices, research, education, awareness, and treatment—and that the plan become a framework for an effective and all-encompassing PTSD tool kit that can be used as a resource by any first responder agency or individual who needs it.
PTSD can be preventable with early diagnosis and proper treatment. Evidence-based research and the evaluation of best practices can help facilitate how first responders can be educated to identify and treat PTSD. We need to change how not only our first responders but also their family members, employers, and health care professionals learn about PTSD, as education is a key to prevention. Education and awareness also help with stigma reduction.
The federal government was quick to act on its commitment to develop a national action plan.
Public Safety Minister initiated the round table conference on PTSD for first responders in January in Regina. It was extremely successful in fleshing out the priorities and gaps in addressing the integral components of the broad plan. To this end, the IAFF is currently collaborating with the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, the Canadian Mental Health Commission, and the University of Regina on building a mental wellness plan for firefighters. IAFF is also participating in a tri-services working group, hosted by the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, to support the development of a national action plan. We are pleased to see the action being taken on this important issue, and we welcome the opportunity to assist in developing a coordinated plan to effectively address PTSD in first responders.
Thank you, and I'm happy to answer any questions from the committee.
Thank you both for appearing and for your perspective and for your work and the work of the people you represent.
Certainly this study has been helpful in getting viewpoints from a cross-section of people, both from a research standpoint and also from an operational standpoint. When we talk about first responders, we're really talking about the unique nature of these roles, uniformed service leading to operational stress, and about how we can reduce that stress and share information.
I'm going to ask a couple of questions. The first is a difficult one. It builds a bit on my colleague Ms. Damoff's information about data tracking. Part of the challenge I feel we face, and I saw this at Veterans Affairs, is that if there is a suicide related to someone who serves or did serve, privacy and respect obviously surround it, but because of the uniformed service component, there is almost a “bright line” default position that it was because of an operational stress injury. In some cases it's not, but in some cases it is.
How do you feel we should report this in a way that pays respect to family members and to the person who was lost, but how can we make progress? I feel sometimes, and I've said this to folks within the veterans community, that if we don't have an informed dialogue on this it will be hard, because I think the public, who are finally aware of what post-traumatic operational stress is—and we're breaking down stigma.... The next step is to have that informed discussion to say that people who put on a fire service uniform or a military uniform are a cross-section of Canadians. They will also have mental health issues unrelated to operations. They will also have financial, marital—a whole range of stresses that can also contribute.
Do you have any suggestions on this? We want to get help for those who are vulnerable, first off, because suicide is the wrong option. We want people to know there is support out there—peer-based and what have you. Do you have any thoughts on how we could best report and discuss this in a way that helps people and explains to the public that first responders are a cross-section of Canadians?
I think it's a great point. As we've been suggesting, I think the key to this is, number one, breaking down the stigma. The more we talk about it and the more information we get out there, the more likely we are to build and understand specific individuals.
On the broader concept, I think mental health is being recognized, and is going to have to be recognized as part of a person's general wellness and fitness. In the IAFF, we have incorporated a program that was actually developed in conjunction with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, called the wellness and fitness initiative, which we've encouraged our individual departments to take part in.
That was originally conceived as a physical program on nutrition, health, and fitness to make sure firefighters are, obviously, fit for duty. What we're doing with the mental health component now is incorporating that into our WFI, our wellness and fitness initiative, because we see that as being part of that broad component.
As we go forward with the statistics gathering, with the information we're hoping to capture, it would be no different than being able to look at a person's physical health from the day they came on the job to maybe 15 or 20 years later. If a mental health component is part of their hiring process, and part of looking at their general level of fitness, and if that's properly looked after, as a baseline, then we have a much better ability to determine, as their career unfolds, where the stressors are that are causing these kinds of injuries. Again, if there's proper tracking of incidents of where those exposures may have taken place, then it looks after itself.
I think the key is looking at this no differently from how we look at any other fitness of an individual.
Good morning. Thank you.
My name is Georgina Jolibois. I'm the member for Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River riding. I have various experiences in working with first responders from the RCMP, nurses, doctors, the local fire department, and the wildfire department.
Before I begin, I want to thank them for the work that they do. They are a remarkable group of people across the province of Saskatchewan who provide supportive services to their members, to the staff, including their families, and they keep our communities safe.
That fire that you were speaking about in Fort McMurray is close to the province of Saskatchewan's border, and it is worrisome for the province of Saskatchewan. It affects communities like La Loche, the Clearwater River Dene Nation, Carson Lake, and Black Point. I'm hoping that this discussion will help the province to come up with a really good plan to fight fires and put action on the fire.
January 22 was a bad day in La Loche. I got to observe up close the effects of PTSD on RCMP officers, the local fire department, nurses, doctors, other health care staff, and provincial service providers. What I noticed is that the RCMP have significant resources available to their members to help them deal with PTSD. At the provincial level, the health care staff and the ambulatory care staff have some resources available to them, but the local fire department and the reserve local fire department do not have as many resources to assist them with debriefing and counselling as other areas have.
The strategy is wonderful. Information is significant, but how can we, from the national level, ensure that the provinces, the municipalities, and the reserves get the same kind of support for their first responders?
On June 12, 2007, I attended a call. That morning I had taken my five-year-old son and dropped him off at day care wearing a tank top, jean shorts, and a pair of sandals. I was a fire chief of a small community with two fire stations, volunteer in nature, and we got a call for a detached garage fire.
I took the fire chief vehicle and arrived on scene. Two of my volunteer firefighters parked the truck. The truck was eight minutes out from getting there. I was the first other vehicle on scene. They had gone in once and covered their faces. They were in their bunker gear but with no air patch yet, because the truck was still seven minutes out. They did an educated risk assessment that if they waited any longer there would be no viable life inside.
They pulled the child outside, and because I was coming there medically prepared, I had my basic trauma life support, and I did chest compressions. The child had already started to go pugilistic. It was a five-year-old playing with a butane lighter inside a garage.
In dealing with that call, the individual who went into that garage had a child the same age. That day, when I worked on that child who ended up passing away, my son was at day care wearing almost the exact same clothes.
After doing all the media associated with that there was an outcry from those I will call “armchair quarterbacks”. “Why did firefighters go in the building without air packs?” “Do you employ cowboys in that municipality?” I said, “They risked a lot to save a lot, given their experience and training. They did what they were supposed to do, and they're not to be criticized. I have children myself. They are heroes.”
What I can tell you is that members on that department that day saw the same thing I did. Although I don't wake up with haunting nightmares, I can tell you everything about that day: touch, sensation, clothing, colours, and smells. I can tell you all those things. Luckily, I can do so without crippling results.
Others couldn't. Others left the department that day, and that's only 2007. They never came back. What were their whereabouts? The tracking and the evidence-based research we talked about was not there. What has happened to them in a volunteer community? They've carried on with their marriages and their jobs. To what effect, I have no idea.
That is one sobering story to provide the human element of what happens, and those stories happen daily.
Members of this committee, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, CACP, expresses our sincere appreciation to speak here today and to contribute to this important discussion. By way of introduction, my name is Steve Schnitzer. I am representing the CACP as the chair of the CACP human resources and learning committee. Chief Jennifer Evans, from Peel Regional Police, is also here with me and will speak to you in a few minutes.
I have worked in policing for 30 years, and I retired in 2010 as the superintendent in charge of personnel services at the Vancouver Police Department. My role as superintendent was to lead the Vancouver police human resources, training, and professional standards sections. I currently work at the Justice Institute of British Columbia, and I am the director of the Police Academy in British Columbia. The Justice Institute of British Columbia Police Academy is responsible for the training of all municipal, transit, and first nations police recruits in the province of British Columbia.
As the chair of the CACP human resources and learning committee, I would like you to know that the mental well-being of police officers and police support staff is very much a central theme of discussion at all of our CACP committee meetings. In fact, we are video conferencing today from Saskatoon on the second day of a two-day human resources and learning committee meeting, and our discussions have almost entirely focused on wellness for police officers and support staff.
The CACP has for several years worked closely with the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and we are now collaborating with universities and academia to better understand mental health issues that first responders face. Our current president, Chief Clive Weighill, very much regrets that he is unable to appear here today, however, he shares the following, and I quote:
||The CACP fully recognizes that the dynamics of policing dictates that police personnel, and other first responders, are exposed to a unique and difficult set of job-related hazards. Furthermore, we also recognize that the policing culture of needing to be strong and brave can reinforce stigma related to mental illness and it is therefore our challenge to change how we collectively treat and think about mental health problems and illnesses. Our focus, as a national organization, has been to bring police and mental health professionals together with the goal of shifting attitudes, reducing stigma, and finding new ways to address psychological health and safety in the workplace. This includes recommendations to all police services across Canada to ensure that each implements a clear and coherent mental wellness strategy.
In March 2015, Dr. Terry Coleman, a member of our human resources and learning committee, testified at the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology regarding Bill S-208, for the establishment of a Canadian commission on mental health and justice. On behalf of the CACP, Dr. Coleman advised that mental illness represents one of the top five concerns of police agencies throughout Canada. He also emphasized that police are de facto 24/7 first responders to what we refer to as a mental health crisis occurring in our communities.
I am here today on behalf of the CACP to stress to you that effective public safety and security in Canada requires healthy and resilient first responders. Unfortunately, police are experiencing increasing rates of mental health issues, and the policing community is finding it challenging to put into place mental health support systems that are effective and that look after the needs of our police officers, support staff, and their families.
In recognizing the dire need to address the issue of mental health and policing, the CACP has recently partnered with the Mental Health Commission of Canada to deliver two key national conferences on this issue. First, in March 2014, 350 delegates representing criminal justice and mental health leaders, researchers, and people with lived experience met under the theme of moving from crisis to creating fundamental change; improving interactions between police and persons with mental illness.
They discussed what works, what could be improved, and what were promising practices. They sought to find innovative ways to answer the question, how can we make these interactions safe for the person with mental illness, for police personnel, and for the communities in which we all live?
The conference highlighted the growing list of promising practices, including crisis intervention teams, police and mental health workers forming a joint response, most often in larger urban centres, as well as the hub approach, which brings together a wide range of community services, such as police, health, social services, and education, to act collaboratively as early intervenors when a person appears to be at risk.
In February 2015 the CACP and the Mental Health Commission of Canada jointly sponsored a second successful conference with 250 attendees, under the theme of mental readiness strategies for psychological health and safety in police organizations. This conference recognized that before we can best serve others, we must also look after our own. A key outcome was a call to all Canadian police services, as well as police governance authorities, to ensure that a clear and coherent mental wellness strategy is in place for all personnel. Since February 2015 the CACP human resources and learning committee has made it a focus to better understand the problems we are facing and to engage academia for more made-in-Canada research in the area of mental wellness in policing. This is being done in collaboration with the CACP Research Foundation, the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and research and academic institutions.
In fact, in January of this year I represented the CACP at the National Roundtable on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This round table was organized by Public Safety Canada under the leadership of , and the CACP is thankful to the federal government for taking the initiative to begin this national dialogue on PTSD in first responder occupations. This round table has now resulted in a tri-service working group that will work on developing a national action plan.
A strategic approach is necessary to make meaningful change. A systems approach is also necessary to support the resources and funding necessary for first responder mental health. Finally, we need to fully understand the issues we face and provide solutions that are well researched and are proven to work.
We thank each of you for raising this important issue.
I would now like to introduce the chief of the Peel Regional Police, Jennifer Evans. Chief Evans is one of the 26 members of the CACP human resources and learning committee, and she would like to highlight some organizational wellness initiatives that the Peel Regional Police have recently implemented.
I look forward to responding to your questions.
Peel Regional Police recognize and value our personnel as being vital to our success and ensuring the safety of those who work and play in our community. We recognize it is so important to take care of the people who are taking care of the community.
In 2008 we established an organizational wellness bureau. We know that creating a healthy workplace is a commitment to a journey and not just a destination. The mandate of the organizational wellness bureau is aligned with strategic goals, namely a member-focused workplace. This simply means that we want to ensure the health and the well-being of our employees.
In our organizational wellness bureau we have a staff sergeant in charge, and currently he overseas a health nurse, a fitness coordinator, a wellness coordinator, a chaplain coordinator, an early intervention strategy coordinator, as well as an addiction coordinator.
Among the health and the wellness resources that we provide in Peel Regional Police to our employees, we have a chaplaincy program. We have five chaplains who provide on-site spiritual counselling. We also provide on-site access to massage therapy, chiropractic care, physiotherapy, dental hygiene, and dietitian services. We also provide access to legal, financial, and family support services, as well as health-coaching services, with naturopathic and nutritional support.
We have a safeguarding program, which is mandated within Peel Police. I ensure that my officers attend annual psychological assessments. These are for the employees who work in the Internet childhood exploitation unit. We're now currently expanding this to include other units, such as the tech crimes unit, the special victims unit, the major collision bureau, our organizational wellness bureau, our homicide bureau, the communications staff who dispatch all the calls, the forensic identification unit, our courts unit, and our major drugs and vice unit.
We have 84 members who are peer support. We've had a peer support team for over 30 years in Peel.
We do educational “lunch and learns” entitled “Boosting Your Positive Outlook” or “Coping with Teenagers” or “Dealing with Seasonal Stress”. These are all designed to offer coping strategies to our employees to help them reduce their stress.
We provide wellness family nights at which we educate families on what to expect and how to prepare and support their loved ones in our stress-filled life.
We also have a database that is an early intervention system. This is a system that tracks prospective risk indicators and flags opportunities for early intervention. It tracks public complaints, use-of-force incidents, internal affairs investigations, our sick time, and exposure to some tragic calls, such as fatal motor vehicle collisions, attending a child death scene, or suicides.
We have 12 members who are assigned to a critical incident response team. They go out and deal with situations. They do debriefings after exposure to serious and/or tragic circumstances.
We also provide a directory of health professionals, and we have a return to work program.
In 2015 we launched our road to mental readiness, R2MR, training, which is mandated training for all employees at all levels in my organization. It's not only helping them understand mental health issues in themselves and co-workers, but is also a stigma-reducing program designed to teach coping mechanisms, acceptance and support of co-workers, as well as strengthening personal resilience. To date we have trained more than 2,600 employees, including 23 of my senior officers.
This is a program, I'm sure you're aware, that was initially created by the Canadian military. After years of trying to use the program to benefit municipal police officers, we were finally permitted to use similar training.
One request that I would respectfully ask is that this committee identify ways to allow training material to pass from the federal government, i.e., the military, to provincial and municipal agencies that could benefit.
I understand that police agencies were only allowed to begin using the R2MR because the Canadian Mental Health Association became the conduit in which to transfer the knowledge. I can tell you that we're hearing really positive feedback as a result of this training.
Thank you for the invitation to speak to this committee on this very important subject. Our unique workplace exacts an exceptionally heavy toll on front-line correctional officers, and we are pleased to finally have a forum to discuss measures to address the urgent issue of our members' exposure to mental health injuries.
As the representatives of some 7,400 correctional officers at federal institutions across Canada, UCCO-SACC-CSN is well positioned to ensure that the correctional officer perspective is taken into account in this conversation. Our unique work environment merits that officers continue to have a place at the table during this ongoing discussion.
We are the first responders in the truest sense. We are paramedics, we are police officers, and we are firefighters behind the walls of Canada's federal prisons. We are responsible for policing inmates who could not follow some basic rules in society. It is our duty to ensure that these same inmates follow the rules inside of our institutions. Let me assure you that this role does not always endear us with our inmate clientele.
At the same time, correctional officers are responsible for the safety and security of these inmates. It is correctional officers who must respond when inmate gangs go to war, or who must act to protect vulnerable inmates from attacks by other predators inside.
In each instance, when officers intervene, there is a real possibility that any of the inmates involved will turn on the officers with the intent of inflicting grievous bodily harm. As a result of the unpredictable human behaviour that we deal with every day, 88% of our use of force incidents are spontaneous .
We are the ones who must often compensate for the lack of nursing staff after hours and on weekends. We are the first responders for suicide attempts and for any medical emergencies. For example, in 2010 our members were directly involved in 1,800 medical interventions across Canada in federal institutions. In the last fiscal period of 2014-15, our members were involved in over 2,000 medical interventions.
In the correctional environment, where rates of infectious diseases are higher than any other community in the country, it is our officers' duty to administer CPR to inmates in distress, only a few centimetres away from an inmate's face, usually covered in bodily fluids.
We are clearly the forgotten-about public safety officers who are not in the spotlight of the public eye, within a system that most Canadians would prefer to ignore. Unfortunately, the traumatic effects of the work that we do is not often recognized.
Let me give you an example. I'll recall a personal example where I attended Millhaven after the fatal shooting of an inmate. Another inmate was very seriously shot as well. I remember walking into the institution. The first words out of the officer who had to fire those shots were, “Jason, I tried everything to stop it. I tried, I tried, I tried.” Right from that point, we could tell he was suffering very severely from that incident.
There was also another inmate who was injured in that incident. A few days later I had an opportunity to talk to the officers who responded to that. In that case, those officers had to go into the gymnasium, pull another injured inmate out, and they had to hold his stomach together on the way to the hospital in the ambulance. They eventually saved the inmate's life after eight hours of surgery. If you want to talk about a critical incident, there's a good example of where we're doing both. We're the police officer. We're also the paramedic in that particular situation.
I myself have been personally involved in fires, slashings. I've been assaulted, and I've performed CPR on inmates.
Historically, and despite available evidence of higher incidence of mental stress injuries, correctional officer mental health has received no special attention. Although exact statistics are often difficult to establish, it is noteworthy that all serious studies into the matter have revealed that rates of PTSD and PTSD-like illnesses are quite high amongst our group.
Our stress is cumulative with years of service, so stress for us increases with years of service, which is normally the opposite of most public service jobs, where stress decreases with years of service.
A 1992 study by Lois Rosine placed the rate of occurrence at 17%, just behind post-war Vietnam veterans. During recent testimony by the assistant deputy minister of Public Safety, Ms. Lori MacDonald, before the present committee, she testified that 36% of respondents to a survey suffered from PTSD in corrections.
One thing is certain: correctional officers are repeatedly exposed to traumatic events, perpetrated by some of Canada's most violent inmates, as we fulfill our public safety duties on the front lines within the country's penitentiary system. In addition, conditions such as shift work and conflicting workplace roles, security versus caregiving, create an environment that is conducive to psychological injury.
We have been encouraged by the recent adoption of R2MR, the road to mental readiness program, at CSC. We believe this program meets a very special need of our fine men and women in uniform, and it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Our deputy minister is very much behind the program.
However, much more needs to be done to help officers and their families deal with the fallout of the traumatic events they will inevitably encounter at work. Funding for such initiatives needs to be increased and recurrent, rather than a strain on already stretched departmental budgets.
We believe that correctional officers deserve to receive the best possible resilience training available in order to minimize the risk of mental stress injury as much as possible. In the course of the discharge of our union duties, we come across many officers who are psychologically damaged as a result of workplace stressors they have encountered.
Frequently, these officers come to us after a workers' compensation board has denied their claim for mental stress. Sometimes it is the WCB's policy that does not recognize their specific path to psychological injury. Far too often, it is their manager who has not been supportive of their claim. We have seen letters from managers that do not support claims for recognition of PTSD on the grounds that violence is a normal condition of our employment.
I have another example for you from Miramichi, where we had an officer suffer an exposure that we refer to, and excuse my language, as a shit bomb. That is bodily fluids that have all been compiled together and thrown at an officer. This particular case was extremely terrible. In this case, the officer put the claim in, and of course it came back with the response that “this is a normal condition of your employment”. We don't know of a workplace in this country where that is a normal condition of your employment.
In another example of employer disengagement, cases of correctional officers whose injury on duty prevents them from working for beyond 130 days have their pay files transferred to workers' compensation. For officers suffering from PTSD, who are disproportionately represented in this group of officers, the changeover to direct pay represents financial hardship for our members, an additional stress. In addition, the officers' benefits are different depending on the province of employment.
These examples highlight the need for all stakeholders to better understand the effects of their decisions on the officer whose psyche was damaged in the course of duty. We believe that better-educated managers would be less likely to make decisions such as these, which have severe negative impacts on officers suffering from PTSD. More work also needs to be done to favour early recognition of problem signals by co-workers and managers. This can only be achieved through better education.
Recent initiatives have given reason to hope that we are moving away from such ignorance of the problem. This committee is itself reason to believe that the government whom we serve in the interests of public safety intends to take the matter of our mental health seriously. Mr. Trudeau's electoral commitments to UCCO-SACC-CSN on the subject of mental health are a welcome sign that our officers' plight will be given the attention it deserves.
For those who exceed their resilience limits, two provinces, Ontario and Manitoba, have adopted a presumption that recognizes that correctional officers, as first responders, are at an elevated risk of incurring mental stress injuries. The legislation in these two provinces presumes that the mental health injury is a result of the workplace incident.
We believe that the federal government has a role to play to ensure that officers who are victims of mental health injuries are subject to the same presumption, independent of the province of employment. Employee assistance programs also need to be reinforced and adapted to our members' heightened-risk reality in order to help them and their families get on with their lives. The most effective correctional officer should have access to state-of-the-art treatment centres dedicated to their needs.
Finally, in order to best align resources on this matter, research resources need to be allocated in order to improve our officers' prospects for the future.
I thank you for listening.
I would like to thank all the witnesses for being here today and for their excellent preparation for our meeting today. The work and consideration they have put into this has been very thorough. I also thank them for their fine presentations.
If I may, Mr. Chair, my first questions are for Mr. Godin and Mr. Robertson.
You mentioned something that I find very powerful and that is very relevant to our work. You are in a unique position. Canadians don't know what you do; they are not even aware of what you do. Worse still, it is supposed to be that way. In other words, you perform your duties out of the public view, by definition. Not only does the public not have access to your places of work, they do not want access.
Another particular aspect is that you are surrounded by people who want to harm you. Many of the people you come into contact with on a daily basis would be very happy to cause you serious injury or even to kill you. These are very important aspects of your work.
I would like to you to give us some more information. I am asking the question very candidly without presuming to know the answer.
Can someone do that kind of work for their entire career? You mentioned something important in one of your replies. You referred to the fact that major incidents can occur, such as when you were forced to drive an inmate to the hospital. In addition, you sustain multiple injuries on a daily basis. We are talking about moral injuries and not necessarily physical injuries. Can you elaborate on this?
An average day for a correctional officer can be lots of things, and I think that's the part the Canadian public doesn't understand. At one moment during the day I could be stepping into a cell playing the police officer confiscating drugs from an inmate. At the next moment, the inmate may turn around spontaneously and assault me. The following week, I could be engaged in fighting a fire down the range and having to evacuate 50 inmates. The week after that I could encounter an inmate who has hanged himself, and I arrive at the scene, have to cut him down, and have to perform CPR immediately.
I think the Canadian public thinks that we work in such a controlled environment, and this, I think, is where there is much confusion. We're not always in a controlled environment. The frustrating part for correctional officers as first responders, and I have many examples I can provide you, is that there are examples in which we've had officers intervene and save inmates from committing suicide 40 or 50 times—one officer.
On the street—and again with no disrespect to our colleagues—if that were a police officer or a firefighter on the street, they probably would have been given a key to the city; they would have been honoured by the mayor and thanked for doing a great job. But the Canadian public doesn't care whether correctional officers save an inmate 40 or 50 times. This is a huge stressor on our members, because we can go from that one instance to fighting with an inmate on the ground. The next instant we could also play counsellor; we could be an officer trying to talk an inmate out of committing suicide, because at four o'clock, all the professionals are gone. It's us; that's it.
It's a great question, and I appreciate it, because we really want to work at educating the Canadian public about what we actually do in the course of a day. As I said earlier in my testimony, we are all of three of those occupations inside the institution.
I described to you some personal circumstances in which I have performed CPR on inmates, I have cut inmates down, I have pulled inmates out of cells who have slashed themselves. I have talked inmates out of committing suicide. We have evacuated ranges. It's one of those things that the public doesn't understand.
That's the stressor. A correctional officer is here at one moment; the next minute he's here; and the next minute, emotionally he's up here again, depending on the events of the day.
Then there's the stress of the clientele we're dealing with. We're walking down ranges on which the inmate behaviour is unpredictable. In general society we like to think that people act in a certain way, but we can never, when we're walking down a range or inside an institution, predict how an inmate is going to react. I hope that gives you a little bit of—
Again, it's one of those jobs that is the exact opposite of the rest of the public service. Our stress increases with years of service. This is one of the reasons why we push very hard on a pension to allow us to retire early, because these daily stressors that we have, they just continue to be cumulative over years of service. At some point it's going to catch up to you. I remember one officer describing to me that he had witnessed over the course of his career 14 murders. Eventually, it's going to take its toll. Those are examples where it's very difficult.
Our life expectancy, quite honestly, is not very high. There have been some studies done, certainly some American studies, and it's not high because of the cumulative stress that we endure and the occupational stress that we endure over the course of a 25-year or 30-year career. Some officers, they're fine. They go through 35 years, they walk out that door and they say, I've had the most satisfying career of my life. It's been wonderful. And then some officers.... This is why we want to get into the resilience piece, it's to build that resilience up, because some officers don't handle it as well as other officers. Gord and I see that regularly where we know officers who go into work and, it's no problem, this is my job and I'm proud to do my work, and then there are other officers who are proud to do their work, it's just that they don't receive the assistance they need when they're going through those stressful periods.
Sometimes we're like this, we're like a roller coaster. We could have a spike in incidents in an institution, and then all of a sudden it evens out and keels out for awhile, and then there could be another spike. This is, again, a huge stressor on correctional officers.
To say that it's a career where sometimes people are able to do it for that long, and other members.... Gord described an earlier situation where there was an officer suffering from mental stress, and in his case he felt like his employer was abandoning him, and they wanted to pension him off and get rid of him. This guy was basically saying, look, all I want to do is work. I still want to work, I still like my job. I just need the help to get back. We shouldn't be considered null and void if we suffer from a mental stress injury.