A group representing more than 4,000 Canadian psychiatrists has condemned the province's decision to prevent Vince Li from taking short supervised outdoor strolls, calling it "the worst kind of political pandering and fear-mongering."
In a letter to the Free Press, the Canadian Psychiatric Association said Justice Minister Andrew Swan's reaction to a review board's "carefully considered" decision to grant a "slight increase" in Li's liberty demonstrates "a shocking lack of knowledge and understanding of mental illness."
The letter was written by the association's president Dr. Stanley Yaren, who has treated Li and is also director of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's adult forensic psychiatry program. He stressed in an interview that his comments were made in his capacity as head of the national association.
Li was found not criminally responsible last year for the 2008 beheading of 22-year-old Tim McLean on a Greyhound bus near Portage la Prairie. A judge ruled Li was suffering from hallucinations and untreated schizophrenia at the time of the attack.
On Thursday, the Criminal Code Review Board ruled Li could receive outdoor passes twice daily from the locked forensic unit at the Selkirk Mental Health Centre as long as he was accompanied by two staff members. However, Swan immediately vetoed the outings -- calling them "contrary to the interests of public safety" -- until the centre beefs up security measures.
"Mr. Swan joins those members of the public who would return to the days when the mentally ill were cast out of society to be incarcerated in prisons and asylums, never to see the light of day," Yaren said in his letter.
In an interview Friday, Yaren said he found Swan's reaction "quite outrageous" and surprising, considering that earlier in the week, in response to Opposition critics, the minister expressed reluctance to interfere in the review board process.
Yaren said that Swan's action and comments Thursday also seem to signal a change in government philosophy.
"His predecessor, David Chomiak, was really quite a champion for the mentally ill and also as justice minister. So there seems to be a turnabout in the whole philosophy of the government that's being espoused," he said.
In an email through an intermediary on Friday, Swan reiterated his position that public safety must be the paramount concern.
"We respect the Criminal Code Review Board and the need to ensure the ability of those deemed not criminally responsible to recover and potentially begin a process of reintegration into society after an appropriate period of treatment," he said. "However, it is our view that this order -- taken a mere two years since this terrible crime was committed -- is contrary to the interests of public safety and seriously undermines public confidence in the Canadian justice system."
Mental health advocates have been critical of politicians of all political stripes, saying their reaction to the Li decision has been stigmatizing and hurtful to people with mental disorders and their families.
But Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen said Friday decisions on Li's treatment need to "take into account the need to balance public safety and compassion for somebody with a mental illness.
"We believe that in the circumstances of this case that public safety should come first."