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Swan filled my inbox

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It’s really not all that surprising that there was a torrent of response from people wanting to debate last week’s column on Attorney General Andrew Swan. My inbox was filled with people offering comments, criticism and observations about Swan public condemnation of a decision by the Criminal Code Review Board to allow Vincent Li passes to walk outside on the grounds of the Selkirk Mental Health Hospital.

Li, as everyone knows, was responsible for a gruesome murder of a Winnipeg man in 2008. Suffering from profound schizophrenia and dementia, Li’s murder and mutilation of a young man shocked many Canadians. And when a court declared him Not Criminally Responsible (NCR) because of mental illness, that sparked more shock and concern. The shock and concern continue now that it has been decided he can take two short, escorted walks outside the hospital each day.

Why reveal the contents of my inbox? The emails I receive tend to be more frank, and graphic, than the comments on the web site. This is because people have the luxury saying things in a way that we would not allow in the on-line comments section. So, my inbox is a pretty wide-open forum.

It has been one of the most interesting aspects of this story has been the divisiveness of the debate. Many people are disgusted, but contrary to Swan’s initial assertions not everyone is shocked that Li was found NCR, and that he was sentenced to be treated in a hospital rather than incarcerated in a prison. Many saw compassion in the NCR provision of the Criminal Code, and understood that Li did not intend to kill his victim; he was compelled by demon voices that literally took over his mind. Not everyone was so compassionate.

Many people have asked me what I would say to the victim’s family, or whether I would volunteer my time to escort Li around the hospital grounds to ensure public safety. On the first point, I think the victim’s family knows how I feel about this issue. I’ve written many times about the Li case, including a rather long and detailed feature which revealed the painful details of the last year of Li’s life before the murder, and a pointed commentary about efforts to bring about changes in the Criminal Code to prevent murderers from being designated NCR. As you might expect, I was not supportive.

As for the former suggestion, I guess I’m up for the job but my original point was that a nurse and security guard are, IMHO, sufficient for the job. Call that a cop out.

Other reactions ranged from the vulgar to the incredibly moving.

Reader Laurie Taite, who originally wrote to me under an anonymous alias but agreed to provide a name after I suggested it was a cowardly way to go about life, was really offended by my suggestion that Swan had acted improperly. Taite thought I was – what is the word? – oh, yeah. It rhymes with ‘blowhole."

"Hey Dan, you sure you don't work for the John Howard Society? Who is responsible for Tim's death? Give us a list of all those that are NOT shocked. I want you to send a letter to Tim's mother and tell her WHY Li should enjoy the warm sun on his face and the cool grass under his feet. Types like you that write this drivel make me puke. AGAIN, as is the norm in this pantie-waisted backwater, NO ONE is held accountable, no matter how heinous the crime. oh, sorry, it wasn't a crime. Asshole."

I suggested Laurie take something for the nausea and learn to talk to adults like adults. I’m awaiting Laurie’s latest response.

Lorna Cramer did not agree with me, but took a more articulate approach:

"I read your article and this is why I disagree with your viewpoint.

"Andrew Swan is a gutsy guy. I'm glad he's around to do the job. He's doing exactly what his job description says he should be doing- protecting the public interest. His actions are not about the unfair treatment of the mentally ill; his actions are all about protecting the public and health care workers. We are not an ignorant public as you would suggest. Securing the public, including health care workers does not invalidate the mentally ill or stigmatize them, nor does it suggest that we are back in the dark ages. There is nothing in Mr. Swan's actions that refutes the Canadian Psychiatric Association's mandate that the mentally ill need better care, that mental illness should be de-stigmatized."

I must note at this point that Li’s psychiatrists, the Canadian Psychiatric Association and many, many people who are struggling with mental illness disagree with that last point.

I still feel that, respectfully, Lorna did not get one of the main points I was trying to make. She believes Swan should be governed in all respects by the "public interest." I believe she is confusing "public interest" with "public opinion." In this instance, I suggested that Swan’s job was to ensure that justice was done, and that Vincent Li be treated for his illness, not punished for something he clearly could not have prevented. That is ultimately that is in the public interest. Either way, I appreciate the fact that she got through my column without retching.

Still other readers dug deep into their own experiences to reflect on Swan’s comments. One woman related her own experiences suffering from a bi-polar condition and offered these comments:

"When I was 25 I had my first bipolar episode. I... spent two months on the mental health ward. Not one of my "friends" visited me. I had no friends, I had no job, I didn't know what happened. I lost who I was and how to identify who "I" even was.

"To make an extremely long story short, it took two more serious episodes and bouts of depression and fighting suicidal desires for me to fully accept and deal with my diagnosis. I am blessed to be loved by my family and a few precious friends. I regained my confidence. I returned to college and started a new career I enjoy. Life has never been better and I am supported by a wonderful partner.

"People with mental illness are not always sick. In fact, acceptance allows us to be extremely stable. People who are express negativity towards people with mental illness don't realize they are also hurting themselves. It deters people who are struggling with mental issues from getting help because of the stigma.

"I hope to become strong and secure enough to stand up and out more with this issue after proving stability for a longer period. Thank-you for doing this for people who have to hide in protection."

The Criminal Code draws a line between people who are probably of sick mind but who know what it is they are doing, and those who are so sick they have no ability to pick right from wrong. It is important to note that Li honestly believed he was defending himself against an evil force. This separates Li from notable sociopaths like Paul Bernardo and Clifford Oleson, who may have been mentally unwell, but were not declared NCR by a court.

Of all the people who took the time to write in, and didn’t call me names, I think Peggy Unruh Regehr said it better than I did:

"Too many people only want retribution, and not healing. But, as a society we often need healing rather than incarceration. Knowing the difference is something that many people just cannot understand. That is unfortunate. Such healing comes over a period of time and it needs the understanding of those who are working with him. That seems to be what he is receiving, and I'm grateful for that. For those who only want retribution - nothing changes over time when that is all he gets. And then we only get repeats of what has happened this time. With help he can be helped to move back into society in a way that will not be a repeat of the past. That is what we should be working towards."

The debate on this issue continues. My inbox is ready and waiting.

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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.


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