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Preaching vengeance wrong

Compassion, effective treatment needed

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Tim McLean and his mother, Carol deDelly. Some of McLean's friends and family object to Li being given more liberties.

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Tim McLean and his mother, Carol deDelly. Some of McLean's friends and family object to Li being given more liberties.

It is simply impossible to believe Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney believes what he is saying about the Vincent Li case.

This week, the Criminal Code Review Board agreed to grant Li -- who killed Tim McLean, a fellow passenger on a Greyhound bus, in 2008 -- additional liberties in his ongoing treatment for schizophrenia. Li is now allowed unescorted trips into Selkirk and is being moved into a wing of Selkirk Mental Health Centre that is not lock-secure.

Blaney said these decisions are an "insult" to McLean's family. Manitoba's regional Tory power broker, Heritage Minister Shelly Glover, followed Blaney with her own bit of vitriol. "The decision by the Manitoba government not to object (to the new liberties)... is an insult not only to the family of Tim McLean but to all law-abiding Manitobans."

I, like many of you, enjoy a good bit of purposeful political theatre. A rousing bit of chest-thumping and arm-waving and mock indignation when the time is right. And the federal Conservative government's hyperbole about victims rights is a well-known and highly successful political strategy to shore up their impressive political base, which prefers punishment to crime prevention any day of the week.

Except that, in this case, the act is wearing a bit thin. The theatre has gone from absurd to disquieting and is verging on dangerous.

To believe Blaney and Glover, you would have to believe they have insulated themselves from all of the hard facts of Li's case, his mental illness and the laws in place to deal with people who commit horrible acts of violence while divorced from reality.

It can be the only explanation, because it seems abundantly clear that as ministers of the Crown, Blaney and Glover and others would have access to all kinds of background material on the nature of schizophrenia, the Criminal Code provisions of a finding of not criminally responsible (NCR), the legal history behind the current review board system and the nature of the justice system itself.

They would know that as long as there have been laws, lawmakers have created provisions to treat people with verifiable mental illnesses differently. That the ability to draw a line between criminally responsible and not criminally responsible is a hallmark of a civilized society.

They would further know that based on a Supreme Court decision, no government has the right to indefinitely confine someone with a mental illness. That based on the inability of that person to know what they were doing, the Crown has a responsibility to seek treatment and reintegrate that person, because that's what civilized societies do.

They must surely know schizophrenia is a disease characterized by a profound break from reality. That on its own, and not complicated with psychopathic or personality disorders, it is treatable and that those who commit violence while suffering from it almost never, ever reoffend.

Of course, they would also know Vince Li is not Paul Bernardo or Robert Pickton or Clifford Olson. That Li is not a high-functioning psychopath who compulsively commits violent acts while having full cognizance of his actions. That he did what he did because his mind was broken and diseased. That he had no criminal intent when he killed McLean.

Finally, I must believe Blaney and Glover know the real problem here is not a lack of punishment for people such as Vince Li, and that the solution is not harsher provisions to keep Li locked up longer in a psychiatric hospital.

No, as intelligent and educated people, there is every reason to believe they know full well there is a desperate need to add resources to the mental-health system. That Tim McLean and other victims of people who have schizophrenia would likely still be alive if family doctors knew more about psychiatric disorders, if physicians were more careful about prescribing anti-psychotic medications, if there were more mental-health workers and beds in psychiatric units so sick and broken minds could be contained and treated before a tragedy takes place.

The need to improve mental-health services is so clearly the need identified in the McLean tragedy, and others like it across the country. The fact that Blaney, Glover and the rest of the federal government, aided and abetted by the passive mimicry of Manitoba Attorney General Andrew Swan, have chosen to focus on the issue of Li's punishment, rather than the resources needed to help others who suffer from his disease, is truly shameful.

It is not possible that these politicians, all of them educated and articulate, wouldn't have been exposed to all the hard, cold facts. So, knowing that these elected officials must know all these things, then why would they choose instead to pursue vengeance and punishment, when we need compassion and effective treatment?

Why indeed.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2014 A4

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