Welcome to Winnipeg, Vince Li


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Several years ago, while standing in a long Christmas line at a gift shop in Portage Place, a lanky, unkempt man walked through the mall, shouting to invisible demons at the top of his lungs and madly flapping his dirty ski jacket.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/02/2015 (2773 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Several years ago, while standing in a long Christmas line at a gift shop in Portage Place, a lanky, unkempt man walked through the mall, shouting to invisible demons at the top of his lungs and madly flapping his dirty ski jacket.

The women in line with me tut-tutted in alarm. The cashier said something disparaging about how mall security needed to kick the man out.

Everyone stared, and tittered with relief when he walked on. I fumed, but I’m ashamed to admit I said nothing to counter their ignorance and mean-mindedness.

John Woods / The Canadian Press When released, Vince Li will probably be the most monitored schizophrenic in Canada.

Writ large, that moment is the same one we’re having, again, now that Vince Li likely is soon to be living among us.

Li was found not criminally responsible for the stabbing and beheading of Tim McLean, a young man unlucky enough to be on the same Greyhound bus when Li’s schizophrenia came to its violent crescendo. This week or next, a provincial review board will decide whether Li is ready to take the next step in his slow recovery, a move from the Selkirk Mental Health Centre to Health Sciences Centre’s locked psychiatric ward and eventually to a high-security group home in the city.

Ignorance and mean-mindedness have greeted this news. Many balked at the notion Li might live in the city, saying he should be locked up forever, that his doctors and lawyers ought to live next to him if they’re so confident he’s safe, that he deserves to die like Tim McLean.

A Twitter sampling:

“Vince Li should NEVER walk the street FOR ANY REASON WHATSOEVER!”

“So Vince Li is going to get full walking papers. Hope he doesn’t walk near you.”

“Only place Vince Li should be is in a cell or in the ground.”

This latest round of vitriol comes a month after we all smugly tweeted out feel-good abstractions as part of #BellLetsTalk Day, a corporate campaign meant to raise money and combat the stigma that still afflicts mental illness.

If we truly believe mental illness is an illness and not the mark of a malicious heart, it must be so even when the illness takes extreme form, making someone do something abhorrent, something that leaves heartbroken parents, traumatized witnesses and distressed first responders in its wake. And, if we really think schizophrenia is an illness, we must allow sufferers to recover and reclaim their lives, just as we do for cancer survivors.

So far, by all accounts and amid tremendous pressure and scrutiny, Li has begun to do just that. He has been described as a model patient. His doctors say he fully understands his illness, is committed to treatment and to taking his medication. He hasn’t had a hallucination in a year. His doctor, Steven Kremer, told the review board Li is always polite, shows no signs of manipulative behaviour, has insight into his actions and has expressed regret and remorse for the violence that killed McLean. Over the last five years, Li has been granted incremental freedoms, from escorted walks on hospital grounds to 30-minute escorted visits to Selkirk, to day trips to Lockport or the beach, or even Winnipeg. A year ago, Li was allowed to visit Selkirk on his own and was moved to an unlocked ward. Nothing bad has happened.

These are Li’s successes we don’t see. Instead, we get file footage of Li shuffling downcast into court wearing his blue “sheriff prisoner” pinafore, which only reinforces the notion he’s a criminal to be feared.

If Li is eventually allowed to live in a group home in Winnipeg, he will probably be the most monitored schizophrenic in Canada. The group home will have 24/7 staff, a curfew, courses on relapse prevention, a treatment regime and access to a team of doctors and mental-health staff.

Li has one job — to take his medication and be vigilant about his illness. I have faith in the team of experts, in the careful safety net created for him and in Li’s basic decency that he will do this.

Even if you suspect Vince Li is at fault, that he ought to have known he was mentally ill and lacks the fortitude to take his medication, he deserves a chance to try. Even murderers, those of sound mind who know right from wrong and kill anyway, often get out of jail after a couple of decades, often without a hint of the self-awareness Li seems to have. Li deserves the same second chance.

In university, an acquaintance of mine at the student newspaper, the son of one of my dad’s best friends, developed schizophrenia at the time most men do, in their late teens or early 20s. This young man was a gifted cartoonist, funny, handsome, a great runner. One day, he put his fist through the wall of the messy student-paper office. It was mostly downhill from there. Since then, we student journalists have grown up, gone on to write novels or work for The Associated Press, fallen in love and had kids, while this man’s illness has rarely allowed him to leave Alberta Hospital. For him, schizophrenia has resulted in an utter waste of remarkable potential and a heartbreak for his parents.

Li is different. Despite his horrible act, he has a chance at a relatively normal life, a chance to atone for the terrible thing his wonky brain chemistry made him do and a chance to prove, by fading into obscurity, that we have nothing to fear from him.

It’s inevitable and proper Li should rejoin society. If he moved in next-door, I would welcome him to the neighbourhood, wish him the very best and leave him alone to redeem himself the best way he can, with a productive, uneventful life.




Updated on Friday, December 25, 2015 4:43 PM CST: Photo changed

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