Good afternoon, Mr. Chair, members of the committee, and fellow witnesses. These victims' stories are very tragic and heart-wrenching, and quite frankly, point to challenges in the system well beyond the amendments to the Criminal Code we're discussing today.
My name is Peter Coleridge. I am the national CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, also known as CMHA. With me today is Mark Ferdinand, our national director of public policy.
CMHA is the largest and oldest provider of mental health services in communities across Canada. We were founded in 1918, and we serve thousands of people every day in hundreds of communities across the country. We rely on the work of staff and thousands of volunteers to facilitate access to the resources people require to maintain and improve their mental health, reintegrate into the community, build resilience, and support recovery from mental illness.
In addition to being a front-line provider of community mental health services, we're also a champion for mental health for all Canadians. We actively promote positive mental health, ways in which people can focus on strengths, well-being, and functioning in the community, at home, at school, and at work. We provide advice on the development of good public policies that support positive mental health as well as improve access to the quality of mental health services and community supports, which is why we're here today. We share many of the concerns of some of our other mental health partners that spoke earlier: the Schizophrenia Society of Canada, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and many others.
We also work hard to increase the understanding in our society about mental illness. Unfortunately, our society holds many misperceptions about mental illness. Depictions in the media and labels used in our society create an impression that high-profile violent crimes are committed by people with a mental disorder, and that these things are common, when such occurrences are infrequent. The majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness. Mentally ill people are no more violent than any other group in our society; in fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence. It's also important to understand that some people who become involved with the criminal justice system had not been diagnosed with a mental illness, but were diagnosed upon connecting with the criminal system because of a crime.
These people need treatment and care. Punishment does not lead to recovery for individuals who are found not criminally responsible. This might explain in part why the relapse rate for individuals who are NCR on account of mental disorder is three to four times lower than the general criminal offender population. By all accounts, mental illness is complex. I think that is clear from all the witnesses you've heard from. However, with the appropriate supports and access to care, people with mental illness, including those with severe mental illness, can be helped. Today there's more hope than ever before that we can effectively treat these illnesses and improve the chances of recovery.
Long-term research has shown that many people with severe mental illness are able to lead productive lives. As you know, Canada has made important strides in reducing discrimination and stigma associated with mental illness. CMHA looks forward to continuing this progress with all Canadians, the federal government, the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and our many other mental health partners across Canada. However, we are concerned that the proposed changes to the not criminally responsible provisions of the Criminal Code will negatively impact the lives of people found NCR, and unjustifiably increase the stigma toward people with mental illness that is pervasive in our society at the systemic, community, and individual levels.
For example, we're concerned the provisions aimed at creating a high-risk accused category, and restricting unescorted passes may have unintended consequences on the ability of mental health professionals to appropriately monitor and evaluate people who have been found NCR. We're also concerned that the creation of a high-risk accused category reinforces the stigma associated with mental illness, such as connecting mental illness with danger to the public and violence.
We know from studies that many people who would otherwise benefit from mental health services or care will not seek or fully participate in their care in order to avoid the labels that have the potential to diminish their self-esteem or social opportunities.
Finally, with regard to the public safety paramount provision, we are unaware of evidence to suggest that review boards are not already taking public safety into consideration when making dispositions. As such it's not clear that the proposed amendments will make any real difference to protecting the public. Such an amendment would appear only to fuel stigma by creating an impression that all individuals who are found NCR are likely to reoffend.
We understand that the federal government in proposing this bill is seeking better consistency and coherence in the application of the Criminal Code across Canada. To ensure the realization of this dual goal of consistency and coherence, we recommend that parliamentarians seek input on how the proposed provisions will impact victims, NCR accused, public safety, and health and mental health service providers across the country.
Measuring these impacts is even more important when we consider that mental health is an intersectoral issue involving several different sectors. These issues are very complex.
Given that we do not know today—and it was said earlier by many witnesses in their different perspectives—the possible impact of these changes on people or on our systems, we would strongly recommend that Bill C-54 include a provision that would create a flexible yet rigorous evaluation framework to better understand the implications of the proposed criminal law changes on a victim's ability to access meaningful and pertinent information regarding NCR accused, capacity issues in the forensic mental health system, actual impact on public safety, actual impact on treatment, reoffence rates and health outcomes of NCR accused.
A simple provision, as we've seen in other federal and provincial laws, would suffice to ensure regular review of the impacts of the law on people and to determine whether or not the expected outcomes are being achieved.
In closing, we believe it is appropriate that the government undertake periodic reviews of mental health disorder provisions of the Criminal Code. We equally believe that even if we were able to arrive at the perfect balance between individual rights and public interest through criminal law provisions, we would still fall woefully short of what is needed to address the part of the iceberg that we cannot or sometimes refuse to see.
Ultimately better cooperation and coordination between the levels of government are desperately needed to improve how we treat mentally ill offenders in the criminal justice system. We would welcome the opportunity to work on this pressing agenda. This agenda should include reducing stigma, improving recovery, continuity of care, reintegration into society, and improving public safety.
We know care has been taken in developing this bill, and that the individuals who worked on its development have carefully considered the legal and even constitutional aspects of the bill. However, more meaningful consultation and greater policy coherence are needed.
Specifically, we need to know that victims are involved appropriately in the review board system, that public safety is truly being enhanced, that the rights of the accused are not infringed, and that recovery and access to effective treatment is not unintentionally made more difficult or limited as a result of these amendments.
Mr. Chair, thank you for the opportunity to appear before the committee today. We're happy to answer any questions the committee may have.