Push to recognize 'those who died because of the line of duty': Northern Ontario MPP introduces new legislation
SUDBURY -- It's been a difficult two years for the family of Christopher Labreche. The Greater Sudbury Police officer died in 2019 in a car crash on Highway 69 and time certainly hasn't made it easier.
"I lost my brother by suicide," said his sister Amanda Robichaud. "Const. Christopher Labreche died by suicide on July 4, 2019, and we came to find out that a bridge couldn't be named in his honour due to legislation."
Robichaud is referring to legislation that was first enacted in 2002 by former Sudbury MPP Rick Bartolucci, the Ontario Highway Memorials for Fallen Police Officers Act, that honours officers who were killed in the line of duty by naming bridges after them.
Facing various stumbling blocks, Robichaud went to Nickel Belt MPP France Gélinas who decided to put forth her own private members' bill.
Gélinas is hoping to amend the original legislation to include officers who died as a consequence of the line of duty.
"I think it's a respectful and meaningful way to honour those police officers and remember them," the MPP said in a Thursday news conference.
"I think it's really important to recognize the struggle of mental illness," Robichaud said. "I think society has come a really long way in recognizing and made huge steps forward but I think for first responders there's still some work to be done in that area."
Gélinas said the government in 2002 didn't overlook the issue and it wasn't so much of an oversight, it's just that we know more about mental health than we did almost 20 years ago.
"When Rick Bartolucci brought that bill forward in 2002, talking about PTSD, talking about police officers facing mental illness was completely taboo, you didn't talk about this and it was looked down upon. Fast forward to 2021, our society has changed," she said.
On Wednesday when Gélinas introduced the bill inside Queen's Park, she was greeted with applause by politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Robichaud said that's important for families like hers who are still trying to make sense of their own personal tragedy.
"You never want to see anyone struggle -- but as a family, we're a very tight-knit family -- and Chris was very open with his struggle. He had struggled for the last year. His diagnosis was situational, it was directly work-related, and watching that is never easy," she said.
Const. James Jefferson with the Greater Sudbury Police Service is the mental health and wellness officer and a personal friend of Christoper Labreche.
He applauds the family for their efforts.
"Const. Labreche was a friend, he was a work colleague, we rode together and we had some very good experiences together. It was a hard pill to swallow with what happened," Jefferson said. "I think recognizing those people who struggle with mental health and who take that ultimate exit strategy, I really think we have to bring this to the forefront."
Jefferson, who works full-time with the service ensuring the well-being of fellow officers, believes while giant strides have been made, there's always more work that can be done.
"This is one of the hardest professions in the world and it's not a matter of if but when mental health is going to be an issue with what we see, hear and experience. I really think we're moving in the right direction and we still have a ways to go but as long as day-by-day, we're trying to get better," he said.
According to a recent survey from Western University academic and former London police officer Lesley Bikos, they polled more than 800 officers cross-Canada and found stigma is still an issue when it comes to mental health and policing.
Breaking it down even further to rank and gender, they found 19 per cent of constables, for example, would be comfortable about bringing issues of mental health to their service without fear of repercussion.
"Nineteen per cent may sound good but until we get 100 per cent, it's not good," said Bruce Chapman, president of the Police Associations of Ontario. "Until we can get 100 per cent of our members able and willing to come forward knowing that they're going to be looked after, they're going to get the treatment and they're not going to be labelled as a result of their mental health illness and it's real."
He said that studies have shown that police are far more likely to get posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their job and duties.
"So it's a start but there's still a lot of work to do," Chapman said.
The Police Associations of Ontario has since sent Gélinas a letter of endorsement, telling her that they are fully behind her private member's bill with their support.
Chapman said it's tragic and while they don't want to have to add a name to a bridge as a result of another officer dying by suicide, those that are gone as a result of the job deserve to be honoured.
"This private member's bill affords the ability to honour those that have lost their lives in the line of duty in a different way," he said.
Beyond the Blue President Dilnaz Garda has now a tragic connection to Robichaud, something they share in common.
"It's a club that we never wanted to be a part of but unfortunately now Amanda and I are both now sister-survivors," she said.
Garda's brother also died while serving as a police officer and struggled with mental health.
She said they use the terminology "those who died because of the line of duty" to honour those officers and grieving families.
"Officers who die by suicide are disproportionate to those who die in the line of duty and so you have to bring about awareness to those numbers because what it's saying to us is the impact of the job takes its toll," Garda said.
She said there is no exact number in terms of how many have died because of a lack of accurate record-keeping on the issue.
Nine police officer suicides in 2018 prompted the province's chief coroner to look into the issue and what was contributing to those high numbers.
A panel later recommended better mental health support was needed.
"You have to bring awareness to those numbers because what it's saying to us is that the impact of the job is taking a toll," Garda said.
Beyond the Blue is an organization that was formed to help police officers and their families. Its main goal is to focus on the mental health impacts that they have to deal with and works to provide them with the supports they need.
The group has been lobbying to get a memorial for those officers with the Ontario Police Memorial Foundation. CTV News reached out to the foundation to see how work was going to establish something on that front but didn't hear back before the publication deadline.
"These officers are sometimes not put in the best of situations and the calls they have to go to are non-stop," Garda said. "If we don't change the policies and supports in place, then ultimately they're going to spiral out of control and succumb to their own mental health."
In the meantime, Robichaud said she plans on continuing her advocacy work and had this message for struggling officers and their families:
"You're not alone. Definitely reach out for help, as hard as that might be ... it's very real. There is help out there. And so by sharing our story -- which is challenging -- our hope is others out there will recognize something and get the help they need."
May 9 – 15 is National Police Week, a week to recognize police officers and the contributions they play in keeping our communities safe.