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Hill Life & People

Justice Clément Gascon’s frank admission to mental health challenges leaves a legacy worth celebrating

By Tim Powers      

The openness of the retiring Supreme Court of Canada justice also affords the court an extra degree of credibility in showing how key societal institutions are connected to the rest of us.

Times have changed at the Supreme Court of Canada from the 1980s when Justice Gerald Le Dain took an early retirement from the bench with no public acknowledgement of his mental health challenges or support from the institution, writes Tim Powers. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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OTTAWA—Supreme Court Justice Clément Gascon is a brave man and a role model, whether he views himself as one or not (I don’t know the man, but somehow I doubt he does). To reveal publicly, as he did a week ago, that the reason for his recent disappearance was due in part to a panic attack epitomized leadership. He refused to hide in the shadows, as that is the paralysis that mental health angst can cause.

On May 8, all of Canada became aware of an Ottawa Police Service bulletin that asked the public for their help in finding Justice Gascon. He had gone missing from his Wellington Street office in the early afternoon. Thankfully, he was found unharmed that same night.

On May 14, Justice Gascon, who was not required to do so, released a statement that explained his actions. In part it read, “For over 20 years, I have been dealing with a sometimes insidious illness: depression and anxiety disorders. This is an illness that can be treated and controlled, some days better than others. On the afternoon of Wednesday, May 8, affected both by the recent announcement of a difficult and heart-rending career decision, and by a change in medication, I conducted myself in an unprecedented and unaccustomed manner by going out without warning and remaining out of touch for several hours.

“I can neither explain nor justify what I understand to have been a panic attack, and I wish to apologize most profusely to all who suffered as a result. This health issue has been taken care of and treated with the necessary medical support.”

Supreme Court Justice Clément Gascon is retiring Sept.15, and admitted that the announcement of this move contributed to a panic attack on May 8 that led to his brief disappearance and a police search. Supreme Court of Canada photograph by Andrew Balfour Photography

Justice Gascon went on to say he was “in good health, and am fully capable of performing my duties as a judge.” Previously, he had announced his plans to retire on Sept. 15. But bravo for him staying on until that time and not letting that “insidious illness,” as he rightly described it, win. Bravo to his colleagues for also standing beside him and speaking to his bravery. Chief Justice Richard Wagner said, “I am extremely proud of my colleague.” He added in subsequent commentary, “I look forward to seeing [Gascon] back on the bench this week.”

My, how times have changed when it comes to the recognition of people’s mental health challenges, and thankfully for the better. Just over 30 years ago, Supreme Court Justice Gerald Le Dain had to take early retirement from the Supreme Court when he has not granted leave for mental strain and depression. He left the court in 1988 with no public acknowledgement of his mental illness. That was the wisdom of the day: don’t speak to the illnesses people can’t see.

While I have no doubt that Justice Gascon is an excellent jurist and has helped shape Canadian public life through his decisions, by speaking publicly, supported by the chief justice, about his mental health, he has shown that key societal institutions are connected to us. People in the top court in the land grapple on a personal level with the same challenges the rest of us do in our everyday lives with our family and friends. That openness is refreshing and also affords the court as an institution an extra degree of credibility.

On a personal level, I thank Justice Gascon and his family for sharing their journey with us. It is not easy and will not be easy. Sharing a familiarity with Justice Gascon of panic attacks, I can tell you they are awful things. They leave you beaten, broken, and often emotionally humiliated. Hiding under a mountain of blankets is preferable to speaking about your experience. So again, sir, bravo for doing so—you have made a pronounced positive mark on Canada.

Tim Powers is vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and managing director of Abacus Data. He is a former adviser to Conservative political leaders.

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