Brushing off pleas to stop, Horgan won’t drop involuntary youth hospitalization bill - The Orca
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Brushing off pleas to stop, Horgan won’t drop involuntary youth hospitalization bill

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Rob Shaw: On Bill 22, John Horgan persists in the face of near-universal condemnation. Why?

B.C.’s children’s watchdog has once again eviscerated a youth mental health bill that Premier John Horgan used as an excuse to call last year’s early election.

Jennifer Charlesworth issued a new report that outlined an alarming increase in the number of youth detained against their will for mental health treatment over the last decade.

The amount of kids hospitalized involuntarily for a mental health crisis has jumped 162 per cent since 2008, a rate three times higher than the increase for adults.

She called on the government to reform the Mental Health Act, originally written in the 1960s, and to find a better way to give youth a say in their treatment so they can stay connected with their families and culture.

First Nations communities in particular have found the confinement of their kids traumatic due to the history of colonialism in which the state seized their children.

But Charlesworth was also clear on what should not happen: The Horgan government should not resurrect and ram through the passage of Bill 22, which would give the government the authority to detain children for up to a week in hospital after a drug overdose.

The NDP introduced that bill last spring, but was quickly forced to withdraw it after an outpouring of criticism made it clear then-Mental Health Minister Judy Darcy hadn’t bothered to consult with most of the experts.

“In response to Bill 22, the Representative and a number of her colleagues – including the Ombudsperson, the Coroner, the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, Health Justice, the BC Civil Liberties Association, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, the BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres and the Delegated Aboriginal Agencies Directors forum and the Human Rights Commissioner – raised significant concerns,” wrote Charlesworth in this week’s report.

“The concerns raised centre upon the government’s decision to introduce a new form of involuntary care for children and youth, absent adequate investments in a robust suite of voluntary substance use services and supports for young people in the province.”

In case there was any doubt, she went on in seven subsequent bullet points to detail how the legislation would “add new layers of shame, stigma and fear” onto young people who view forced hospitalization as punishment, how it might actually result in more fatal overdoses because young people and their peers might not call for help after an overdose, how it represents a “continuation of colonial oppressive policies” for indigenous youth, and how it “lacks necessary procedural safeguards including the right to an independent review.”

Rarely does such a large group of watchdogs and organizations band together to utterly destroy the credibility of a bill before it’s even passed. Based on that alone, Bill 22 should be consigned to the shredder.

And yet, the Ministry of Mental Health would only say this week the bill was temporarily delayed.

“We won’t be reintroducing a bill until we have taken the time to listen to people about these complex issues,” the ministry said in a statement. “The bill won’t be coming forward in this spring session.”

In other words, Bill 22 lives. In what form, and on what timeline, remains unknown. But it’s still out there. And it’s definitely coming back.

Rarely does such a large group of watchdogs and organizations band together to utterly destroy the credibility of a bill before it’s even passed. Based on that alone, Bill 22 should be consigned to the shredder.

To fully understand why this idea has supernatural strength in the face of near universal condemnation, you need to look at the strange way it has evolved into something much more than just a simple bill on youth mental health.

It starts with Horgan in 2019 meeting directly with families with kids who died due to mental health crises. They appealed to him to improve the system and give parents more ability to intervene to save their children within the healthcare system.

This clearly had a huge effect on the premier.

Those who’ve spent time with Horgan will tell you that he’s a pleaser. He took the message from the families to heart. And from that was born Bill 22 – for better, or for worse.

It also explains why, when critics piled on to the bill last spring, Horgan first held his ground.

The premier tried to push the B.C. Greens to support the idea and give the bill the votes it needed to pass in early 2020.

But then-Green house leader (now leader) Sonia Furstenau, having listened to the experts, would have none of it.

Horgan took this personally.

It came at a time when the NDP-Green relationship was already strained with the departure of Andrew Weaver.

Then First Nations leaders zeroed in on the bill’s impact on the disproportionate number of Aboriginal youth in crisis in the healthcare system. They loudly and publicly condemned the legislation and urged government to withdraw it.

The NDP had no choice. It yanked Bill 22 off the order paper in July.

But Horgan wasn’t quite ready to let it go.

When the premier and his strategists decided to call a snap election in September, they concluded one of the best ways they could justify the move was to attempt to convince the public that the NDP-Green power-sharing deal, which had worked so well for three stable years of government, was in fact broken.

To do so, Horgan resurrected Bill 22, portraying it not as a rushed piece of legislation condemned by almost a dozen organizations, but as a flawless idea undermined by the intransigent Greens.

The B.C. government’s inability to govern properly could be summarized in this one bit of failed legislation, Horgan argued in the press conference in which he announced the snap election on Sept. 21.

“The stability I believe we had over the course of our minority government is not as strong as when it began,” he said.

“Particularly this summer it was clear to me there was a great divide between the two sides.”

Horgan cited “the concern I had following the summer session of the legislature where two significant pieces of legislation were not brought forward because we didn’t have support of the Green caucus.”

“One of them was about energy policy, and we can agree to disagree on energy policy, that was not a particular concern of mine.

“But one that was a concern to me was one to do with mental health, and whether a medical practitioner or a doctor could keep a minor, a child, who had been admitted with an overdose under observation for a week.

“That was what we were asking to do. And there were people in the legislature that did not support that and having met with parents who have lost children, I was not prepared to accept that. But it seemed okay to others in the legislature and I’ll leave it at that.

“But that was really the deciding issue to me.”

The “deciding issue” upon which to call an election was a youth mental health bill? Even during a worldwide pandemic and state of emergency on COVID-19?

Horgan resurrected Bill 22, portraying it not as a rushed piece of legislation condemned by almost a dozen organizations, but as a flawless idea undermined by the intransigent Greens.

The next day, Horgan doubled down on that spin, saying there “were significant challenges with some of the legislation that we were bringing forward that I firmly believe were in the best interest of British Columbians.”

On day three, he was asked directly (full disclosure, by this columnist) why he was blaming the Greens for stalling legislation that was widely opposed by all sorts of groups, including First Nations leaders.

“I believe this is an important bill because I’ve talked to parents who’ve lost children, and they wanted action,” he said.

“They wanted government to do something, so there was at least a legacy for the loss of a loved one in their family. We brought forward the bill in good faith.”

This time he added a new wrinkle: If he won a majority government, Bill 22 would be back and passed into law.

“That youth mental health focus will be back in the next parliament, and I’m hopeful that we’ll have the support of the legislature,” he said.

Charlesworth and others are hoping to keep up the pressure so the NDP doesn’t simply ram it through.

Horgan won a majority, and doesn’t need the Greens any more to help pass the youth mental health bill – or anything, for that matter.

That’s one of the major reasons Charlesworth and others keep issuing public reminders about their serious concerns. They are hoping to keep up the pressure so the NDP doesn’t simply ram it through.

But those who debate this bill on its merits are, unfortunately, missing the point. It’s no longer a bill about youth mental health. It hasn’t been for some time.

It’s now a very personal item to the premier. It was borne out of, perhaps, the best intentions when he sat down with grieving family members. It morphed into a convenient battering ram to both justify his early election call and hammer his frenemies in the Greens.

We’ll see Bill 22 return, sooner rather than later. Of that you can be assured.

And when it does, nothing will stop it this time.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

rob@robshawnews.com
twitter.com/robshaw_bc

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