Nova Scotia’s Ashley Smith


A tad inflammatory?

That was my response when I first heard Brenda Hardiman invoking the spectre of the Ashley Smith debacle with her daughter Nichele’s plight at the hands of the Department of Community Services and the RCMP.

Ashley Smith’s dreadful experience,of being sucked into the federal penal system and her ultimate death, stands as one of the great failures of the “system” to appropriately deal with mental health issues.

Now, after watching Nichele’s story begin its painful, slow spiral into absurdity, I’m not so sure Brenda isn’t understating this.

So why isn’t the newly minted Liberal Minister of Community Services Joanne Bernard speaking about this file?

I listened with interest this morning to hear the Minister talk to Don Connolly on CBC’s Information Morning. I was hoping the Minister might be questioned about the protocols in place to manage those coping with intellectual and cognitive disabilities who are being handcuffed and dragged out of residential care facilities and into the criminal justice system.

No such luck.

It’s not like the CBC newsroom was unaware of the story. Tom Murphy spoke with Brenda Hardiman on Friday’s Info Morning about the upcoming weekend demonstrations.

How about one question to the Minister responsible?

The focus of this interview with the Minister was the previous government using a little budgetary slight of hand to push 40 million dollars worth of spending into another calendar year. Yeah, it’s an interesting story, but it’s also two weeks old and it’s already been explained.   

The Nichele Benn story has been festering for nearly a year. Last March, (then) DCS Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse promised she would be speaking with (then) Minister of Justice Ross Landry about Nichele Benn because she said changes were needed, there was a gap in the system…yada, yada, yada.

So after a weekend of demonstrations, television news coverage and a front page story on the Herald website…nothing from the Minister. No summarized briefing notes…no speaking points…zip.

The only reference to people with disabilities was a passing comment about Premier McNeil’s commitment to the ” Transformation of Services for Persons with Disabilities” and how they “are absolutely dedicated in moving forward with that road map”.

Awesome. It’s good to see that only 10 weeks into the job, Madam Minister has a handle on the BS boardroom jargon of government.

The Department of Community Services and the Department of Health and Wellness are responsible for providing care for people with disabilities in this province. There are a variety of institutional facilities and smaller care options to care for those who are in need.

The people who work there have a tough job. It really is God’s work. They require patience, compassion and ability. You can be sure finding the right balance between security and care is difficult.

If you’re not aware of Nichele Benn’s full story, you might like to read this Herald story. In short, Nichele is living with cerebral palsy, epilepsy and organic brain disorders. She has violent outbursts.

Last April on Maritime Morning I spoke with Brenda Hardimann about the difficulty she was having with placement of her daughter and the protocols used to deal with Nichele’s occasional outbursts.

We spoke on several other occasions last year as Brenda’s frustration with inaction from DCS continued to grow.

Nichele is now being warehoused in a Lower Sackville facility. Sunday, Nichele had to show up at the local RCMP detachment for fingerprinting. Criminalized. Just one more indignity, one more stupid chapter in this colossal failure of DCS to fix the problem.

Nichele’s story is not unique. Patients from the Forensic Unit in Burnside with histories of violence are transferred to mixed care facilities inadequately staffed to deal with the sort of potential outbursts one might reasonably expect. Staff receiving these patients have to hire temporary security guards. Not really a permanent solution.

Is the Benn case simply the frustration of staff who are not properly supported? If facing violence from a special needs patient, is calling the police the right strategy? Is that really the kind of care we want to offer people with special needs in this province?

As I mentioned in a earlier blog, the Brad Wall government in Saskatchewan is currently implementing a strategy to make that province the best place to live in Canada for people with disabilities. They are consulting with the people who use, administer and interact with the system, citizens and patients alike, to ask what changes are necessary. They are doing something other than drawing up a “road map” in a vacuum.

They are also separating social assistance and disability benefits as two distinctly different areas. Perhaps this is the most important change to note. It is a philosophical shift not just some bureaucratic tinkering.

We in Nova Scotia have a long way to go to become the best place to live in Canada for people with disabilities. We have work to do just to avoid being one of the worst.

The road map for people with disabilities in Nova Scotia should not lead to jail.

A piece of unsolicited advice for Madam Minister…look after the Nichele Benn file, then book a ticket to Regina. You can ask for Mark Docherty.


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  • Nova Scotia sure isn’t alone in their lack of attention to people with disabilities. Take schizophrenia for example… and the case before the courts with the constable responsible for shooting to death that young man on the streetcar in Toronto, while the tazer specifically designated for an instance such as tis hung on his hip, as well as the hips of the other 14 odd officers responding to a “man with a knife” on a streetcar.
    One has to wonder what ‘threat’ this man posed to anyone, much less a platoon of well armed officers outside the streetcar. One has to wonder what was going through the officer’s mind as he unloaded his weapon into the lone man inside the streetcar, who was obviously in a state of mental distress.
    Based on this event, I suppose Nichele should be happy she doesn’t live in Toronto.

  • Excellent Jordi. Will look forward to results of this prod. Follow up too, if any action is taken.

  • brilliant

  • Reblogged this on nova0000scotia and commented:
    This incredible article nails it… Mental Illness needs addressing in Canada… now… excellent article

  • Treating those who suffer from mental illness, with appropriate respect, sensitivity and understanding is something that Nova Scotians should strive for. We should expect, and demand this from our politicians, and those on the front lines, be they mental health workers or law enforcement officers. To that end, training programs, plus ample and adequate living and treatment accommodation for those with mental illness, are needed. Not to mention political will.
    But this issue leaves me considering a bigger picture, a larger societal discussion on how we got to a point where those with mental illness somehow get involved in the legal system.
    Without going into detail, I would invite those who are interested, to begin researching topics like de-institutionalization and how this forced those in need of psychiatric care into the community and on to the streets: the victimization of those with mental challenges: and how childhood development, caregivers, and early life circumstances from home and social environments affect the path of mental illness and the behavior it creates, later in life. To help, I’d refer readers to an article entitled Mental Health Treatment and Criminal Justice Outcomes, produced by members of the Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA. The paper, which was written in 2010, is a detailed cost analysis relating mental illness to crime. It makes mention of the important considerations, mentioned above, when dealing with the mentally-ill, to help them avoid the criminal justice system. The research quoted addresses childhood developmental years; the importance of identifying, and dealing with, externalized anti-social behavior in children and adolescents; such as Conduct, and Oppositional Defiance, Disorder. The article also discusses evidence based therapies for these conditions, nearly all of them promoting the involvement of caregivers, and the family in general. The authors posit that; among disadvantaged populations with elevated levels of crime, homelessness, and poverty, effective mental health care and treatment produces improved emotional health and social functioning, and less crime and its associated costs (Frank, McGuire, 2010). The article is available online at


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