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Call for bipartisan committee on suicide goes by wayside

Daily Leg Update - Doyle Vermette raised issue at legislature, alongside families of suicide victims.
Vermette motion May 17
Cumberland MLA Doyle Vermette, at podium, and Opposition Leader Ryan Meili, left, stand with families of suicide victims at a news conference at the legislature Tuesday.

REGINA — The issues of suicide, mental health and addictions were a main focus at the legislature Tuesday.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Opposition leader Ryan Meili stood with Opposition critic Doyle Vermette, MLA for Cumberland, and three families who had lost loved ones to suicide or addictions.

There, the opposition called for the establishment of a bipartisan special committee of the legislature to investigate the what the party calls a mental health and addictions crisis. Vermette later asked leave to move a motion on the floor of the legislative assembly on the issue.

But the effort would not come to fruition in the end, with the government ultimately saying no to granting consent. 

Vermette expressed optimism at news conference 

The Opposition has been pressing the government this session for not doing enough to act on the suicide prevention bill that had passed with bipartisan support last year. The issue has been raised consistently throughout the spring session by Vermette, who has stood at the end of Question Period to call for action on behalf of families impacted. 

The day before in Question Period, Meili had pressed the issue by accusing the government of a 20 per cent funding cut to Pillars of Life, something which Minister for Mental Health and Addictions Everett Hindley denied.

“Sadly, we’ve seen a government that has instead cut funding to their own Pillars of Life strategy, trying to pass off that already known to be inadequate strategy as a sufficient response to that bill,” Meili said. “But to Doyle’s credit, he doesn’t give up.” 

At the news conference prior to Tuesday’s sitting, Vermette had expressed some hope that there was an opportunity for both parties to work together, alongside with First Nations and Métis leaders.

“I’m hoping, I’m hoping, the government takes us up on the opportunity to have a special committee to go and do the good work it needs to do to find some answers and some solutions,” Vermette said. 

“These families are asking this government to support this, and I’m hoping the government will support this.”

Government cites Pillars of Life committee as appropriate venue

During Question Period, both Meili and Vermette took turns drilling the government on the mental health and addictions issue. 

Vermette put the question directly to the government on whether they would grant leave for his motion later that day for a bipartisan special committee on the so-called mental health and addictions crisis.

Minister Hindley did not answer directly. Instead, he noted there were a “number of existing mechanisms in place right now” through the oversight team within the Pillars of Life suicide prevention plan. 

He said that included officials from various ministries including Health, Education, Advanced Education, Social Services, Corrections and the SHA, among others. Hindley offered to help facilitate meetings of the families with the oversight team.

Vermette repeated his question whether the minister would commit to strike a committee. Hindley responded by saying “This is not a political issue. That’s why we have experts engaged and why we have a number of existing committees …”

Hindley also noted the consultation “we as MLAs do,” noting after this week they would be returning to their constituencies and spending time on a more frequent basis.

Vermette noted the families in the gallery, and once more repeated his call for committee. “It’s a simple question. Will the minister support the special committee? Yes or no?”

Hindley again responded by pointing to “the existing committees doing very good work on this file.”

Tone deteriorates as QP goes on

Tensions rose as Question Period went on, with fireworks erupting when Opposition critic Trent Wotherspoon raised the issue of the “skyrocketing cost of fuel” and cost of living, and demanded relief at the pumps.

In her response, Finance Minister Donna Harpauer pointed out that the NDP in Ontario didn’t agree with it and the NDP leader in Alberta didn’t agree with it, and the NDP in British Columbia "did exactly what we did in this province." That drew heckles from the Opposition.

“This is Saskatchewan,” Wotherspoon retorted, as he continued to press for relief.

Harpauer went on to point out the NDP in Saskatchewan "don't like pipelines and do support a carbon tax," and pointed to the federal NDP propping up Justin Trudeau as prime minister.

“This is what we’re going to face as long as the NDP is propping up Justin Trudeau,” Harpauer said.

“The minister knows that’s not the case,” Wotherspoon responded.

When Meili returned to the topic of Vermette’s motion at the end of Question Period, the tension left over from the Wotherspoon-Harpauer exchange finally boiled over as the Opposition leader accused the government of “refusing even a debate … what a slap in the face for the survivors who are here with us today.”

Meili directly asked Premier Scott Moe, “Will he stand up and give the people in the gallery one good reason why we shouldn’t have a special committee?"

“I’m going to ignore the entire preamble to that question,” Moe responded, as he encouraged the families to “reach out.” 

That response prompted loud heckles from across the floor, with Meili yelling across at Moe: “this is embarrassing Scott, this is embarrassing. You can do so much better.”

The heckling prompted Speaker Randy Weekes to interject and call for order. Government House Leader Jeremy Harrison would rise on several point of orders, as he called out the “vile personal attacks” launched from the leader of the Opposition. “The member for Elphinstone continues yelling from her seat,” Harrison added, referring to Social Services Critic Meara Conway.

Leave not granted

In the end, when Vermette finally stood to request leave to move his motion, leave was not granted. 

Families who had attended at the legislature told reporters afterwards they were not surprised, but pledged to keep coming back.

Jude Ratt, whose daughter Betty Roberts and niece Ariana Roberts were both lost to suicide, said to reporters he was “very disappointed.” He saw it as a missed opportunity.

“Absolutely. This would have shown they at least care. What I saw in there this afternoon, I have no words. I was very, very, disappointed.”

In speaking to reporters, Minister Hindley referred again to the Pillars for Life strategic planning oversight committee, which has ministry representation, and SHA and community organizations involved. He again offered to facilitate meetings with them.

“It involves a number of experts in this field, a very, very challenging field, and so we feel that’s the appropriate course for people.”

He added input and advice was “very important for us,” noting the Pillars for Life committee was an avenue for them to provide insight and advice on addressing gaps.