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It was brief and breathless coverage last week: reporters on camera live from Parliament Hill, reporting that one of Canada’s Supreme Court justices had gone missing. Ottawa police were asking for the public’s help in finding the judge, right down to describing the suit he had been wearing when last seen.
It sounded almost like the start of a political thriller. But the questions about the whereabouts of Justice Clement Gascon stopped almost as soon as they were reported. The judge reappeared, with little said about what had happened. Little, until the remarkably frank 245-word statement he issued on Tuesday.
Part of 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 those who suffered as a result.”
In some ways, it was almost to be expected — a public figure, coming forward to explain what had become a very public disappearance.
“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." — Justice Clement Gascon
But what would not have been as expected is the judge’s decision to be frank and clear about the mental health issues that he has had to deal with for years.
In the past, as The Globe and Mail pointed out, Supreme Court justices who revealed they were suffering from mental illness were forced to resign.
This time, Chief Justice Richard Wagner took a different approach, saying in a statement: “The statement made by Justice Gascon earlier today takes courage. My colleagues and I are very proud of Justice Gascon, and he has my full support and confidence. I look forward to seeing him back on the bench this week. ”
Most of what comes out of the Supreme Court takes the form of rulings. The court weighs arguments and makes decisions that often affect ordinary Canadians and their governments.
This time, the court may be leading more by example; mental health issues are, first and foremost, health issues. They shouldn’t be treated any differently than any other health issue. If a worker is able to do their job, they should be able to do that. If they need professional care before returning to work, employers should be as understanding and supportive of mental health care as they would be if their employee hurt their back or broke their leg.
It shouldn’t matter if you’re digging a trench or sitting on the Supreme Court of Canada.
Justice Clement Gascon has used his own personal experience to smooth the path for others.