“We should all be fighting together and standing together”: Mark Gruchy

An interview with the 2016 N.L. Human Rights Award recipient.

Last week the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission presented the 2016 Human Rights Award to St. John’s lawyer, mental health advocate and former Independent columnist Mark Gruchy.

Gruchy is a former president of the Newfoundland and Labrador chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association, co-founder of the Community Coalition for Mental Health, an appointed member of the Provincial Mental Health and Addictions Advisory Council to advise government on key mental health matters.

In 2014 and 2015 his Independent column It Takes All Kinds captured the attention of readers across Newfoundland and Labrador and helped spark a public conversation around mental illness and the state of the province’s mental health care system.

Last year Gruchy ran in the provincial election for the NDP in his home riding of Cape St. Francis. Though he didn’t win he has since been elected as the party’s president.

“Mr. Gruchy’s resolute commitment to promoting increased attention to and action on mental health supports in Newfoundland and Labrador is exemplary. He has frequently shared personal experiences of his own challenges in order to mobilize action on mental health in our province,” N.L. Human Rights Commission Chair Remzi Cej said in a statement Dec. 8, the day Gruchy was given the award during a ceremony at Government House in St. John’s.

“In very personal and meaningful ways, Mr. Gruchy’s determination to make life better for individuals facing mental health challenges in Newfoundland and Labrador has inspired a province-wide conversation on mental health and mobilization to increase the level of workplace, community and health care supports. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Mr. Gruchy’s advocacy has been a growing movement of people discussing mental health more openly.”

The Independent spoke with Gruchy about the award, the state of mental health services in Newfoundland and Labrador, his foray into politics, neoliberalism, Muskrat Falls, his lived experience as a person with bipolar disorder, and the need for greater societal dialogue around important issues.

Interview with Mark Gruchy — December 2016

What does being named the recipient of the 2016 N.L. Human Rights Award mean to you?

It’s obviously an extremely high honour. The one thing that really differentiated it from previous recognition that I received is it was…a very personally oriented recognition of myself as opposed to my activity within a particular institution or structure or something of that nature.

I was very moved by it [and] did not expect anything like that to happen at all. It means a lot to know that you can do whatever little thing you can do and people actually care about what you have done, to a sufficient degree to feel that it warrants provincial recognition.

I’m very glad that the Human Rights Commission feels that the mental health issues that I’ve been helping, I hope, advance in this province warrant that level of recognition. Sometimes those issues get forgotten.

Of all the work you’ve done around mental health, as the President of the N.L. chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association and during the two years since you stepped down from that role, what is it that you’re most proud of?

Mark Gruchy speaks at the launch of the Community Coalition For Mental Health in St. Johns in 2014. Photo by Jenne Nolan.
Mark Gruchy speaks at the launch of the Community Coalition For Mental Health in St. Johns in 2014. Photo by Jenne Nolan.

I have honest difficulty with the concept of pride and taking pride to the point that I sort of have to force myself to acknowledge that I’ve done something which is worthwhile. I’m more the sort of person whom feels comfort when I know that I’ve done something which was effective and within the bounds of expected competence, as opposed to [feeling] an actual sense of pride or achievement.

If I was to plot the whole thing out, what it has been is a gradual escalation of the issues, as I communicate them publicly, to try to bring them to places where people are looking at the concept of mental health beyond a mere illness or thing to be corrected and more in to something which is actually part of who people are and needs to be regarded as an integrated part of the self. And that’s where I think we need to go with this subject to maximize recovery and to maximize the issue in a social sense.

So I think the thing that I’m most pleased with is the fact that I’ve managed to raise the discussion around the conditions to a degree that people are actually reaching out to me now and thanking me for doing that. I mean people who are living with these conditions, as opposed to just the general community. And at the same time it was nice to be able to leave the CMHA in a position where they expanded all around the province and had grown in profile substantially and had achieved stability. Stability in organizations is really difficult to achieve sometimes due to the dynamics of board mechanics and that sort of thing.

So having both changed the subject to that personal level, coupled with bringing some stability to the CMHA and groups like that — that’s probably the best thing that I’ve done. But it’s hard to say because I don’t think of it that way.

What do you think, at this point in time, is the most pressing mental health issue, and what can be done to address it?

Speaking very generally, our percentage of funding of health care dollars to mental health is still lower than the national average, and is markedly lower than what is being recommended by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. I believe we are currently at about 7.5 percent. A lot of provinces in this country are at 7 percent. The Mental Health Commission of Canada has advocated for going to at least 10 percent. The percentage of allocated health care funds needs to change, to both reflect both broader Canadian standards as well as recommendations of the Mental Health Commission, if only because we need those resources to be able to properly implement mental health services.

But the other thing that needs to continue to change, I think, is the way we conceive of these problems. It’s not, in my view, wise for people to think: “If I engage with the mental health system I will be provided a solution to whatever problem I’m dealing with.” … What we need to see the mental health system as is a system which supports people to develop and facilitate their own lived life solutions to these issues that they deal with.

What we need to see the mental health system as is a system which supports people to develop and facilitate their own lived life solutions to these issues that they deal with.

With respect to the Waterford Hospital and primary care facilities like it, my primary concern is that they tend to disproportionately impact the percentage of people with mental health concerns who are very seriously ill — and that will always happen to some extent.

We can’t see the Waterford as a housing solution, because it’s not. But we need to be aware that there are a very large number of people in this province with conditions like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, severe depression [who have been] driven to the point of persistent suicidal behaviour, and that sort of thing, who need to avail of places like the Waterford Hospital from time to time, at least to get grounded. And we need to ensure that when people need those high end services that those services are not doing more harm than good — which I think currently they are doing more harm than good; I don’t see how they’re helping anybody.

So really I’m talking about attitudinal change, both on the side of the people who are receiving the services, and on the side of the people who are delivering them, and down the middle the service structure itself ought to be developed and structured by the people who receive the services. We need to have engagement with people who receive these services to know what they want and need.

It’s complicated, but we can’t just let things kind of wither on the vine and not be dealt with, which is what I fear happens. And that’s why we have institutions made in 1855 still in existence. They just sit there and collect dust and get talked about a lot, but no one deals with them.

So we need to overcome that systemic inertia, in my view.

Last year you decided to enter politics. You ran for the NDP in the provincial election. You didn’t win your seat but have since become president of the party. Why did you decide to enter the political arena and what do you hope to accomplish as the president of the NL NDP?

Having spent a good number of years as the president of the CMHA, and with a board-based entity, a not-for-profit, at the end of the day being a political activity in the human sense, you are dealing with people on a board, making sure people’s voices are heard, you’re building consensus, you’re generating stability, you’re trying to make your organization effective internally and externally. Having done that, and having succeeded at that relatively well, I thought that when the time had come when I was leaving the CMHA it would simply make sense to continue with that sort of activity that I had gained experience in, in another form.

I  think what’s happening is we’re seeing things done which are in line with an increasingly outmoded ideology and approach to politics and economics which is being challenged all over the world.

As it turned out, as a consequence of how advocacy develops in the province, I was requested to take part in politics; particularly, I was requested by a prominent member of the NDP. I contemplated it, and I thought to myself that, at the end of the day, the real nuts and bolts of the activity are not meaningfully different from successfully running a not-for-profit. You’re contributing to an organization with the intent of bringing stability, building consensus within it, and then transmitting the message to the outside world. And really that’s nine-tenths of the battle — getting that stability in place and getting that coherence in place, and consistently communicating the message.

So if I can bring anything to the NDP, it would be that. I believe that I have demonstrated a capacity to enhance stability and to make organizations more operationally effective through things as simple as chairing boards, which is what I’m doing now. We have been having a lot of—all, actually—consensus-based decision-making ever since I got there, which is great. And you do that long enough and stability grows, health grows, the structure gets stronger, and it can do things more effectively. It takes time of course, but I’d like to contribute that.

In terms of my own personal view, one of the things about this is from my perspective the chair of any organization isn’t really there to insert their personal views on the organization. They’re there to regulate the organization in such a way that it functions, and that’s how I tend to approach it.

But in terms of the personal contribution I would like to make to politics as a whole is I would simply like to see rational, humane, contemporary approaches to governance implemented and applied to the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. I don’t think that’s happening. I don’t think it’s been happening for some time. I think what’s happening is we’re seeing things done which are in line with an increasingly outmoded ideology and approach to politics and economics which is being challenged all over the world.

What is it?

Neoliberalism, right? If you’re talking about neoliberalism, we’re talking about a system that fundamentally says, if we somehow solve the economic problems—if those figures on paper look good and are consistent with our ideological vision of the world—well then society’s social problems should somehow magically resolve because that’s all that matters, those figures on the paper. And at the end of the day that’s not true, and it has been proved time and time again all over the world — and people have woken up to that. I think that the majority view right now on planet Earth is that [neoliberalism] is not solving the problems. It might have been a good idea at the time, to some people, but it’s not playing out the way it was promised to play out. So if that is the case, we need to intelligently reposition to go through this transition.

[Among the] countries that are going through this right now, we’re seeing some of the potential negative consequences of unintelligently positioning to go through that transition [away from neoliberalism]. You’re seeing that in the rise of nationalism in Europe. That’s what’s happening — they weren’t ready for this, so now they’re getting negativity coming into their politics that never had to be there. So you have to be intelligent.

How is neoliberalism manifesting in our province? Can you talk about that, and maybe the way that this approach to economics and politics might relate to human rights in terms of keeping certain segments of society down and not enabling people to live happy, healthy lifestyles or recover from particular life circumstances that they’ve [found themselves in]?

My personal view of how neoliberalism has affected this province in that regard is we’ve just come out of a period where there has been, frankly, a radical imbalance in how our resources were being distributed during a time of plenty. We saw an awful lot of money get put into one relatively small area of development in this province, which was then presented as the holy grail, the solution to all Newfoundland and Labrador’s problems. Specifically, I’m talking about Muskrat Falls. This is my personal view, and I think it’s the view of a lot of people.

"[Neoliberalism is], if we walk this one path that does not vary, it’ll all work out as if by magic because all of us have convinced ourselves collectively that that’s the way the world is --- and it’s not," says Mark Gruchy. Photo by Jo Dee Photography.
“[Neoliberalism is], if we walk this one path that does not vary, it’ll all work out as if by magic because all of us have convinced ourselves collectively that that’s the way the world is — and it’s not,” says Mark Gruchy. Photo by Jo Dee Photography.

[Muskrat Falls] was rammed through, circumventing the Public Utilities Board (PUB). And at the same time, literally, we had people being promised that aging and decaying social infrastructure that was needed to address major social problems would be seen to. There were all kinds of promises made, and of course that didn’t happen because all of the resources were being pushed into one part of the province’s developments and there was very little consideration being given to the province as a whole.

We’re talking about the story of the ant and the grasshopper, really. We’re talking about people who manage their resources more intelligently in a more balanced fashion, versus people who burn through things because they have a myth that if they burn through all these things somehow it’ll all work out in the end.

That’s really what neoliberalism is. It’s if we walk this one path that does not vary, it’ll all work out as if by magic because all of us have convinced ourselves collectively that that’s the way the world is — and it’s not.

So the solution to this problem, frankly, is intelligence, and to be at least somewhat more balanced than what we have been seeing. And that’s going to require a conscious effort on the part of the people who are making these decisions, and on the part of the people who are working together with the non-governmental entities involved in these decisions. And we haven’t seen that — we’ve seen a really horrible lack of balance.

I’m not talking about mere centrist thinking, either. I’m talking about what I see as common sense, which has somehow been painted as radical, when in fact it is simply common sense. It is common sense that you need to have healthcare. It is common sense that you can’t put people in a prison that is from the 1830s and expect anything to improve. This is all common sense. But yet it is depicted as very far out there, and what is actually far out there is taking the proceeds of an entire province’s oil boom and putting them into one project. That’s far out. But we need to restore that balance in how people think, in my view.

In light of the human rights issues involved with building [Muskrat Falls]—and the ones that will continue, like methylmercury and the dispossession of Indigenous people from their traditional lands—is this the right thing to be doing still, at this point and with this much money spent? What would you do if you were in a position to call the shots on Muskrat Falls?

Again, this is just my personal view. The real challenge from a province-wide point of view on that whole mess, right now—and I’m speaking now from my perspective of knowledge as a lawyer—is that entire structure, inevitably, is going to be composed of many contracts with many different structures with many different issues associated with breach of contract in the form of penalties, clauses, and so on. At this point, in order to understand I guess in a cost-benefit sense just how bad it would be to pull away from that particular project, one would have to understand all of the fine prints with respect to those penalties and the legalese of it. And then one would have to ask themselves, how devastating would that be balanced off against what we’re dealing with?

Land protectors occupied the Muskrat Falls main site on Saturday, bringing the project to a halt. Photo by Justin Brake.
“The law very explicitly states that [Indigenous] people are supposed to be meaningfully consulted with, and clearly whatever passed for consultation did not reach many of these people,” says Mark Gruchy. Photo by Justin Brake.

I feel like that’s the only intelligent way to assess this, and it seems to be—at least based on what appears in the media and what is routinely released—that it’s very hard for the average person to be able to understand that side of it. 

People like [economist and former PUB Chair] Dave Vardy are warning [that] continuing with the project will bankrupt the province. I take Dave Vardy very seriously.

That of course, from a moral and ethical point of view, does not answer the question about what is happening with Indigenous people in northern Newfoundland and Labrador around this project. But I will say that the law very explicitly states that these people are supposed to be meaningfully consulted with, and clearly whatever passed for consultation did not reach many of these people, and that really is a problem when the law says there is a fiduciary obligation between the Crown, insofar as its relations with Indigenous Peoples are concerned.

We all have to be asking the question: why are these people so upset? What went wrong there? Obviously the [process] didn’t work right, and it shouldn’t be unfolding the way that it is. It’s a very, very troubling situation, and it bothers me deeply that this has happened. And we’re seeing these sorts of things happening all over North America right now. So obviously business as usual in terms of ramming these things through is not working anymore.

It is infuriatingly frustrating that whatever passed as consultation here was obviously insufficient as we saw the groundswell of serious protest amongst Innu and Inuit people. That is a huge red flag and should not have happened. I personally do not support projects or economic activity which hurts people physically or destroys an environment they require.

I feel that so much of this, in terms of the supposed benefits of Muskrat versus the negatives, has been so oversimplified by primary actors in this process to the point that the average Newfoundlander and Labradorian can barely process what’s going on anymore. And frankly I feel like an awful lot of this amounts to people being treated as if they’re stupid and they can’t understand this, and they’re constantly being told, “Don’t worry, it’ll be OK.”

Can you give an example of what you mean by that?

It simply feels this way. We saw the whole thing get rammed through by the PCs years ago. We saw that any question that was asked was pooh-poohed and washed away. And it just moves on like a train and people keep raising questions, such as the issue with methylmercury and the report that came out of Harvard. Everything keeps getting pushed aside like it’s no big deal, and every time something gets pushed aside people get angrier.

Obviously you can’t just push these things aside forever. When people have these concerns, those concerns need to be met. Things need to be communicated to people sufficiently in advance [so] that you don’t have these explosions of upset, which are likely justified. It’s just a horrible breakdown of communication that appears to be predicated on a fundamental understanding of human beings as incapable of understanding complex issues, which is really frustrating for me.

The actual physical award you received is a carving by [Inuit artist] Wilson Semigak. Remzi Cej, the Chair of the Human Rights Commission, described in a tweet that that carving was made in memory of victims of residential schools. So what does it mean to you to receive that particular carving as an award?

That was extremely poignant because I have had some exposure to these carvings in positions where people have been disadvantaged before in the course of my work. All I can say is when an Inuit man is making that carving about that subject, from prison, to be given to someone like me as a human rights award recipient — there aren’t really very many words you can use to describe the poignancy of that.

And there’s something very sad about the entire thing, while simultaneously hopeful: that here we are having a person who almost literally has no voice because he’s in prison commemorating people who had no voice who went through an unbelievably horrible activity with respect to the residential schools—a genocidal activity; everyone with a brain knows that. And here I am being given this thing, sitting down here in St. John’s, merely for trying to elevate the status of people with mental health concerns. It’s incredibly powerful. I know it wasn’t intended, and I know Mr. Semigak likely didn’t see it that way himself, but a part of me thinks, wow, this is a core component of your culture and it’s being given to me from prison. And it made me wonder about all of that. And I chose to look at it as Mr. Semigak is contributing to this and he’s a part of the same struggle and the same fight for human rights for people. But it’s very sad to think that somebody is producing that from prison for us, and it really resonated with me. I deeply appreciate it, and value it, and it will always have a place in my home.

During your acceptance speech you said, “We can learn a lot when we reach across our differences and boundaries and listen to other people’s perspectives. We can learn ad we need to do this, because if we don’t in fact manage to cross those boundaries and bridge those gaps, we’ll end up with no human rights for anyone. I’ve been saying for a long time, we are all human beings and we all have dignity and worth, and that’s what this is about.” Can you elaborate on that, particularly on…the need to reach across our differences and boundaries and listen to other perspectives?

[We need to] focus on the fundamentals of human rights-based and social justice-based struggles and movements, which [I see] as the fundamental recognition of the essential validity and worth and equality of human beings, and their dignity. If we overcomplicate these issues we can fail to communicate with each other, and we can fail to communicate the basic core of our message to people who don’t necessarily feel they were included in the conversation. And that failure will lower the likelhood of greater inclusivity, and if we don’t have as much inclusivity as we can manage, we will find ourselves in situations where other people who really do not appear to give a damn about human rights—people like Donald Trump—will capitalize on our divisions, and then we will find ourselves in very dangerous places.

We should all be fighting together and standing together and being mutually supportive of each other irrespective of what we individually are dealing with and where we come from. Because at the end of the day this activity is all about humans helping humans, and there is no exclusion from the human race. All people are people, all humans are humans. We all have dignity, we’re all the same, and we need to be backing each other up while acknowledging that there are huge [segments] of society who have been systemically discriminated against and isolated for a long time.

So the push for inclusivity has to bring everybody in, and it’s going to be complicated and hard.

And who does the burden to initiate that push fall on? Does it fall on everybody equally? Obviously certain groups in society are more privileged than others. Even to be reading our interview on The Independent’s website — we know that certain segments of society are more likely to be reading this information and thinking, “I can be a part of that.” So where does the burden fall primarily in initiating that push for inclusivity?

That’s really tough question, and I’m very aware of the rather complex philosophical conversation around that right now in western society generally. And because of the toughness of the question, and particularly because of the toughness of the issue of operationalizing what underlies that question, where I always end up going in my own life is I look at myself and I say, “Well I’m the only person I can control. I can effect what I do, I can control myself, I know I can’t make other people do what I want them to do. So therefore I am going to control myself in such a way that I feel is conducive to the building of this unity. I will communicate in such a way to encourage all groups of people to come into this,” which is a fair forum for pointing out the perils of privilege and how people need to reflect sometimes on where they stand before they make simplistic judgements about what the world is if they’re in a sheltered place.

I’m talking about things like white privilege and so forth right now. People’s perspectives can be skewed and they don’t even realize it because of where they’re coming from. But at the end of the day the person we can really change is ourselves, and we can act, ourselves, in a way that can bring about change. I think we need to focus on that more than hoping someday we will be able to change what other people think. If you are the change you want to see in the world, I think it’s better than hoping that someday other people will change the way you would like them to.

What makes a compassionate and empathic person, and does your lived experience with bipolar play a role in that for you?

It does. And this actually goes to my answer for the last question. When you are a person who is bipolar, when you have that condition, a defining aspect of it really—and it varies so much from person to person—is that you can experience higher levels of emotional energy and potentially emotional sensitivity than other people can. And what this can mean is you can find yourself living in a world where you are watching people emotionally respond to their environment in a fashion that does not make sense to you.

So you’re looking at others thinking, ‘Why aren’t they reacting as I am reacting? Why are they so slow? Why don’t they get it? Why don’t they understand?’ And if you get in a push-back cycle with people you will be driven to one extreme or the other. The world does not change for you. If you throw yourself against it you tend to make yourself—for want of a better way of putting it—sick by driving yourself to such a point that you are now the problem that the world is trying to neutralize because the world doesn’t change for you.

I  realized that the world, so to speak, just wasn’t experiencing life the way I was…

So what happened very slowly—and I don’t claim to have the answers to how all this happened in my individual case—was I realized that the world, so to speak, just wasn’t experiencing life the way I was, and the only way this was going to work is if I kept trying to put myself in the place of that person in the world who was not bipolar, in filtering through what was happening between us. And when I gradually learned how to do that, that is when I got better, that is when I improved, that is when I became more functional. And my life has become a very long story of filtering inputs that come into me, as well as feelings that I have myself, and then consciously engaging with the world in such a way that is generative as opposed to confrontational.

I learned, basically, somehow, how to get along in such a way as to maximize the odds of both myself remaining well and people I’m speaking with getting where I’m coming from. And frankly, it’s a catch-22 to ask somebody with a serious mental health concern like bipolar disorder to do that, but I know in my case it was absolutely vital to me surviving being bipolar, particularly in my young days. You can go through a period where you can judge people for not getting it…and at the end of the day if you get angry with them the only person the anger hurts is the person who holds the anger. If you’re holding the anger it’s going to hurt you, it’s going to eat you up. At some point you’ve got to find a way to let the anger go and to try to communicate with these people who simply do not appear to get it, until such time as you are living in relative peace and actually reaching across and communicating with people.

As a person with bipolar disorder I still feel a great gulf of distance between myself and many other people because of these inherent distinctions, but the key is realizing that I have a valid place to occupy in the world — so do they. And another thing I learned is those people by and large do not mean any harm. They just don’t know what I’m experiencing. So because they don’t know what I’m experiencing I feel that if you give them enough time they eventually realize you don’t mean any harm either and that everyone can live peacefully. That really is central to how I see the world right now. If I simply fought every time I felt wronged or maligned or misunderstood, I would probably be very, very ill right now, maybe even permanently hospitalized.

Not only did you figure it out but you figured it out and lived it in such a way that got you recognized in a major way by the rest of society. So congratulations again on that.

Thank you so much. But one thing I’ll say to be totally fair is everybody with bipolar disorder is different. We have different levels of stability, different levels of severity of our condition, different genders, different backgrounds, different everything, right? I just feel very, very, very lucky that I had the right mixture of attributes to make this possible. Because it’s not hard for me to visualize how if you change the formula a little bit for an individual person in their life, things would go very differently.

I’ve represented men in jail who have bipolar disorder, and bipolar disorder is not why they are in jail, but I am watching them struggle with the same condition from the perspective of being a prisoner. And it’s not pretty. I’ve represented women who have it, too. You see all of these different issues manifesting in different ways in different people’s lives. We are all bipolar, but these other attributes matter a great deal. I say that because I would never claim to have the holy grail solution to this problem. It is an intensely complicated medical condition and personal status. I’m just fortunate enough to have been, I guess, provided with the necessary attributes to deal with it as I have. And of course life is long, so I’m going to have to keep trying to stay on the level, but I don’t claim that everything is easy — things can happen.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity.

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