The girlfriend of the soldier killed in the October 22 attack on Parliament Hill has called for Canada to “wake up” and reflect on how it treats people who struggle with a mental illness.
“What we SHOULD be talking about is the dismal state of mental healthcare in our country,” wrote Andrea Polko in a November 4 Facebook message.
“What that deeply disturbed man killing my boyfriend SHOULD make Canadians focus on is how we can PREVENT another event like this through more accessible and effective mental health treatment programs that target the REAL source of this tragedy," she continued.
The morning of October 22, Polko’s boyfriend, a member of the Canadian Armed Forces named Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, was shot at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. He died of his injuries shortly after.
Cirillo was killed by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a 32-year-old Canadian citizen and resident of Quebec.
After shooting Cirillo, Zehaf-Bibeau entered the nation’s Parliament building and attempted to kill people who were working there. At the time of the incident there were a large number of MPs present as well as Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
In addition to Cirillo, three people were wounded before Zehaf-Bibeau was shot and killed by authorities.
Addressing the nation later that evening, Harper described the attack as an act of terrorism. A few days later, on October 26, the RCMP sent out a media release stating that Zehaf-Bibeau’s actions were “driven by ideological and political motives”.
In the days following the October 22 attack, the Globe and Mail pieced together much of Zehaf-Bibeau’s life and focused on the weeks and months that preceded the shooting.
What emerged was less the story of a religious extremist and more an account of a young man who fell through the cracks of the country’s justice and mental-health care systems.
“Drugs and religion key themes in Ottawa shooter’s troubled life,” read one headline. “Ottawa shooter’s life marked by estrangement,” read another.
Zehaf-Bibeau reportedly came from a decent family. His mother holds a government job in Ottawa and his father is a businessman. (The couple divorced many years ago.) But Zehaf-Bibeau also struggled with mental illness and addiction issues, the Globe reported. He eventually grew aspirations to travel to Syria or Libya to join militant groups there.
Between 2004 and 2009 he was arrested five times in Montreal, charged three times for drug possession and twice for violating parole conditions. He subsequently moved to B.C. where he stayed at a homeless shelter and a Burnaby mosque, among other locations. His drug use continued.
In 2011, he was charged for committing a robbery in Vancouver. That incident saw Zehaf-Bibeau walk into a McDonald’s with a sharpened stick and demand the cashier give him money. He wasn’t taken seriously but police were called.
Zehaf-Bibeau said he committed the crime because he wanted to go to jail where he believed he could get assistance with his drug addiction. He was arrested but only served one day in prison.
A psychiatric assessment was conducted and it was decided Zehaf-Bibeau was not mentally ill and could be released.
“The accused…wants to be in jail as he believes this is the only way he can overcome his addiction to crack cocaine,” that report states.
Here is Polko’s message unedited and in its entirety:
Nathan Cirillo was my boyfriend. I loved him deeply, as did all of the family and friends who knew him and we all still mourn him every day. That being said, I feel I should weigh in on this ridiculous "was he a hero or was he not" debate. My response is this:
WAKE UP CANADA.
What we SHOULD be talking about is the dismal state of mental healthcare in our country.
What that deeply disturbed man killing my boyfriend SHOULD make Canadians focus on is how we can PREVENT another event like this through more accessible and effective mental health treatment programs that target the REAL source of this tragedy.
Stop tearing apart the honour and love bestowed upon a wonderful man who deserves every bit of it and start taking a good hard look at the awful, dysfunctional systems in our nation that this has shown us NEED TO CHANGE.
FOCUS ON WHAT REALLY MATTERS HERE AND WHAT WE CAN GAIN AS EXPERIENCE FROM THIS, AS A COUNTRY.
I am a very proud Canadian, but the fact that this hero/not business is what the media here and the general public has chosen to talk about, I must say I am very disappointed.
WE CAN DO, AND ARE, BETTER THAN THIS, CANADA.
For those of you who would like to share my words, please do so. I feel as though this is an important discussion that needs to continue happening.