Girlfriend of soldier killed in Ottawa shooting calls for a conversation on mental-health care

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      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.

      A Twitter accounted linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) posted a photograph online that was later confirmed to portray Ottawa shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau.

      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:


      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.


      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.


      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.

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      Nov 5, 2014 at 11:32am

      Good for you! The media in this country needs a good flaming. Trying to act like the US media is probably the stupidest idea ever, look what has become of them?


      Nov 5, 2014 at 2:44pm

      Mental health is the foundation of community in our country, and if it is left to despair, we will eventually drown in it. So many people need an extra hand to understand how to get through their personal struggles, it's not easy for them to find how to do this on their own. Something as common as depression can leave people without the critical awareness of how to find motivation or even simple insight to move forward with their lives.

      Unfortunately, our country is being ran by a mad man trying to gut the soul from us to focus on bottom line economics which are destroying the support that we require to come together as a whole. Nature itself is a crucial reminder for the mentally ill, that what we are part of is absolutely amazing, and to have Nature removed from our critical awareness undermines our purpose in life.

      So many people don't have a sense of purpose in community when they are surrounded by the busy buzz of hectic business, that they feel alienated by this society and become aggressive towards it. We can't allow these people to fall through the cracks, let alone have them labelled as terrorists for a fascist agenda.


      Nov 5, 2014 at 3:18pm

      It wasn't the (just) the media, Trudy. Harper and his cons eagerly set the discourse with the label of "terrorist". The media - esp. Sun News - happily followed suit. At any rate. we all owe a huge thanks to Andrea Polko for righting this wrong.


      Nov 5, 2014 at 5:33pm

      You are a wise young woman Andrea Polko. I'm terribly sorry for what happened to your beloved Nathan and may you continue to remember the wonderful memories you shared with him. In regards to mental illness, I couldn't agree with you more, and our Government and the pharmaceutical companies need to step up and get the mentally ill professional help and the proper medications. But if one afflicted with mental illness cannot work, then how can they afford the med's they are prescribed? And try to get someone help that has mental illness!!! Unless they are endangering themselves or others, it's almost impossible for loved ones to get the proper care for those who suffer from mental illness. Serious changes on how we treat this disease is required immediately!


      Nov 5, 2014 at 6:00pm

      She is so right...and I applaud her standing up and saying what people always ignore ~ Mental Illness!!

      Cheryl Anne Cudmore

      Nov 5, 2014 at 6:46pm

      Michael Zehaf-Bibeau may, more likely, be suffering from a spiritual illness moreso than any mental illness, particularly since drug addiction is a factor. People who suffer mental health issues are much more likely to be victims of violent crimes than to enact violent crimes. Crimes such as killing the innocent are just that: crimes. This is a matter of choosing to harm, maim, or kill which is a choice that would be very difficult to do to anyone with belief in law and regard to human life. These are spiritual values which are instilled through early education in love and respect for life and in serving others well. Values must be taught. Most folks with a mental illness in Canada do receive expert care and treatment. A mentally unwell person is not necessarily a criminally-motivated person who would destroy the life of another. That is a prejudice, nothing more. People who commit violent acts are those who were observers of violent acts in earlier life and they did not learn the value of guarding and protecting human life as precious. We cannot be the least bit lazy in raising up children and we must never teach them violence, rather they need to learn the skills of peace and accord which must begin in the home.


      Nov 5, 2014 at 7:33pm

      @ Cheryl Anne Cudmore

      Your statements exhibit a woeful ignorance of biology. Our "spiritual" side is simply an offshoot of brain chemistry. Mental illness is an illness of the brain. While psychological conditioning through upbringing and psychological therapy can in some cases help mitigate the effects of mental illness, mental illness is not something that is solely due to upbringing.


      Nov 5, 2014 at 8:28pm

      As a proud Canadians and nurse, all I can say is: Amen, bang on sister.


      Nov 5, 2014 at 11:01pm

      I don't blame Andrea for her post. I understand it. What I don't understand is why the media would report on this. Zehaf-Bibeau was an extremist. His attack was politically motivated. This is what the video he made before the shooting apparently states. His picture was also tweeted by an extremest group before he was identified by media.

      Zehaf-Bibeau was an outcast of society. I think that is safe to say, but he was given a psychiatric assessment and no features of mental illness were found. So let's not try to make this guy a poster-child for mental illness. If anything, he should be the poster child for extremism. If we want to prevent another such death, let's not turn a blind eye to it.


      Nov 6, 2014 at 2:54am

      @Bill you make NO sense. Zehaf was an extremist; yet in his past had excessive drug issues doing not some joint with his friends but CRACK COCAINE (WHITNEY HOUSTON LEVEL, OKAY). His brain gets diminished from so much usage of a drug like this clearly he's going to be mentally unwell; and tries to find refuge to actually seek assistance and is rejected; gets an analysis by an irresponsible psychiatrist who should have had more empathy to see he is unwell. Maybe she was just lazy that day. This is a really good example of how the human mind gets screwed up and yeah he became an extremist after all those situations and having those effects remain in his biology. What's the ROOT of this? HIS DRUG ADDICTION AND MENTAL HEALTH. The extremism came way later and in no way did this powerless man have any connection to the ISIL terrorists overseas; the guy could barely figure out he can't rob a mcdonalds with a f***ing stick so please get a grip Bill; and get your head out your ass.