Emerson Bonnar was 19 when he tried to snatch a purse from a woman on a street in Fredericton, New Brunswick. For that one offence he has been locked up for the past 15 years. He’s now 34 and still in a maximum-security ward for the criminally insane. When I sat down with Emerson Bonnar behind double-locked doors at the Provincial Hospital, a mental institution in Campbellton, N.B., just before Christmas, his question was: “When will I be let out?” I wished I could answer that question. The truth is no one knows.
Emerson Bonnar was the youngest of eight children in a poor New Brunswick family and was receiving voluntary psychiatric treatment at the Saint John General Hospital. After the purse-snatching attempt he elected trial by magistrate and pleaded guilty. Before sentence was passed, Dr. Robert Gregory of Saint John General Hospital testified that the youth was a “moron” and “could have been suffering a delusion as a result of insanity” at the time of the offence. Dr. Gregory added:
“This fellow has been of no trouble previously.”
Solely on Dr. Gregory’s expert testimony the magistrate ruled that Bonnar was unfit to stand trial because of insanity and ordered him held “at the pleasure of the lieutenant-governor,” which means for as long as the provincial government wants to hold him— or forgets about him. The hearing took 20 minutes. Bonnar had no lawyer. He didn’t even get the chance to say a word. Had he been considered sane, he would have received, at worst, a few months in jail. Because he was labelled unfit to stand trial he was locked away for the next 15 years. He is still locked up.
The piece of paper that keeps Bonnar locked up is called a lieutenant-governor’s warrant. It means that a person considered unfit to stand trial, or not guilty because of insanity, is put away in a mental institution “at the pleasure of the lieutenant-governor.” As Professor Hans Mohr, formerly with the Law Reform Commission of Canada, says: “The lieutenant-governor is never pleased.” Several hundred Canadians are being held under lieutenant-governor’s warrants across the country. Because no term is set, a person doesn’t know if he’ll ever get out. What’s certain is he’s far worse off than if he had been found guilty and received the harshest sentence the court could impose. The only way out is to get a review board of governmentappointed doctors and lawyers to state that the individual has recovered and recommend release. Even then the government can reject the recommendation and refuse to rescind the warrant.
Ironically, locking up a person under such a warrant is not intended to be punishment. Supposedly it is for the good of the person and the good of society. Orville Endicott, co-ordinator of legal services with the Canadian Asso-
ciation for the Mentally Retarded, disagrees: “Locking up a person in an institution offends fundamental human rights to have, as far as possible, freedom to come and go and to have control over one’s own life. It depersonalizes them and puts them at the mercy of institution employees who come to regard them as cattle.”
Rights the rest of us take for granted, even the right to have a say over the kind of medical treatment we will be given, do not exist for such people. Neither Bonnar nor his mother, Bessie Bonnar, is consulted or even told what drugs he is given, why he must take them, and what effects they might have.
Human beings, like Bonnar, are held under lieutenantgovernor’s warrants until they are relabelled “recovered,” all the while locked up in abnormal, dehumanizing circumstances. As Bessie Bonnar says, “It’s a bad place to be. I couldn’t survive there one day. Nobody’s ever cheerful as far as I can see.” To keep Bonnar there has cost at least $500,000 in tax money. Imagine the good that much money could do to provide community support services to help people with mental problems stay with their families and live and work in their communities.
Lieutenant-governor’s warrants strip mentally ill and mentally retarded persons of their legal and medical rights, their dignity and their privacy, turning them into “nonpersons.” Four years ago the Law Reform Commission recommended that the federal government abolish this barbaric system. Nothing has been done. The commission recommended that mentally ill persons be returned to the regular legal system, standing trial with lawyers and advocates to protect their interests. If found not guilty, the individual would be set free. If guilty, then individual mental health would be considered in determining the appropriate penalty. But at no time would the penalty be more than that usually levied for the crime. Bessie Bonnar has used her great energy and meagre financial resources for 15 years to fight for her son’s release—to no avail.
Such fights should not be left to individuals. Groups such as the Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded and the Canadian Mental Health Association must take the advocate role for people such as Emerson Bonnar rather than continue scooping coins out of the fountain for their charitable projects. The CAMR is currently moving toward such advocacy and is trying to help Bonnar while also gathering information on like cases in other provinces. Maybe it could go further and make Bonnar’s case a test in the courts to win restitution for 15 lost years from a man’s life.
The question Bonnar asks will be heard elsewhere. “When will I be let out?” How will we answer?
Former director of the British Columbia Human Rights Commission, Kathleen Ruff is the host of CBC TV’s Ombudsman.
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