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Rallies throughout Nova Scotia call for end to criminalization

by Robert Devet

Protesters call on the province to change course and stop throwing people with intellectual disabilities in jail. Photo Robert Devet
Rallies demanding an end to criminalization of persons labelled with intellectual disabilities occurred in Halifax (photo), Sydney, Truro, New Minas, Yarmouth, and Amherst.  Photo Simon de Vet
Ashley Smith, the teenager who died by self-strangulation in an Ontario jail, was much on people's minds. Ashley too had developmental disabilities yet was sent to prison.  Photo Simon de Vet
Wendy Lill, of Community Homes Action Group, and Jean Coleman, director of the Nova Scotia Association for Community Living, far right, joined the protest in Halifax.  Photo Simon de Vet.
Rallies in support of Nichele Benn and Amanda Murphy have been a frequent occurrence over the last couple of months. Protesters in Halifax today are not planning to give up until the provincial government puts an end to police interventions and the laying of criminal charges. Photo Simon de Vet

K'JIPUKTUK (Halifax) -  About 50 people labelled with intellectual disabilities, their family members and allies marched to the Provincial Supreme Court on Spring Garden Road today to protest the potential incarceration of Amanda Murphy later this week.

Amanda Murphy is a 34 year-old woman who will be sentenced in Antigonish this Thursday February 6th for pushing and striking an employee of the institution where she lives. Amanda's father believes that his daughter has the mental capabilities of a five to eight year old child.

Marchers also wanted to show their support for Nichele Benn and Richard Rector, two other Nova Scotians with intellectual disabilities who are alleged to have assaulted staff in the institutions where they reside.

Protesters believe that calling the police, laying charges and incarceration are not the way to deal with these aggressive episodes.

Similar rallies, organized by People First Nova Scotia, and Advocating Parents of Nova Scotia, occurred today in Sydney, Truro, New Minas, Yarmouth, and Amherst.

"We are talking about individuals that have a developmental age often of 12 years or under," Yvette Cherry, mother of a son with an intellectual disability told the crowd gathered on the steps of the Court House. "We are not talking about criminal behaviour here."

Cherry believes that staff at the institutions where persons with intellectual disabilities frequently are housed should look at better methods to defuse the tense situations that develop.

"Our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, section 12, states everyone has the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment and punishment, Cherry said.

"Shall we then allow our Community Services employees and law enforcement personnel to subject vulnerable persons to arrest and incarceraton, knowing that they cannot be rehabilitated and that, by nature of their disability, their level of frustration and confusion, they will explode?"

Cherry called for more and better support for overworked caregivers, and disputed the contention by the provincial Department of Community Services that cases where police are called to deal with clashes between staff and residents are rare.

"This is happening all across Canada, this criminalization of people who in most cases are acting out of fear, confusion and even self defense," Cherry said.

Among the protesters in Halifax was Wendy Lill, playwright and co-chair of the Community Homes Action Group (CHAG). CHAG wants to draw attention to the harm that large institutions often cause to persons with developmental disabilities who reside there.

Lill believes that there is a causal link between the larger institutions where Amanda, Nichele and others reside and the behaviour that is getting them in trouble with the law.

"If we can start tackling that problem, making sure that people are living in a more quiet, humane and peaceful environment, much of this behaviour disappears," Lill told the Halifax Media Co-op.

The current provincial government has stated that it is committed to a plan introduced by its predecessor to phase out large institutions and move to smaller, more personal and community-based alternatives.

" We have to move away from institutionalization," said Lill. This province has a much higher level of institutionalization than any other province in Canada."


Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert



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