More than 150 survivors and friends came together in Toronto today for the fifth annual Psychiatric Survivor Pride Day. The event, which was originally inspired by the annual lesbian/gay pride celebrations which take place in many large cities, first took place in Toronto in 1993 when some 200 People Who and their family and friends gathered for a day of music, workshops, a shared meal and a march to the nearby Queen Street Mental Health Center (the largest psychiatric institution in Ontario) for a memorial for those who have died while incarcerated there - often as a result of the very 'treatments' which were supposed to be 'helping' them. Subsequent gatherings have been much smaller but with this year's event it is clear that the time is ripe for a rebirth.
Events got underway at eleven with the powerful blues/rock sound of the Full Circle Band, followed by the Friendly Spike Theatre who previewed some material from their forthcoming production entitled I Will Not Fall. (I reviewed this play for Madness last year when it was being workshopped -- it is an overwhelmingly powerful true story of a woman who survives a near-fatal shooting by her abusive husband to become a champion advocate for battered women.) Following a presentation by a women's theatre group calling themselves the Glitter Sisters, it was time for a hot vegetariam meal provided by the Toronto chapter of Food Not Bombs.
The first of that afternoon's workshops focused on the legal rights of tenants in the Province of Ontario and was presented by a lawyer from Parkdale Community Legal Services. The next was focused on dealing with the police and courts and featured presentations by lawyer/activist Avvy Go, who discussed the several recent shootings by Toronto police of persons who have been diagnosed, and the overwhelming fear this has instilled within the local survivor community. She was followed by mental health worker Anita Barnes who talked about the court diversion program she administers which is designed to steer people charged with relatively minor offenses away from the criminal justice system. What I respect about Anita is she appears to honor her client's choices when determining how to proceed and is willing to consider approaches to developing supports for people other than what psychiatry has to offer. She spoke about how persons with a psych. diagnosis have on occasion spent an extended period in pre-trial custody for even minor offenses.
The next presentation by drop-in worker/ Ontario Coalition Against Poverty member Gaetan Heroux focused on the vicious attacks by local resident's associations on drop-ins and other services for homeless people in Toronto's east end. The drop-in where Gaetan works has recently been driven from the neighborhood by the actions of these groups; other facilities have seen their funding slashed. Another local center called Council Fire - run by Native people - will be unable to offer their emergency overnight shelter as they have in previous winters owing to the activities of these ratepayer's groups. The Coalition Against Poverty has been organizing to challenge these groups, who have created a situation which is rapidly becoming life-threatening for many street people.
By far the largest attendence was for the workshop focusing on upcoming changes to Family Benefits (disability) as nearly everyone in attendance was affected at a personal level. Legislation is in the works which will make it virtually impossible for new applicants to qualify - and those with substance abuse issues will be disqualified outright - gut the right to appeal decisions, and criminalize recipients by introducing mandatory fingerprinting, forced labor or 'community participation' schemes, and a setup where recipients might actually be required to reimburse the government for benefits received should their financial circumstances improve. (Meaning people will incur a debt rather than receiving assistance which is simply terminated when it is no longer needed.) Those who are currently qualifed are supposed to be transferred to the new system without being cut off, but this government isn't known for truthfulness and this is an uncertain, scary time for all of us. Attendees at the workshop were instructed to inform themselves of the issues and apply pressure to the politicians in whatever manner they could.
Personally I would have preferred to see more presentations actually coming from survivors at this event -- most were made by professional advocates or service providers -- but it was nonetheless a highly informative session all around. There were information tables set up by local survivor-run businesses, advocacy and support groups, and ongoing showings of videos, including a documentary about Edmond Yu, who was shot by the cops in February this year and which previously aired on a local public TV station. A clothing swap was set up so people could bring in clothing they no longer were using and take items brought by others.