My sister Marion was murdered one night when she was 10 years old. We lived in a log cabin in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick. It took many years before I learned the full story.
My father Frank built that cabin with his own hands. We had no running water. I still remember my first pair of new gum boots, and attending a one-room schoolhouse. We never felt poor because everybody was poor in that town.
My mother Gladys was ill for years. She had been hospitalized and often acted strangely – staying in bed with the covers up, or running down the railway tracks near our place. I remember fearing a pair of hands. She was later diagnosed as schizophrenic.
One night in Plaster Rock my sister Marion was strangled while she slept. My father told me the details afterward – of the police calling, and finding Marion’s body, and the coroner saying it was murder at the hands of “person or persons unknown.”
There was no trial. My mother was taken to the asylum in Lancaster and kept there on a lieutenant-governor’s warrant for years. She never came home again. I have no memory of Marion.
Afterwards, I remembered an incident: it was my 12th summer and I was playing baseball when a black 1949 Dodge backed up to the ball yard, and I saw a woman’s face watching me through the rear window. Years later I realized it was my mother. She did not get out of the car.
My mother and father were the most tragic figures I ever knew.
Gladys was medicated the rest of her life. In 1991 we started a bit of a relationship. Visiting her for the first time in the nursing home, I said: “We’re not going to talk about Marion. Whatever happened doesn’t matter now.” There was no reason to add to her burdens. Gladys passed away in 1998.
My father died an alcoholic. Frank worked as a railway section man and drank himself to death at 51. He drank constantly, to ease his pain and conscience, though he could not taste a glass of beer without grimacing as if it was cough syrup. Many nights as a small boy I had to bring him home.
There is even today a terrible stigma about mental illness. How often are these diseases threaded through poverty and addiction and imprisonment? How many of these sufferers wind up in prison instead of treatment, where the correctional system chews them up?
I was thirty years old before I had any self-esteem at all. In joining the army, then the union, in working with United Way and my community, I made a discovery that changed my life: I have an understanding of poverty and illness. I learned you either become a victim, or become resourceful.
We bring to bring Parliament who we are and what we know. I was in Parliament because I am an ordinary person with a perspective born from Plaster Rock, and an obligation to speak out on the suffering I’ve seen in the lives of others.
(Editor’s note: the author is former three-term New Democrat MP for Hamilton East-Stoney Creek, Ont.)