On July 25th, 2018, Riley Fairholm, 17, who had a history of depression, told his loved ones he didn’t want to live anymore. He then went outside in the middle of the night, waving an air gun, waving it around, shouting and screaming along a road in the town of Lac Brome, in the Eastern Townships.
By Colin McGregor
The SQ showed up, not knowing what type of gun Fairholm was brandishing. Using a loudspeaker, they asked him to drop his gun. When he didn’t, a single shot to the head killed Riley Fairholm. And this vibrant, lively, kind teenager was gone.
Fairholm’s parents argue that the police didn’t do enough to de-escalate the situation. Moreover, they said they had taken action to get their son the help he needed. Quebec’s police watchdog, the Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes (BEI), investigated the shooting, and the officers involved were not charged. A coroner’s inquest will be held to look into the circumstances of the shooting.
The incident can be linked to a deeper fact: in the idyllic Eastern Townships of Québec, Anglophones are said to suffer more mental illnesses and other health problems than do Francophones.
“There’s no doubt: Anglophones suffer more mental health problems than Francophones in part because they wait longer to ask for help,” says Timothy Wisdom, Director General of the Association d’entraide en santé mentale L’Éveil Brome-Missisquoi, a psychological counselling service based in Cowansville.
“They wait twice as long. By the time they reach out, their symptoms have just gotten worse… It’s easy to blame police,” he says, referring to the Riley Fairholm incident, “but when someone’s waving a gun in the dark and yelling at an SQ officer, that’s not the time to ask for mental health services, so we don’t get a ‘suicide by cop.’”
Problems Begin Young
“Our students are just behind the Gaspé as the least prepared students when they get to kindergarten,” says Rachel Hunting, Executive Director of the Townshippers Association, which represents the 40,000 English speakers across the Eastern Townships.
In a 2016 report by the public health director for L’Estrie entitled Responding Better to the Needs of the Linguistic and Cultural Communities in Estrie, statistics show that 6.1% of English-speaking mothers were aged 19 years or less when they gave birth (compared to 2.9% for French speakers); 11.5% of English-speaking mothers had completed less than eleven years of education (no high school diploma) when they gave birth (compared to 8.8% for French speakers).
Children in Estrie who have English (but not French) as a mother tongue are proportionately more likely to have a vulnerability (46.1%) than children who have at least French as a mother tongue (24.7%) in at least one domain of development. These include the areas of social skills, communication, emotional maturity, and cognitive and language development. Anglo kids are more likely to have cavities and drink soft drinks and eat junk food: 62.5% of Anglo kids have at least one cavity by the time they hit grade two. As high schoolers, they are less likely to have eaten a full breakfast before going to school.
This is equally true for Anglophone children in other regions of Québec, according to the Estrie public health study, which looked at the eastern two-thirds of the traditional Eastern Townships.
The traditional Townships also includes the eastern portion of the Montérégie region, and a bit of Centre-du-Québec.
For example, among Anglophone children in Estrie, 23.6% are likely to suffer a health problem, compared to 8.9% of French-speaking children.
Asking for Help
It can be intimidating for everyone to get on waiting lists for help once they do reach out, Wisdom reflects. “You can’t neglect your mental health, even if a case worker might be Francophone and have an accent,” Wisdom says.
“Sometimes it takes a full day to convince someone that they need help, then they’re put on a waiting list for one year… Some go to a psychologist and ask for help, but if you’re put on a waiting list for a year, you may go home that night and kill yourself. This big machine needs work. It’s not all on the backs of the Anglophone people.”
The wait lists are long for Francophones and Anglophones, Wisdom observes
Moreover, “this pandemic has had a huge impact on introverts and social anxiety people who are working on their problem,” says Wisdom. “In confinement they aren’t working on themselves anymore. We lost people to suicide over the winter. It was very hard on the team. You always wonder what you could have said or done…”
Mental health has taken a hit during the Covid crisis. “It’s worse for Anglophones,” Hunting says, “but it’s bad for everyone.”
She cites a study underway by the University of Sherbrooke that says that “young Anglophones are having worse mental health reactions due to the Covid crisis.” She says the study indicates that young Anglos are more susceptible to conspiracy theories and other cognitive distortions than their French-speaking counterparts.
Higher Distress Levels
Anne Jutras, Executive Director of the local suicide prevention service, the Centre de prevention du suicide de la Haute-Yamaska, says that based on their day-to-day observations suicide rates haven’t jumped during the pandemic. Nor has there been an increase in the number of calls to their suicide prevention hotline. However, “the calls we do get show increased distress levels,” she observes. “That means more intervention time with the family, the individual, the partners and the environment.”
L’Éveil has no waiting list, Wisdom says. And they work bilingually. “It’s not a broken knee. If you have a history of abuse, it’s easier to work in the mother tongue.”
The Anglophone population of the Eastern Townships consists mainly of older seniors and young people, with very few middle agers and middle class people. “Services are skewed towards the seniors,” says Hunting. But there is hope on the horizon.
“A lot of investments are being made at the Federal and Provincial levels. In terms of preparedness of students, health and well-being, just getting them at that even playing field… You can see a shift at all levels. We’re not abandoning seniors, just developing the younger demographic…our kids are catching up at the elementary level.”
Still, there are Anglophone communities that aren’t doing so well. “Access to services depends on where you’re located in the Townships,” says Hunting. “Once you’re outside centres like Sherbrooke and Magog, if you don’t have access to a vehicle it brings isolation into the picture. Then you need to rely on your social network”
Still, there are reasons for optimism. Wisdom says: “We did see strengths over the course of the last 16 months. We’re all adapting to Zoom therapy. You’re doing it in your own living room, and that way, the therapy can stay longer sometimes.
“But it’s hard not to take your work back home with you when you’re working from home. We’re all very happy to get back to the office.”
L’Éveil undertakes home visits, “mostly for people who have suffered a psychosis, persistent mental illness. Traveling all of those little farm roads that are far away from hospitals and services.” And some of the Covid money is coming through for psychologists and other health care and social work professionals in the regions, Wisdom is happy to report.
Hunting suggests solutions lie in talking about things. And that includes Anglophone-Francophone relations. “If you get to know the people you fear, it goes a long way to breaking down barriers,” she says.
If you are in the Townships and you need a helping hand, contact L’Éveil Brome-Missisquoi, at (450)-263-6240, or look them up on the web.
Le Centre de prévention du suicide de la Haute-Yamaska is at (450) 375-4245 or at