Supreme Court Justice Clément Gascon, in his first public comments on his disappearance last week, says he suffered a panic attack owing to his “heart-rending” decision last month to retire this summer and after a change in medication for depression and anxiety.
Ottawa police had issued a bulletin over his disappearance last Wednesday. He turned up a few hours later.
His 245-word statement on Tuesday struck some observers as a watershed moment for the Supreme Court. Twice, once in the early 1990s, and once in the late 1980s, the court evinced little sympathy for judges suffering from mental illness – William Stevenson of Alberta and Gerald Le Dain of Quebec. Both judges resigned.
Chief Justice Richard Wagner had praise for Justice Gascon and his comments: “The statement made by Justice Gascon earlier today takes courage. My colleagues and I are very proud of Justice Gascon, and he has my full support and confidence. I look forward to seeing him back on the bench this week.”
Justice Gascon, 59, a father of three who has served just five years on the court, said he accepts that as a Supreme Court judge, he owes the public an explanation, as he continues hearing cases and participating in decisions.
“For over twenty years, I have been dealing with a sometimes insidious illness: depression and anxiety disorders. This is an illness that can be treated and controlled, some days better than others. On the afternoon of Wednesday, May 8, affected both by the recent announcement of a difficult and heart-rending career decision and by a change in medication, I conducted myself in an unprecedented and unaccustomed manner by going out without warning and remaining out of touch for several hours. I can neither explain nor justify what I understand to have been a panic attack, and I wish to apologize most profusely to all those who suffered as a result.”
He said he is fully capable of performing his duties as a judge. He also said that he wishes to thank his colleagues, family, friends and others who have supported him through a difficult time.
“Although I know that I cannot erase what happened, I wish to put it behind me and look ahead. I have learned important lessons from it and will continue to do so over time, and with the necessary patience and assistance on which I know I can count.”
David Butt, who was a law clerk for the late Mr. Le Dain, said the judge was hospitalized, and “forced to resign [by chief justice Brian Dickson] with a perfectly treatable mental illness, anxiety and depression. It was appallingly discriminatory. He never really recovered from that mistreatment, kicking someone when they’re down.”
Mr. Butt said it is “dramatic, especially having lived through the hell of Justice Le Dain’s departure from the court, to see this kind of support for someone who has been ill.” He added that Justice Gascon’s rise through the courts shows that people with mental illness can succeed and excel in the most difficult of professions.
Peter Russell, a professor emeritus in political science at the University of Toronto, said “there was a lack of maturity about mental illness” in the past. “I hope the country is mature enough to understand that a judge can be ill and then take proper treatment and recover, whether it’s a mental illness or other kind of illness,” he said in an interview.
Pierre Bienvenu, a Montreal lawyer, applauded Justice Gascon. “I have as much faith in Justice Gascon’s abilities as a judge as I had a week ago, and only more respect and admiration for him as a person in light of the candid and courageous statement he issued this afternoon. In speaking openly about last week’s incident, he is setting an example not only for the legal profession but for Canadian society as a whole.”
Simon Potter, a Montreal lawyer and former president of the Canadian Bar Association, said judges face huge pressures.
“We ask a great deal of the people we appoint as judges, and of their families. We should be very thankful that Judge Gascon is well and we wish him all the best.”
He added that he accepts Justice Gascon’s statement that he is capable of continuing on the court. “If he says he can, that’s enough for me.” He called him a “devoted man of duty and of reflection.”
Justice Gascon was appointed by Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper after the Supreme Court rejected his previous nominee, Justice Marc Nadon of the Federal Court of Appeal, as legally unqualified. The court had been without a ninth judge for 10 months until his appointment.
He has fit solidly in the court’s broad centre. In one case, he dissented in a 5-2 ruling in which the majority upheld a 6½-year sentence for a youthful drunk driver who killed his two passengers in an accident, calling the sentence too severe. In another case, he wrote for a unanimous court that a municipal council could not hold a public Christian prayer session before its meetings.