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Former finance minister Michael Wilson in 2006.


He is as unlikely a hero as one could ever imagine for the mental health movement: A button-down investment banker and no-nonsense Conservative politician known much more for a steely gaze on the bottom-line than a bleeding heart.

But Michael Wilson, the former finance minister, has left an indelible mark on mental health research and care in Canada, a contribution matched by few others.

His legacy was honoured at a jam-packed dinner held in Toronto on Wednesday evening. Officially, Mr. Wilson was there to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians.

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Sprinkled among the audience of current and former politicians and scions of Bay Street – a virtual Who's Who of the 1980s and 1990s power brokers in Canada – were physicians, basic researchers, community activists, and even mental health patients, all of them with a personal connection to Mr. Wilson.

While his time as a parliamentarian and diplomat was history-making – he gave Canada the Goods and Services Tax and the Free Trade Accord with the U.S. among other things – and book-ended by a stellar business career, the consensus in the glowing speeches was that his most impressive and under-appreciated work was done in the mental health field – quietly and behind the scenes as a volunteer, for the most part.

Mr. Wilson said that, before entering politics, his charity of choice was cancer – a cause that's popular in the business world because it's high-profile and safe.

But as a Member of Parliament – first elected in 1979 and serving until 1993 – he heard many eye-opening complaints from constituents and none more frequent or powerful than the woes related by those who had loved ones suffering from severe mental illness. They wait too long for care, the costs are burdensome, and, above all, they fear losing their jobs and much more if their illnesses were exposed because of the stigma.

Shortly after he retired from politics, that stark reality hit home in a way Mr. Wilson never could have imagined.

On a cold night in December 1994, the phone rang. It was his son Cameron, and all he said was: "You gotta come down, Dad. Now." A parent doesn't ask questions when their child begs for help, so Mr. Wilson dressed and drove quickly from his suburban home to downtown Toronto. He found his son – a successful businessman in his own right – wandering the streets, scantily dressed and hallucinating.

Cameron was admitted to the Clarke Institute for Psychiatry (part of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) with severe depression.

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He struggled with the illness – his behaviour became erratic, he was fired from his job and was institutionalized for psychiatric care – but begged his family to not tell anyone for fear it would destroy his career prospects and scare away his friends.

On April 24, 1995, Cameron Wilson died by suicide. He was 29.

At the funeral, Mr. Wilson made the fateful decision to speak openly of his son's depression and suicide. Friends and colleagues were floored, and moved.

A few months later, the very private businessman went public with the story, and took on the role of chairman of the $10-million fundraising campaign at CAMH.

"There are not many things in life as hard as coming to grips with the fact that your child is suffering from mental illness," Mr. Wilson said at the time. He needed psychological counselling himself to deal with Cameron's death.

After all, he grew up believing that depression and addiction were signs of moral weakness, not brain diseases, and in an era when you didn't talk of such unseemly things, especially in public.

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In the tributes at Wednesday's award ceremony, many lauded Mr. Wilson for his courage in talking openly about his son's illness. But when his turn came to speak, he scoffed at that characterization.

"I reject that," Mr. Wilson said. Speaking out, he said, was not courageous, but an obligation – to his son, his family and his community.

"How could I do otherwise?" Despite his money, power and connections, Mr. Wilson recognized that he was just another among the legion of Canadians whose lives were ripped apart by a loved one suffering from mental illness.

Other parents confided in him. There were many invitations to speak, everywhere from church basements to Chambers of Commerce.

Speaking was sometimes painful, but Mr. Wilson knew that his name recognition and his connections would make a difference.

In addition to leading the fundraising campaign at CAMH, he chaired the Mental Health Implementation Taskforce for Toronto and Peel (which pushed for a mental health strategy in Ontario). He became senior chairman of the Business and Economic Roundtable for Addiction and Mental Health. Mental illness is the leading cause of absenteeism and disability claims in Canada, and Mr. Wilson (among others) pushed his peers to talk about this more openly, and to invest in solutions, and research. This, in turn, led to companies like Bell Canada embracing mental health as a cause: Their foundation has, to date, invested a whopping $63-million in community groups, research and awareness campaigns like Clara's Big Ride (a stigma-busting cross-Canada bike tour by Olympian Clara Hughes.)

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Mr. Wilson also chaired the NeuroScience Canada Fondation (which is now Brain Canada) and was instrumental in getting Ottawa to award the group $100-million for neurological research.

He is also a generous donor to many mental health causes but doesn't speak publicly of his financial contributions, expect for one. The family endowed the Cameron Parker Holcombe Wilson Chair in Depression Studies at the University of Toronto, where he is now the Chancellor.

His son's depression and death are not a shameful secrets, but rather a reminder that we have so much more to do to help those in need of treatment and care.

As a business guy, Mr. Wilson knows as well as any the economic impact of mental illness – some $51-billion a year in direct costs and lost productivity.

But as a parent, as a mental health activist, he knows that there are things more important than economics.

His dedication can best be explained by a phrase he never tires of repeating:

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"Those living with mental illness are not a lost cause, they are a just cause. We should care for the mentally ill as a matter of good conscience and good public policy."

André Picard is The Globe's public health columnist.

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