1.  Thoughts on Tynes

Stephen Tynes. Photo: Truro Daily News
Stephen Tynes. Photo: Truro Daily News

Last week I wrote about what I felt were double-standards in the treatment of Stephen Tynes by Dalhousie. On Tuesday, Tim emailed me with the article about Tynes plotting a shooting at Dalhousie and asked me if I wanted space to comment. Unfortunately, I’m in Iowa and without much time, so this is later than ideal, and I apologize for that, because I should have addressed this earlier in the week.

But with more days to reflect, I admit I still have questions. When I read the first article, my thoughts were mostly along the lines of “Holy shit.” I had questioned the necessity of a 25km restraining order and why Tynes uttering threats was treated so severely when other incidents by other students — including the Dentistry men — were given opportunities to finish their degrees, but obviously, planning a shooting is serious, and seriously frightening. With that information, it’s hard to question the wisdom of keeping Tynes off campus, so I was wrong in criticizing that decision without knowing all the facts. Knowing what Tynes was allegedly planning, what seemed like an unfair difference in disciplining students makes sense, and Tynes does in fact seem to be dangerous. So I can say that I wrote without knowing all the information, and made assumptions that turned out to be wrong.

But the more I read, the more some things disturb me. I originally asked the question, “what about his mental health?” and as this story emerges, that question troubles me still. It bothers me that this evidence apparently comes from one psychiatrist reporting what Tynes said to her. I understand that a psychiatrist has a responsibility to act once they have knowledge of a public danger, but all the same, I wonder how people experiencing violent thoughts are able to get help and speak about these feelings if it results in being arrested and charged. This is particularly acute for Black people who have less access to therapy, who often struggle to recognize and name mental illness, who are more likely to be addressed through the courts and have behaviour labeled criminal rather than being given help, and who experience stigma against accessing mental health treatment.

In my experience with prisoners, so often there are untreated and unrecognized mental health problems that manifested in school and at home before they were convicted, and so often with Black men these problems have been criminalized through their lives, treated as acting out and misbehaviour and violence and not as signs of needing help. It’s still true that because Black men are seen as inherently violent and threatening, mental problems are read as just incipient criminality and not symptoms. I don’t know if under the circumstances Terry Chisholm, the psychiatrist, could have done anything different by law, and what the level of risk she clearly felt Tynes represented, but I also think about how difficult it is already to get help, and to believe those spaces are safe for us.

If we want to prevent violence, can we allow people to share those thoughts without immediately being charged? Surely we want people to be able to talk about it and be put in a safe place where they can get help rather than keeping it to themselves until they actually take action? It’s also troubling that thinking or speaking about committing a crime is apparently now comparable to actually committing the crime. People were alarmed by this when the Patriot Act and similar laws were passed after 9/11, but it seems to have become steadily more accepted. This has worrying implications for all of us, I should think, if what we say we might or want or feel like or imagine doing is treated as though we actually did it. And if a psychiatrists office isn’t a safe space to talk about our disturbing thoughts then what help can anyone ever get? And if he was encouraged to speak about what he was thinking and feeling (the first question asked when you come in agitated and distressed is “are you thinking of harming yourself or others?”) and responded honestly, and as a result ended up charged and blasted in media all over the country, then why tell the truth or seek help?

Isn’t the lesson here that if you’re thinking about doing something violent, just do it and definitely don’t tell a therapist, because otherwise you’ll get charged and be treated in the media like a monster anyway, so you should never let anyone know? That doesn’t seem to be the best message in intervening in possible violent acts. I also note the use of language in these headlines — “plotting” a massacre sounds much more dangerous and culpable than “spoke about it with his psychiatrist” or “thought about it.”

I also know first hand how damaging university environments can be to Black people, and how painful and and traumatic the experience of racism within them is. If you haven’t experienced this, there are really no words that can explain what it does to you. That is no excuse to plan a shooting, but it should give some urgency to taking seriously and intervening and supporting people when they are first struggling with mental health issues.

In an environment where there are so few of us as colleagues or mentors, and where as in the rest of society Black mental health issues are often seen simply as violence/attitude/behaviour problems/pathology, you can be completely alone. Those around you can’t offer advice for how to cope because they don’t share your experience, and people in your community understand racism but don’t necessarily understand exactly what you are going through either.

Someone once said to me, “we rely on the advice of our Grandmothers to cope, but our Grandmothers never imagined situations like being in grad/professional school so how can they help us?” When you suffer racism in a university, you are almost completely alone. Beyond that is the pressure to represent your community, the pressure to not fail because you are the dreams of your community and represent what it means to be successful, the pressure to represent your entire race, the pressure to “be twice as good to be considered half as good,” the pressure to be a role model, and so when you get removed from school, or are struggling, or are “failing,” it’s like everything you are and are supposed to be is completely worthless.

Another Black professional once told me that losing their job “felt like I died” because everything in their identity was tied into being a success story in the community. Like I said, I speak first hand about this. I don’t say this lightly when I say that I experienced suicidal thoughts because of my experiences in academia. I was lucky that I was able to see a Black therapist and was able to feel safe to speak about my feelings with someone who could understand what I was going through, someone who understood too how helpless and angry you feel and who didn’t make me feel “crazy” or wrong for feeling that and who could give me actual helpful tools to cope. I didn’t have one at first though, and the first counselor I went to, though very kind, was at a bit of a loss as I sat there and sobbed hysterically and kept saying things like, “but at least I’m not in a shelter. At least I’m not in jail” as I simultaneously told horror stories about all the times I was marginalized, dehumanized, hurt, bullied, etc., stories I couldn’t even recognize as legitimately painful because “at least I’ve been able to get an education.”

I’m not saying that planning to shoot people is an appropriate response to being suspended from medical school — I’m saying that I understand exactly how that experience felt (and being continued to be suspended even once the charges against him were dropped), because when I had to fight to get back into my program I really thought my only option if I couldn’t finish school would be to die. I get how that feels. I couldn’t see a way through it at all. It felt like everything was over. And I’ve talked to many, many Black students and faculty who have experienced the same thing.

So I am saying that, perhaps in this case there was no chance for intervention, but when I see articles saying “he had a long history of mental problems,” I don’t think “oh well, that makes him a dangerous criminal for sure then.” I think, “why can’t we get help?” Why can’t we get intervention and support before we’re in a psychiatrist’s office talking about killing people or ourselves? And yes, when the Dentistry men were facing suspension from clinic, the institution worried about their mental health and self-harm, but I wonder if Tynes was offered the same supports the first time he was removed from school.

It also bothers me that, even though the National Firearms Association said there is “nothing illegal or alarming” about the guns Tynes owned (one of the guns was modified,) this is being represented as an arsenal that is clear evidence that he was planning a mass shooting. So we have the word of one psychiatrist about what Tynes said in a meeting with her, and the evidence of what seems to be perfectly usual gun ownership by someone with a rural background. And from this, there’s a consensus that it’s an open and shut case and he was obviously planning a massacre.

Remember Christopher Phillips?

I remember when Drew Butler, who I know, was pulled in for questioning when he was suspected of planning a mall shooting off what turned out to be a bogus crime stoppers tip. In his case, within four hours the police realized he was innocent and released him, but what if they hadn’t? The first question they asked him was about his time in solitary confinement and how he said that experience made him angry and violent. “Do you want to kill people?” they asked him. If he had been charged, how many people would have questioned the narrative, “violent felon with a history of mental health problems who expressed a desire to hurt people charged with planning mall shooting?”

Without hearing the court case we don’t know what happened with Tynes, but he got bail which suggests he isn’t an imminent threat. Shootings are terrifying, so it’s not surprising everyone reacts, but it seems Tynes’ guilt has been decided already. We all supposedly oppose Bill C-51 and the Patriot Act and the loss of privacy and the intrusion of the state and the overblown fears of terrorism, etc. in theory, but then once someone is charged, we assume they must be guilty and all the evidence is good.

I wrote last week without all the information about the case, and that is my fault. But now it seems like everyone is accepting Tynes’ guilt without a hearing of the evidence, and there’s story after story “confirming” his guilt, and that should be troubling too. I’m troubled by what the reaction in the media means for people who want to get help, and what it means if people who confess their violent thoughts to psychiatrists end up charged and blasted in media across the country. I’m troubled by the way mental health issues continue to be represented as proof of criminality. I’m troubled by the idea that this is seen as a person who was violent and “crazy” all along, and there’s no discussion about things like how the pressure to succeed, being removed from school even after the first charges were dropped, the alienation of Black people in professional and academic spaces, etc. may have heightened the issues he was experiencing.

If we want to have conversations about mental health as a society, there can’t just be one image of an “acceptable” mentally ill person, but we don’t want to recognize and intervene for people experiencing violent thoughts, or people in prison, or Black people. At the same time as there’s more and more mental health awareness, there’s almost no discussion of how these issues affect Black people or how our justice system fails sufferers, or really any intersectional discussion at all.

As a Black person, I know there are conversations we have in our communities that we don’t share outside because those thoughts are silenced or shut down or treated as crazy, conversations about things like how when a white person owns guns it’s his right as a hunter, but a Black person owns guns and it’s proof he’s a criminal, or how white people are mentally ill and Black people are criminals, or how white people are innocent until proven guilty, and we are guilty even when proven innocent.

When I write the Examiner, I often write these thoughts and criticisms even though I know it’s read by a general audience and I often fear the reaction, because I think we need to have these conversations with each other if we are going to change as a society, because we shouldn’t be afraid of discussing or thinking about how race impacts us, because talking about how things impact the Black community shouldn’t be taboo, and because sharing these points of view is important in allowing us to think through issues.

That doesn’t mean I’m always right, or that I believe I have the answers, or that I can’t miss with my analysis, or that I speak for all Black people, but I keep trying anyway even when I get things wrong, because I believe, as Chimamanda Adichie phrased it, that there is a Danger of a Single Story — and that without other points of view, criticisms, analyses, or questions, we only ever have a public discourse based on the assumptions and ideas of the majority, and when we have that, we don’t have any hope of changing or shifting or transforming how we think and act as a society.

2. Lyle Howe’s Conviction Overturned

Lyle Howe. Photo:
Lyle Howe. Photo:

Relevant to those final thoughts on navigating controversial conversations, Lyle Howe’s conviction for sexual assault was overturned.

“The failure to instruct the jury with respect to honest but mistaken belief was an error,’ Justice David Farrar wrote on behalf of the three judge panel.”

The article acknowledges that the possibility of a new trial hinges largely on “whether the woman is prepared to subject herself to another stint on the stand.”

One thing this appeal seems to raise is how we have conversations about consent, and how and whether the law is the most effective instrument of changing or enforcing changing ideas of consent.  We talk about enthusiastic consent as the standard — not the absence of a no, but the presence of a yes — and this appeal seems to center around how we think about consent, whether our ideas of consent are adequate, how the legal system can effectively prosecute rape, whether we should rely on the legal system or whether education and increased awareness of consent is more effective, etc. Does the law reflect our current understanding of consent, and are there avenues other than the courts to get justice or accountability?

Conversations about Howe’s case have always been difficult. It is absolutely necessary to believe women when they speak about rape and sexual assault. At the same time, many Black people felt that the way the case was reported, and Howe’s relationship to the legal establishment, was also racialized. Particularly difficult as a Black woman was the reaction to the Facebook group supporting Lyle Howe where the comments were overwhelmingly by Black women. People read the group as straightforward cyberbullying of the victim, but it was more complex than that — in many of the comments, for example, Black women recounted episodes of sexual assault that had not been acknowledged as assault, and therefore they normalized these experiences and saw them as expected and acceptable.

There was no discussion in the conversation around this group of why and how historically sexual assault and rape of Black women has been acceptable — Black women are seen as masculine, as unable to feel pain (a stereotype from enslavement), as sexually aggressive, etc. — and how women who have experienced sexual exploitation against them being ignored and made routine learn to minimize and accept assault as normal. There was no discussion of how the high rates of assault against Black women, and the fact that since Black women are not “ideal” victims, assault against us is rarely prosecuted or convicted, Black women may learn to cope by accepting assault as normal, as caused by the actions of victims, and as something therefore that women have to suck up and deal with.

By both silencing and demonizing these voices of Black women in the conversation and refusing to think about why these Black women were speaking about assault in this way, Black women became excluded from the discussion about sexual assault. Without the voices of Black women, the image of Black man as perpetrator and white woman as victim helped to contribute to the racialized dialogue around Howe’s case, which then created a binary with race on one side, and assault on the other.

Black women who experience both sexual assault and racial discrimination were ignored and belittled, and the idea that one can both address sexual assault and take it seriously — and also recognize and address how race and racism affect the justice system, prosecution, criminalization and sentencing — was not considered. There was a sense that people had to “choose,” as though either you thought about how race might affect reporting and thinking about the case, or you supported survivors. This erases the experiences of Black women with both sexual assault and racism, and shuts down conversations about issues that also affect Black women such as incarceration or racism in the media and justice system.

The article notes that the disciplinary hearing with the Barristers Society will still go ahead on November 2nd. Allegedly, the hearing is completely unrelated to the sexual assault charges and deals with “eight counts of professional misconduct, including that he failed to act with honour and integrity in dealing with clients, the courts and other lawyers.”

Apparently the make-up of the hearing board is contentious, as no Black lawyers were initially appointed to the hearing. The Barristers Society has sent Howe a letter telling him that his request that a black lawyer be on the panel has been denied. If the hearing is about “professional conduct” then it is reasonable to think about how perceptions of Howe by other lawyers and by the legal establishment may have influenced these complaints, and how race may impact those perceptions and potential hostility towards Howe by his colleagues and others. When Black men are most often present in the court as defendants, it’s hard to see how it’s not possible that the negative stereotypes about Black men might not unconsciously or consciously affect the way others interacted with Howe and interpreted his actions or behaviour.

It seems like it would be hard to justify continuing to suspend Howe’s licence to practice without a conviction for sexual assault, and it’s also hard to believe that those charges didn’t have something to do with the hearing. I suppose it will be interesting to see how this develops in light of the appeal.

3. And he would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for that meddling grain elevator

Screen captures via CBC
Screen captures via CBC

Harper got caught pretending the Ogdensburg-Prescott Bridge in Johnstown, Ontario was Halifax.

That’s okay, Harper has been pretending to be a democratic Prime Minister for years now. Mike Duffy thought Ottawa was PEI. Hell, Harper thinks Canada should be the United States. I mean, do we really need have-not Halifax anyway?  Doesn’t this video show us that really, we don’t have anything that small town Southern Ontario can’t plausibly substitute, right? Then we could just replace Quebec with Alberta, and Canadian workers with low wage imported labourers, and replace Canadian passports and citizenship with deportation papers, and Harperland will finally be complete!

He should have photoshopped Peter MacKay waving in the background. Then we’d reall have thought it was Nova Scotia!

Best quote from the CBC article on the wrong bridge story:

“‘It was never said to be Halifax, it was never inferred to be Halifax and it was never meant to be assumed to be Halifax,’ Hann told CBC News in a statement. I mean, jeez, who doesn’t know the world-famous Ogdensburg-Prescott Bridge, duh.”

I don’t think he knows what inferred means, actually. 

From J∧mes S∧mpson on Twitter comes this super authentic totally believable H∧lif∧x background:


I personally believed that Harper was authentically and non-deceptively in Halifax because he’s not wearing a tie, and that makes him look down to earth and relatable.

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. Spokespeople for the National Firearms Association might not be alarmed to live next door to an apartment that contained that collection of weapons, but I sure as frig would.

  2. It’s great to keep the conversation going.
    Why is the law so much less effective in remedying sexualized or racialized bullying in comparison with specific and credible threats against identifiable individuals? (Until those identifiable individuals are women seeking protection from violent partners.) That’s a great structural question, whatever we will ever know or not know about this specific case.
    I hear people say they didn’t know the student was black until El pointed it out, as though that proves that racism is not a factor. When society assumes someone belongs to a dominant group (whether or not they ask for that identity), that doesn’t mean that alienation is not a factor–it could be heightened.
    I felt my response change when the threat generalized beyond the two people initially targeted—it went from being a threat against colleagues to a threat that might have encompassed me. It’s all the more important to scrutinize our own reactions and the stories we find plausible when fear is invoked.

  3. El I don’t always agree with what you write, especially last week, but I’m glad you do write these columns. I agree these conversations are difficult, but they need to happen.

    I’m not sure how I feel about last weeks column, I think you gave Tynes a pass because he is black pure and simple, I don’t think you even thought through what uttering threats might even mean. Now it is important to look at the broader context of how black men are viewed by the judicial system and in general, but I think last weeks column made people discount the important issues you were addressing.

  4. Access to mental health services is lacking for all people and if I needed to seek help I wouldn’t be looking for a white male from England but I would be hoping to find a competent person similar to the competent surgeon from India who operated on my knee 50 years and fixed a serious problem.

    1. I know exactly what you mean! How silly it is to believe that people of colour have their own experiences that other people might not have. We live in a post racial society nowadays, obviously.

  5. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

    You’ve gone from calling Dal racist for suspending a planned mass murderer, to blaming a racist environment for creating a mass murderer?

    And now the Lyle howe thing.. A new trial was ordered. If the evil racist boogeyman was out to get him, he’d be in jail.

    The Dal Dentistry people commented on photos of women and made jokes in poor taste. They did not rape anyone. They did not purchase rape machines. They did not tell their psychologist they were going to rape 20 people.

    They’re two entirely different things.