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Crisis Call

Network, Winter 2005

Documentary filmmaker Laura Sky wants to work with police to change the way they respond to people in psychiatric crisis. First she made a film about it, and now she’s stepping out from behind the camera to engage first-hand in changing the system. Last September, Sky helped launch the Mental Health and Criminal Justice Project in Thunder Bay, which brings police together with psychiatric survivors and other members of the community to create new policies and practices for police and mental health services when they respond to people who are experiencing a crisis.

Sky Works Charitable Foundation, the organization through which the filmmaker delivers her own brand of community education and social advocacy, has undergone “a very significant change,” according to Sky. “We started out making documentary movies — we’ve always loved doing that, and we’ve always worked with community groups — but now we have an equal emphasis on actually using the films when they’re done. Not only using them for one-shot screenings, but working with communities to maximize the effectiveness of the film over the long run.”

That approach has been remarkably successful. In fact, Sky’s most recent documentary, Crisis Call (2003), inspired the Mental Health and Criminal Justice Project in Thunder Bay, where much of the research and filming took place.

Crisis Call begins with the death of Edmond Yu, a homeless man with schizophrenia who was shot and killed by Toronto police in 1997 during a confrontation on a downtown bus. Exploring the role of police in situations of crisis, the filmmaker asks whether people with guns should even be the ones who respond. “Have police become the new frontline mental health workers?” she wonders.

“My own feeling,” says Sky, “is that we should be talking about diverting people long before they encounter police or the courts. The real diversion has to include an alternative to either hospitals or jails. The medical model is often more restrictive to people than the jail system is. Sometimes it’s very helpful, and there are really good people in the health system, but it’s often not an option that survivors prefer.”

“If you speak with survivors, many say they would prefer to be in a safe place, with a group of peers who can just give them the space they need and work with them to resolve the issues that are leading them into crisis. Being relentlessly poor and homeless would bring any of us to crisis in six minutes.”

Sky has worked with the psychiatric survivor community before, notably on the film Working Like Crazy (1999), a profile of six people who overcome the challenges of poverty and unemployment by creating their own jobs and support systems. “One of the key people in that film,” recalls Sky, “went off to a groundbreaking conference in July 2000, a coming together of psychiatric survivors, cops, lawyers, judges, the whole gamut, in an effort to deal better with what happens to people when they get into crisis.” When she realized that the police had never sat in the same room with survivors in an official way, Sky immediately saw an opening.

“That said to me there was a possibility for some kind of work together around an issue that cops and survivors agree about. In fact, cops and survivors want to be seeing a whole lot less of each other when survivors get into crisis, and that agreement alone made me believe that some kind of systemic change was possible.”

Creating films as a catalyst for change is something Sky learned during her early years with the National Film Board. “It’s a model I learned in the 1970s when I worked in the NFB’s Challenge for Change program. The purpose of our work was to provide tools to communities that were involved in social change. That’s what we’re doing now. It’s a wonderful, hopeful process.”

Explaining how Crisis Call got started in Thunder Bay, Sky recalls the existence of three important conditions: “There was a police officer on the board of the local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, a community organizer who happened to be a cop. We also knew that the CMHA in Thunder Bay had particular credibility with the survivor community, as a good advocacy group. And we knew that survivors in Thunder Bay were organized. So I went up to do research on how those issues were living out in Thunder Bay, and I discovered really amazing people, who were very honest and direct about the problems.”

During the filming of Crisis Call, Sky interviewed police and psychiatric survivors in several communities, including Montreal and Toronto. One of the most engaging portraits in the film is that of Andria Cowan, a police officer who was involved in the shooting of Edmond Yu. Cowan speaks openly of her experience and how it changed her views about police interactions with people in crisis.

“I felt that society had let him down,” says Cowan, who feels “haunted” by the shooting. “[Police] have the authority under the Mental Health Act to make an assessment and take someone’s liberty away, but we don’t have the authority to make an assessment to get someone the help they need.”

Participating in the film “was a very courageous act on Andria’s part,” agrees Sky, “because she really reveals her own difficulties and her own vulnerabilities — and certainly her own strengths. I really value her courage.”

“As soon as I realized that a woman police officer had been involved in the shooting of Edmond Yu,” Sky continues, “I had a very intuitive feeling that one day we would have an important reason to tell the story of what happened. I waited to approach Andria, because I knew that she had been very traumatized by the experience, but from the minute we sat down, we knew we would be doing important work together. We just had this connection, and we continue to have it. We work together and we travel with the film on the road often.”

For the past two years, Crisis Call has been travelling throughout Ontario. Not only has it screened and been the subject of panel discussions in communities from Hamilton to Rainy River, but it has also been picked up by the police as a training film. “The reaction from police is everything we hoped for,” Sky declares. “It’s used in many centres across the country as a training film by cops, including in Toronto and in Aylmer, Ontario, where the police college is located. That makes us very happy.”

“Our hope is that this film will change behaviour,” says Sky. “One of my goals was to keep cops in the room when they were watching the film, to give them enough surface of identification, and give them the opportunity to think about these things in a different way than they were used to thinking about them. I wanted to say to them, ‘We think you’re capable of positive change,’ rather than just to scold them and give up.”

“Of course, it’s one thing to make a movie, but it’s another to say, ‘Okay, how are we going to work on concrete change — social change, institutional change?’ So we went back to Thunder Bay, where the space for that kind of exploration exists.”

The new project is a partnership between Sky Works and the Canadian Mental Health Association, Thunder Bay Branch, with funding provided by the National Crime Prevention Strategy, Community Mobilization Program. “We now have a group of 65 stakeholders involved in this process,” says Sky. “We’re just at the point of agreeing on priorities. To find a basis of unity for 65 stakeholders is a pretty tall order, aside from everybody acknowledging that there are inadequate resources.”

“What we really wanted to do with the film was create an opportunity for people to sit down at the same table together. We didn’t want to create a falsely rosy picture by saying, ‘Everything’s fine, and if you’ve had a bad experience it’s just your problem.’ We wanted to say, ‘If you can find your own hopefulness, then take a look at this and let’s figure out how we can build a coalition to make things happen — not only to make things better for people in crisis, but to prevent crisis.’ Because we all know that people who find themselves in a psychiatric crisis are often there because everything else has failed — because they haven’t gotten the services or support they needed, they’re poor, they’re isolated… So we wanted to work with people who wanted to address those systemic issues. We were hoping we would find survivors and police officers who would feel that that was possible.”

Both the Thunder Bay police and the Ontario Provincial Police are now sitting at the table with other community members. “That was a big goal for us,” says Sky. “And they’re sitting beside survivors, aboriginal survivors, people who never expected to be sitting together at the same table in the same room, trying to fix things. It’s pretty amazing!”

For more information about Sky Works Charitable Foundation,

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