An Activist and an Academic Exhibit

An Activist and an Academic Exhibit

By Tracey Mitchell, Change Agent and Community Facilitator

On Thursday October 3, 2013, I woke up in a Montreal hotel room, caught between Saskatchewan and Quebec time zones after a late night arrival the previous day. As I was eating breakfast, Eugène Leblanc boarded a plane in Moncton, and a few hours later, Nérée St-Amand took his seat on a train in Ottawa. We would all meet in Montreal later that day, our busy schedules allowing us just twenty-four hours to lay the groundwork for a public record of Eugène and Nérée’s unique and successful activist work, a partnership that would not have been possible in the asylum era.

Over the next day, I learned about the important contributions that Eugène and Nérée have made on their own and together over a period of over twenty-five years, including creating a book, an activity centre, and much more. This is a collaboration that allows the two men to overcome barriers that would stop them if they worked alone. We recorded seven hours of interviews in French and English, and scanned documents and letters which the men had brought.

Had the research been conducted over the phone, then the stories, images and pieces of paper would have been gathered, but I would not have understood so well how these two men challenge each other and grow as people because of their work together. Immersed in their collective history, twenty-four hours with Nérée and Eugène made me think differently about mental health. Hearing their stories changed me. It is no surprise that twenty-five years of working together has impacted them greatly.

Tracey Mitchell, Saskatoon

Eugène Leblanc is director of Moncton’s Groupe de Support Emotionnel Inc (GSEI) and editor/publisher of Our Voice/Notre Voix  (OV/NV), a bilingual magazine by and for psychiatric survivors. Nérée St-Amand is professor of social work at the University of Ottawa. Since 1987, when Nérée first hired Eugène to work in the fledgling GSEI, the two men have researched, written and published together, crafting a mode of political engagement that is both deeply critical of the current mental health system and carefully strategic in offering alternatives.

Nérée and Eugène’s relationship has evolved into a mutually accommodating connection. They are equal allies. Eugène says Nérée is the only academic that he has worked with who has proven to be sympathetic to the cause of psychiatric survivors, and who has been critical of psychiatry and the mental health system, not only in words but in deeds. He adds that Nérée was an emotional support, acting as a “second psychiatrist” in the early years that they worked together. Nérée describes Eugène as a “key that unlocks doors,” noting that Eugène keeps him organized when they work together.

Their important collaborations include the formative stages of GSEI; satisfaction surveys about the New Brunswick mental health system filled out by psychiatric survivors in 1993 and 2003; co-writing articles for Our Voice/Notre Voix and other publications; and co-authoring Dare to Imagine: From Lunatics to Citizens in 2008, a book about the history of mental health in New Brunswick. As radicals Eugène and Nérée have at times felt isolated, but their partnership fosters strength and confidence.  Eugène says, “That’s how the marriage of academic expertise with street-level experience works: getting together and creating ideas, attempting to transform people’s convictions on mental health.”