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Priscilla Ferrazzi, LLB, LLM

Ph.D candidate in Rehabilitation Science

Exploring Mental Health & Criminal Justice in the Canadian Arctic


PHoto of Priscilla. Ferrazzi

Priscilla Ferrazzi up in the Arctic North

by Sharday Mosurinjohn

March 2013

Priscilla Ferrazzi is passionate about improving how criminal courts respond to people with mental illnesses, especially in the Canadian Arctic. In between research trips to Nunavut, the Health Sciences PhD candidate and lawyer took time to explain what’s behind her keen interest and to reflect on the path that led her to this timely research.

Throughout Canada and in many other places around the world, people with mental illnesses become caught up in the criminal justice system sometimes for behavior linked to their illness. In many southern Canadian cities, special court programs ensure many of these people get the help they need rather than face prosecution or jail. These so-called “mental health courts” belong to a family of courts known as problem-solving courts that look at the underlying causes of crime instead of only adjudicating questions of guilt. The problem is, these courts require a lot of specialized people, such as onsite psychiatrists, social workers, and other professionals, as well as intensive resources that are often rare or missing from Canadian Arctic communities.

Ferrazzi believes that taking inspiration from the principles that guide problem-solving courts—rather than insisting on costly operational requirements—may offer a way to provide therapeutic outcomes suited to the circumstances of Northern communities. “It’s a matter of borrowing but not imposing,” explains Ferrazzi, “The community must help define its own needs.”

To that end, Ferrazzi has begun conducting her interviews, of which there will be two to three rounds in the three Nunavut communities of Iqaluit, Arviat and Qikiqtarjuaq.  One of those trips will involve reporting back results to communities, in keeping with the process recommended by the Nunavut Research Institute, which provides best practices for working in Arctic communities that are predominantly Inuit. Having put Ferrazzi’s research proposal through a community review, the Institute licensed her study. Ferrazzi also received letters of support from Nunavut’s Deputy Minister for the Department of Justice Norman Tarnow and Deputy Minister of Health and Social Services Peter Ma. “All of these cooperative processes equipped my study with access in ways that I wouldn’t have had before,” says an appreciative Ferrazzi. “And it signals a growing readiness in the justice system for this kind of inter-sectoral research.”

Having worked in Ontario as an Assistant Crown Attorney for over a decade, Ferrazzi already had the legal education (including an LLM from Queen’s) and experience to carry out the study she had begun to envision after prosecuting her first case in a fly-in court in the summer of 2009. For Northern communities with little of the legal infrastructure common to urban areas of the South, fly-in courts provide local access to the justice system on an intermittent basis largely by bringing in personnel from Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, with occasional assistance from other territories and the provinces.

Under the supervision of Dr. Terry Krupa, an expert in community mental health, Ferrazzi has acquired a complementary skill set derived from work in disability and rehabilitation studies. “Studying with Dr. Krupa has given me that piece I needed to develop an interdisciplinary theoretical model,” Ferrazzi explains, adding that “I could have done this work from a policy perspective, but academic work provides more space to grapple with complex issues like language, culture, and geographic isolation.”

The considerable community interest and high turnout for Ferrazzi’s interviews is significant to the researcher; her study respondents are really collaborators in identifying alternatives to incarceration or ways to augment periods of incarceration with treatment.  Whereas the dominant model for dealing with mental illness is individual-focused and geared toward goals defined in terms of recovery and rehabilitation, Ferrazzi’s investigation is attuned to exploring the breadth of what might fall within therapeutic intervention for community-focused Northern contexts. “Reaching therapeutic goals may involve more than medical intervention and may include traditional practices and ideas including group-focused activities like hunting on the land and sewing.”

Generous support from Queen’s, the Nunavut Law Foundation, The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Canadian Federation of University Women, has helped Ferrazzi defray some of the costs of hiring local translation services, research coordinators, research assistants, and interpreters affording her “the privilege of having greater access to stakeholders.” These colleagues have provided Ferrazzi with names of possible participants, helped her translate her letter of information and consent into Inuktitut, and contributed their sensitivity to the nuances of interpretation. “At first, I used the term ‘mental illness’ in my interviews,” Ferrazzi recalls, “and it seemed that participants were thinking of mental illness as something anomalous and rare. So I talked to my interpreter, who noticed that some respondents understood this term as meaning ‘sickness of the mind.’ When we started instead to speak of ‘mental health and mental wellness’ it evoked much more of a response.” This back and forth process of developing mutual understanding and establishing trust also changed the shape of Ferrazzi’s interview structure, cuing her to take a more narrative approach, making questions shorter and opening up space for anecdotes.

At the conclusion of Ferrazzi’s study she plans to report back to territorial and federal governments, offering benchmark indicators that can be used by future problem-solving mental health court initiatives to measure their therapeutic success in Northern communities, especially in those served by fly-in courts. In the future that lies beyond her doctoral work, Ferrazzi hopes her project will role model the kind of collaboration needed to make therapeutic jurisprudence viable in Northern communities. By “trying to span boundaries and cultivate a sense of co-ownership” Ferrazzi’s work opens “a new window into a culture in transition,” one continuing to build local capacity for a uniquely Northern modernity.

To learn more about this research, go to: www.NunavutMentalHealthCourts.wordpress.com

Priscilla_up_north.Priscilla, keeping somewhat warm up in Nunavut

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