Crafting a Partnership
Eugène grew up in the Acadian community of Memramcook, New Brunswick. A critical and inquisitive child, he was the youngest of six in a poor family. He was born with a cleft palate and lip. His mother was advised by nuns and others that he would grow up “mentally retarded,” would never speak and should be sent to a Boston institution for developmentally disabled children. Eugène endured five surgeries, eight years of orthodontic treatment and schoolyard bullying, all of which led to childhood depression. As a kid, he dreamed of travelling, creating a magazine, and helping people. But surely to do these things he would have to go to university, an impossibility for a young man struggling with serious depression? By 2003, however, Eugène had managed to realize all three dreams, and had also received the New Brunswick Human Rights Award from the Lieutenant Governor of the province.
Eugène on his childhood & cultural background:
Eugène’s life experience has led him to a critical perspective on mental health systems and policies. He says:
I’ve never been able to identify with illness-based mental health organizations, people who promote an illness, who want to educate you on the symptoms of an illness… I can’t wrap my head around caregivers – being the managers or entities that we need to account to on how we’ve incurred our expenses and activities. We go to caregivers when we are sick, but when we are not sick, I wish they would leave us alone. Those are structural flaws in the mental health system that should be remedied.
Eugène on “structural flaws in the mental health system that should be remedied”:
Nérée was raised in Madawaska County, New Brunswick, near the Quebec and United States borders. Mental health for him was first a family issue: in 1975 his aunt Emma was sent to a psychiatric institution.
Visiting her, Nérée could see that she wasn’t crazy. Like many of her fellow female patients Emma was simply stuck in a difficult marriage and overwhelmed by the burdens of mothering a large Catholic family. This was a significant insight for Nérée, and it informed his career path and opened the door to his subsequent collaboration with Eugène.
Nérée on how his aunt “opened the door to the hospital” for him:
Two years later, Nérée began his PhD dissertation, bringing the intellectual and personal halves of his life together in a study of 500 patient case files from New Brunswick mental health institutions. Negative personal experiences with the church, the education system, the health system, and the mental health system, made him increasingly critical and radical. Says Nérée:
All of these things put together gradually made me realize that there’s something wrong with practically all of these institutions. We have to change the ways we think and act, and redo society in ways that will be more humane, more egalitarian, more fair to deprived and disadvantaged people. That’s when I turned to alternatives, and that’s where I am now in terms of trying to find other ways of living and of creating a culture and a society that has learned from history, that may not repeat history.
Nérée becomes radicalized and increasingly critical of institutions:
In 1986, as a faculty member at the University of Moncton, Nérée assigned student Annette Despres to do a street-level study of psychiatric survivors, many of whom had been recently deinstitutionalized.experience emerged the Groupe de Support Émotionnel, with Eugène as a central figure of this newborn organization.
Nérée and Eugène met after Eugène came across the Groupe de Support Emotionel Inc. (GSEI) and was offered the job of Coordinator of Activities. Eugène recalls feeling important going to Nérée’s – fancy office in the late summer of 1987.
Now, Eugène sometimes hires Nérée to write articles for Our Voice/Notre Voix when an issue would be aided by an academic perspective. Eugène is a better promoter, is more practical, and keeps Nérée organized. Nérée is more capable of analyzing and interpreting texts and can make strategic use of the clout that his education and his academic position give him.
Both Nérée and Eugène have positive things to say about their work together:
That’s how the marriage of academic expertise with street-level experience works: getting together and creating ideas, attempting to change and transform people’s convictions on mental health. – Eugène
Because I have a PhD doesn’t make me any smarter than anyone because these people that we’re talking about, a lot of them, they have so much experience and so much suffering behind their voice, and behind their testimony or behind their poem. So that’s what’s been happening between Eugène and me is that it’s a cooperation, and it’s an education for me, and maybe to some extent I was able to tell him a bit about how the academic world works. – Nérée