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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

Fredericton MP reflects on a first term like no other

It’s not easy keeping up with Jenica Atwin, a first-term Green Party of Canada member of Parliament from the riding of Fredericton. Her topics of interest are wide ranging, the examples she draws on are rich, and she talks quickly — as though trying to make sure nothing important gets overlooked.

“I’m part of a seniors action group,” she explained, during a phone interview from her home in late May. “I hear about elderly people calling the Canada Revenue Agency or Service Canada, just to make a connection with a human voice. It’s heartbreaking.”

Atwin’s empathy is palpable. Herself a young mom of two who found her earliest days of postpartum isolating, she is keenly aware that COVID-19 is highlighting disparities the Green party has long been “shouting from the rooftops.”

“Right now, people may be in a very dark place,” she said. “With racial inequities coming to the fore, the virus hitting the socially and economically disadvantaged harder, and a lack of available mental health care, it’s easy to understand how people could become despondent and depressed.”

But Atwin believes salvation can emerge from the strength of community. “Resiliency isn’t so much about ‘How can I dig deep and find the strength?’” she explained. “It’s more about ‘Where can I turn to get supports, how can I draw on my networks, and what can I do to help others?’”

She comes by this sense of community honestly, having grown up in a home where her stepfather’s First Nations culture held up these values. “I live near Oromocto First Nation, where my husband is on the band council, and if I’ve drawn hope or inspiration during this time, it’s been from their response.”

Atwin describes the sewing circles turning their talents to mask making, the hampers being filled with daily necessities for delivery to the vulnerable or elderly, and, reverently, Oromocto’s female Chief Shelley Sabattis, who has led the community’s effective and compassionate response.

“Female leadership is where it’s at these days,” said Atwin. “Look at Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand and Angela Merkel in Germany. We’re seeing how women lead a little bit differently, how their sensibility allows them to rise during these really challenging times.”

There are plenty of examples of female leadership here at home, including some of the most senior provincial public health officials and Canada’s top doctor, Theresa Tam.

Atwin is equally pleased with Canada’s response. “Look, I think we’ve done a great job. We’ve pulled together. Across political stripes we’re seeing the commonalities we share, more so than the ideologies we differ on. That doesn’t mean we’re perfect. And my job, as part of the opposition voice, is to make sure we point out where the gaps are. But overall, I think we should be really proud as Canadians of the leadership we’re seeing from all corners.” 

Atwin adds that the mental and physical health of family, friends, colleagues, and community members is top of mind these days. “I’d love to see a ministerial position focused on our collective well-being,” she said. “Momentum is growing around the idea that if people are doing well, emotionally, spiritually, physically, mentally, they will be best able to fulfill all their roles from family responsibilities to work deliverables.”

When asked how she keeps so calm and collected in the face of a relentless schedule, she laughed. “It’s not easy. But it’s the really simple things. It’s having a quiet cup of tea for five minutes in the morning, and it’s lighting sage and taking a few deep, cleansing breaths to start the day. There’s no magic bullet. I just find a moment to centre myself, and then I try to get on with the work.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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