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Veteran aimed not to ‘fall through the cracks’ but still killed partner, himself

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  • Jennifer Lynne Semenec died far from her home in North Bay, Ont., at the hands of a veteran with PTSD who had said he wouldn’t be “another soldier who falls through the cracks” of treatment.

    As Semenec’s children and sister prepare for her April 22 funeral, they are recalling her life — and wondering if former master corporal Marc J. Poulin’s descent into tragedy might have been avoided.

    Word of the couple’s deaths came with a phone call from an RCMP detective who’d been at the scene in Springhill, N.S., when the bodies were found on March 20.

    The officer told Jessica Ridley that her 45-year-old sister was the victim of “blunt force trauma to the head” and that Poulin, 42, had taken his own life after a fire was set in the small white house they were renovating.

    The couple, who had been together for about 15 months, had moved east to renovate a home and begin a new life together. Amidst her grief, Ridley finds herself wondering what happened in the small Nova Scotia town three weeks ago, and concludes no definitive answer is possible.

    “He might have been having flashbacks. … The only two people who know what happened are not here,” Ridley said in an interview from her home in Sudbury, Ont. “I’m just trying to keep an open mind.”  

    Semenec’s daughter, 18-year-old Alia Woodward, lived with the couple for almost a year after Poulin started dating her mother in December 2016 and then moved into their North Bay home in early spring.

    She describes Semenec as a personal care worker for seniors who was also “a neighbourhood mom,” eager to be involved with both her friends and those of her 24-year-old brother, Zachary Semenec, who also lived at home.

    Her shock at Semenec’s death stems in part from having witnessed what appeared to be a strong bond between her mother and her new partner.

    “In my mind, maybe he had issues, but the thing she liked about him was how much of a gentleman he was. He opened the door for her all the time and shut it as she got into the truck. He was kind to her,” she said in a telephone interview.

    When her mother had a hysterectomy in February of last year, she said the heavyset veteran had flopped down on the floor each night next to a couch where she was recovering, ready to offer help.

    Still, both Woodward and Zachary Semenec also has strong recollections of Poulin on the telephone — sometimes multiple times a week — expressing frustrations as he attempted to get help from Veterans Affairs for his illnesses.

    Both of Semenec’s children recall he attended therapy sessions with their mother. At times he became withdrawn, and “put up walls,” said Woodward.

    In August, the veteran tried to take his own life, overdosing on his PTSD medications and spending several days in hospital.

    A note Poulin wrote afterwards describes his desire to turn around his life and to care for his family members. It is critical of the Veterans Affairs programs, with Poulin saying he’d recover despite alleged shortcomings in PTSD care.

    “(I) am just happy that I am not just going to be another soldier that falls through the cracks of the (expletive) support system they have for vets,” says the excerpt.

    Shelley Foster, Poulin’s wife, said in a telephone interview that she is still seeking the details of Poulin’s care from Veterans Affairs, and she couldn’t confirm details on whether he was on waiting lists.

    “I’m waiting for information before I speak,” she said.

    Poulin — whose funeral was on April 8 — had three children with Foster, aged 20, 19 and 18. 

    Poulin’s PTSD diagnosis extended back to his three tours of duty in Afghanistan, in particular a devastating roadside explosion that killed a close friend and left him with a brain trauma.

    “Marc did get depressed around certain dates: Remembrance Day and the date his friend died in Afghanistan,” wrote Shane MacDonald, who is Poulin’s cousin and who sent an email on behalf of his wife’s family.

    MacDonald wrote that Poulin was medically released from duty in 2013 and was placed in a four-week military course for soldiers with PTSD leaving the military.

    He said Poulin joined a support group and “had brief interactions with a social worker” after he became a veteran.

    Woodward said after his suicide attempt, Poulin was prescribed medical marijuana, seemed to not take his medication with the same regularity, and she observed the visits to the couple’s therapy sessions decreased.

    Dr. Alexandra Heber, the chief psychiatrist at Veterans Affairs, said the Springhill murder-suicide is a “terrible, terrible tragedy,” and said there will be an internal review.

    “We need to keep in mind how rare an event this is,” she said of the murder-suicide. “Second, we can’t pretend to know all the factors that are going on in that situation.”

    Although she wouldn’t comment on specifics of the case, Heber said a case manager can assign a local therapist to a veteran in a small city like North Bay, and provide oversight of their case. If the veteran moves, a fresh case manager is assigned, she said.

    However, Trev Bungay, the co-founder of Trauma Healing Centers, a series of clinics that sets up recovery plans, said in a telephone interview stories like the deaths of Semenec and Poulin suggest there are still holes in the Veterans Affairs care system, particularly in smaller centres.

    “He (Poulin) should’ve been seeing someone every week minimum,” said Bungay.

    There are about 5,200 Afghan veterans receiving disability benefits due to PTSD.

    In the past year-and-a-half, there have been four murders of family members and intimate partners by veterans in Nova Scotia — about one sixth of the total in the province.

    Last January, Lionel Desmond, a veteran who also had PTSD, killed his wife, 10-year-old daughter and his mother in northeastern Nova Scotia, with the deaths resulting in the ordering of a rare public inquiry.

    Woodward and Ridley both say they’d consider speaking at the inquiry if requested and if it would help families like their own.

    “This is what Jennifer would want. She was all about positivity and … good things and healing coming out of bad things,” said her daughter.

    Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press



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    Health

    ‘When everybody leaves: Counselling key to help Humboldt move on after bus crash

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  • HUMBOLDT, Sask. — Mary-Jane Wilkinson is worried about what will happen to families and a community grieving the dead and the injured in a tragic hockey bus crash earlier this month in Saskatchewan.

    Funerals have been held and residents of Humboldt where the junior league Broncos are based face the return to their daily routines.

    Wilkinson, the manager of the Canalta Hotel, experienced grief herself when she lost her husband at a young age. She was left to raise her son Richard by herself.

    Dealing with life after a tragedy can be the worst part following a loss, she said.

    “When everybody leaves, which eventually everybody does, then you’re starting your new normal and it’s very tough. The community is going to really have to keep working to make sure the people heal … with the support from the community,” said Wilkinson.

    “Once everybody goes away, they’re actually dealing with it for the first time alone, and I know what that feels like.”

    The Broncos were on their way to a playoff game in Nipawin, Sask., on April 6 when their bus and a semi-trailer collided at a rural intersection. Sixteen people, including 10 players, died and 13 were injured. The driver of the truck wasn’t hurt.

    The deputy reeve of the Rural Municipality of Connaught where the crash occurred said the immediate aftermath has been hard for many people.

    “One of our councillors that sits at this table with us was one of the first on scene. He’s struggling,” said Ian Boxall. “The biggest thing right now (is) making sure that these people have what they need to get through this.”

    Former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy was part of the 1986 Swift Current Broncos crash in which four of his Western Hockey League teammates died.

    “There’s the shock, and then there’s the grief, and then … part of healing with anything is acceptance,” said Kennedy.

    “We’ve got to find ways to manage those negative thoughts, or those images … or the guilt. We know a lot of guilt comes with people who have come through these types of tragedies.”

    The Psychology Association of Saskatchewan is urging people to reach out for help. Dr. Regan Hart, with the association, said the first thought is with the friends and family of the victims. But she said a tragedy like this is far-reaching. 

    “It could be quite wide-ranging in that sense because a lot of these kids were quite active members of their school groups and their communities,” she said.

    “When it’s someone you know in such a tragic kind of accident, I think it kind of hits close to home for a lot of people especially in a small province and smaller communities that we have here in Saskatchewan.”

    The association compiled a list of mental-health resources for the general public: http://bit.ly/2HjoZIX

    — By Bill Graveland in Calgary. Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter

    The Canadian Press


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    Health

    Parliament Hill plays host to last annual marijuana rally before legalization

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  • OTTAWA — A haze of marijuana smoke blanketed crowds on Parliament Hill on Friday as pot enthusiasts of all ages gathered below the Peace Tower for the annual cannabis celebration known as 4-20.

    The event marks the last time pot users will flock to the Hill to celebrate cannabis culture in late April before the federal government legalizes recreational marijuana later this summer.

    “What happened here today on Parliament Hill was a gathering of like-minded individuals seeking sensible cannabis legislation,” said Kevin Shae, a 32-year-old recreational marijuana user.

    For Shae, that means ensuring the government does not create a “monopoly of the industry” and making sure those with health issues have the access they need to medical marijuana. 

    Young people and older medicinal users alike were well represented among the expanse of people who stood shoulder-to-shoulder across the west lawn in the heart of the parliamentary precinct. RCMP estimated the turnout numbered in the thousands.

    Tyler Graydon, a first-time 4-20 attendee, said he and his friends are “excited” to see pot becoming legal. Graydon, 17, is closing in on the minimum age for legal consumption — it will vary from province to province, but 18 or 19 seems to be the ballpark, likely following on existing alcohol restrictions.

    Graydon, however, doesn’t think it will make much difference.

    “As soon as it’s legalized, it’ll be in too many hands to really stop it,” he said. “They’ll get their hands on it somehow. They’ll get it from their parents or from the jar in the cupboard. It won’t be hard.”

    By mid-afternoon, police were reporting a mellow vibe with no incidents.

    For Alex Burridge, 20, this year’s celebration is a particularly meaningful one — he just picked up his first prescription for medical marijuana, which he’ll use to alleviate back pain from a sports injury. Legalization, he says, has been a long time coming.

    “It’s something that people have been looking forward to for generations and we’re finally on the brink of it. I feel like it’s something that puts our country ahead of a lot of others.”

    Fourteen-year-old Emma Boniface, whose mother also uses marijuana for medical purposes, earned cheers from the audience for her keynote speech, part of an effort by organizers to emphasize the importance of including young people in the national conversation about legalization.

    “I have to trust that our current government and medical system will know what’s best for me because I’m a minor and I don’t have the right to decide for myself,” she said.

    “My mother is all the proof I need to know that cannabis works.”

    Ottawa paramedics responded to three medical incidents, two of which involved people exhibiting the effects of marijuana use. They were treated and released at the scene.

    Ottawa was far from the only locale in Canada where 4-20 was being celebrated. Gatherings took place across the country, from Vancouver to St. John’s, N.L., where the newly opened Puffin Hut was hosting an inaugural “Weed Olympics.”

    Scheduled events included a biggest bong hit competition, a dab-off and a prize for the most creative joint art.

    “The perfect way to describe it would be to say it’s like being in a martini bar at 12 o’clock on a Friday night, only much more chill,” manager Brian Walsh said of the festivities.

    In Vancouver, venders hawking marijuana edibles, T-shirts and pot paraphernalia set up tents at Vancouver’s Sunset Beach.

    Cannabis activist Jodie Emery said while there is a festival-like celebration of marijuana culture on the beach, it’s also a protest — the sort of event that ultimately made legalization possible.

    “This is an enormous act of peaceful civil disobedience where people are openly breaking the law and demonstrating that (this) should not be illegal, Emery said — a reference to the merchants selling all manner of pot products, the sale of which won’t be any more legal after the Cannabis Act is passed.

    “The upcoming legislation actually makes all of this still illegal — you’re not allowed to brand or market. All of these entrepreneurs, hundreds of small business owners, will still be criminals under the Liberal legislation.”

    Raisa Patel, The Canadian Press





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