New MHCC board chair, “Big shoes to fill”

Chuck Bruce first dipped his toe into the mental health field when he was CEO of the Nova Scotia Public Service Long Term Disability Plan Trust Fund.

“A light bulb went off,” said Bruce, who was in Ottawa at the end of March for his first meeting as the newly minted board chair at the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). “I wanted to get involved, so I joined the MHCC’s Workforce Advisory Committee. From there, my passion grew.”

Louise Bradley, president and CEO of the MHCC, acknowleged that their long-term working relationship and Bruce’s deep history with the MHCC will make this transition a smooth one. “Chuck knows this organization very well. And his contribution as an Advisory Council member has informed the depth of his understanding. It’s not every day you get a board chair who has done the kind of hands-on work Chuck has.”

Bruce characterizes mental health problems and illnesses as pressing social policy concerns that affect the entire population, across the span of our lives. “I prefer that we talk about people rather than statistics,” he said, referring to the fact that one in five people is diagnosed with a mental health problem or illness each year. “When we talk about numbers, it’s easier to lose sight of the urgency, the immediacy, the fact that this is your mom, your sister, your friend, your colleague — or me or you. It’s universal, it’s pervasive, and we’ve got to do more.”

His acceptance of a role on the MHCC’s board shows just how strongly Bruce feels about mental health. His original plan, after several volunteer roles, including board chair at the Nova Scotia division of the Canadian Mental Health Association, had been to scale back.

“I’d gotten a new job as CEO of Provident10,” he explains, “an organization that delivers plan administration services and oversees a $7 billion investment portfolio for Newfoundland and Labrador’s largest pension fund. I felt I needed to really zero in and focus my energies on building an organization from the ground up . . . but then an MHCC board opening presented itself. It turns out I couldn’t say no.”

The decision to say “yes” to that position led to a personal invitation from the late MHCC board chair, the Hon. Michael Wilson, to tackle the role of vice-chair. “It was such an honour to be hand-picked by someone I held in such high esteem. My wife said I was walking on air for weeks.” But Bruce couldn’t have predicted just how quickly his commitment would be tested. “As Michael became ill, I tried to shoulder some of the weight he was carrying and realized what a tremendous responsibility that was.”

Since the health minister officially announced that Bruce had been named MHCC board chair, he has spent many hours considering what contributions he’d like to make and where he sees the greatest need for the investment of time and resources.

“Children,” he said, “are obviously the best place to start, although, as someone who works in the realm of pension administration, I also know we can start with youth but need to make sure we address mental health right through to retirement and beyond.”

Bruce and his wife, Liz, who is a teacher, have a 15-year-old daughter. He says he feels connected to the challenges of today’s young people through the experiences of both his daughter and his wife. “Mental health is a pretty regular dinner table topic at our house,” said Bruce, who stays connected with his daughter by acting as chauffeur-in-chief. “I drive the girls around, and I listen to their concerns and hear about matters big and small. It’s being there, just being present, that gives you that keen understanding.”

In this time of transition, Bruce has been able to balance his professional responsibilities at Provident10 with his presence and availability to the MHCC. “He’s down to earth, he’s a good listener, and he’s a consensus builder. He’s got that rare ability to separate personal agendas from what’s best for the organization,” said Bradley.

“Look, there’s no doubt I’ve got big shoes to fill,” said Bruce, referring to his great respect for Wilson. “So, the best thing to do is put one foot ahead of the other and have the confidence to forge your own path.”