Mental Health Commission of Canada mourns passing of board chair

On February 10, the Hon. Michael Wilson, Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) board chair, died following a lengthy battle with cancer.

“Michael Wilson was an indomitable mental health advocate. He was a leader in the field long before fundraising drives were commonplace — and well before there was such a thing as ‘texting,’” said Louise Bradley, MHCC president and CEO. As her voice filled with emotion, Bradley remarked that despite his illness Wilson’s herculean efforts to advocate for improved quality mental health services never wavered.

“I knew Michael was very ill, and I didn’t delude myself about the possible outcome,” she said. “But I confess, somewhere in my mind I believed his sheer will and incredible optimism would win the day.”

In fact, it was his ability to turn tragedy into advocacy that allowed him to redefine his purpose after his son Cameron died by suicide in 1995. Unafraid to share his lived experience, Wilson leveraged his credibility as a cabinet minister and ambassador to bring the same gravitas to the advancement of mental health.

“Twenty-five years ago, mental illness was something talked about in hushed tones, if at all,” said Bradley. “Michael refused to be silenced. He spoke often about how he’d hosted mental health events where nobody came.”

In a speech delivered at the RBC Mental Health Symposium at Seneca College in 2016, Wilson reflected on his early days as a mental health champion. “Prior to entering politics, I did volunteer work for a number of organizations. It struck me that — in Ontario alone — there were about 45,000 people volunteering their time for the Canadian Cancer Society. But at the time I didn’t know a single person who volunteered in the field of mental health.”

Determined to change that reality, Wilson became a self-described “voice in the wilderness,” calling for improved research, greater financial investment from governments, and more innovative approaches to treatment. Eventually, his persistence paid off as he led what became, according to Bradley, Canada’s “collective awakening around mental illness.”

But despite the country’s tremendous progress since that time, Wilson was never content with the status quo. In 2017, he penned an opinion editorial for the Globe and Mail under the headline, “Health Accord Must Address Growing Mental Health Crisis in Canada.” As always, his voice was pragmatic: “Throwing money at a problem rarely yields the desired results. So, part of the answer lies in making thoughtful, measurable investments centred on promoting innovation and sharing best practices.”

Wilson’s interest in mental health went beyond system transformation. As a business leader, he was deeply concerned about the economic burden of mental illness and finding ways for corporate Canada to do its share to create mentally healthier workplaces. As a champion of the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, in 2017 he spent two days in Toronto with organizations who volunteered to be part of a case study on the Standard’s implementation. At one point he said to the groups in attendance, “Every organization here today has helped to fulfil one of my greatest hopes. And that is putting mental health and wellness at the heart of our daily discourse.”

Wilson ended that day with a personal reflection on his own journey: “Many mental health advocates have been touched by tragedy. And I am no different. When you are motivated by something that runs deeper than the bottom line, you are willing to push harder and reach farther. I have held many positions in my career and have been fortunate to hold sway in everything from finance policy to international relations. But it’s my work to raise awareness for mental health that has been my greatest privilege and proudest legacy.”

The day after Wilson’s passing, Bradley wrote a glowing tribute to her friend and mentor in the Ottawa Citizen, concluding with these remarks: “A dear friend and mentor, Michael’s loss will reverberate, not only in the halls of the mental health commission’s office, but throughout the country’s mental health landscape. Michael’s compassion, sincerity, and resolve are irreplaceable. It is now up to us to redouble our efforts to finish the work he began so many years ago. We will follow in his footsteps, knowing that no one could possibly fill his shoes.”