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Ontario to give free counselling to families of first responders killed on duty

Ontario will provide free bereavement counselling for two years to families of first responders who have died in the line of duty and those who died by suicide. Ambulances are parked outside the Emergency Department at the Ottawa Hospital Civic Campus in Ottawa on Monday, May 16, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Ontario will provide two years of free bereavement counselling to families of first responders who have died in the line of duty and those who died by suicide.

Family members can access mental health services such as crisis support, counselling and therapy by phone or online, Solicitor General Michael Kerzner said Friday in Aurora, Ont.

He said the Ontario Immediate Family Wellness Program will provide help to families of police officers, firefighters, paramedics, dispatchers and provincial correctional services workers.

"The challenges our public safety personnel and their families face can be overwhelming and I've seen this for myself," Kerzner said. 

"The trauma, the grief and the constant worry take a toll. So we aim to offer a safety net to the immediate family members who have sacrificed so much for Ontario."

The province is investing $3 million for the program and eligible family members include partners, parents, siblings and children.

Mental health professionals who provide crisis and care support will be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Kerzner said.

The program will be retroactive and available to families of those first responders who died in the line of duty on Jan. 1, 2020, or after and for families of first responders who died by suicide on Jan. 1, 2023, or after.

Such a program was recommended in a 2019 report by the province's Office of the Chief Coroner, which examined the suicides of nine police officers in 2018.

"Those that live the ultimate sacrifice by losing a loved one in the course of duty or because of duty, will know today that they are cared for, that they are respected and the province is taking responsibility for their well-being," said Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Thomas Carrique. 

There have been 113 OPP officers who've died in the line of duty since the force's founding in 1909 and 49 officers who've died by suicide since the union began keeping track in 1989, said John Cerasuolo, president of the Ontario Provincial Police Association.

In 2020, the OPP union launched the Encompas Mental Health Wellness Program with funding from the province for current and retired officers.

"In the four years of this program, we've been able to assist over 2,800 members and dependants," Cerasuolo said. "In fact, we've also looked after 1,065 family members."

The program mirrors what the new provincial program does, he said, which should mean positive results for family members across Ontario.

Paramedics also applauded the new initiative.

"When a paramedic, or when any first responder, loses their life in the line of duty or they've died by suicide, it is the least that we can do as a community who depend on them to service us in their worst time of need, that we support their families," said Hamilton Paramedic Chief Michael Sanderson, who is also president of the Ontario Association of Paramedic Chiefs.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 5, 2024.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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