By Jennifer Hoegg
At the same moment Nichele Benn was scheduled to appear at the RCMP detachment in Lower Sackville, a small and peaceful demonstration took place in New Minas to support her.
Ten members of Kings County People First gathered at 9:30 a.m. at the community centre and made their way to the RCMP detachment on Jones Road with red ribbons streaming behind their cars.
Tammy Hiltz, president of the chapter of People First, an advocacy group for people with intellectual disabilities, spoke briefly about why the members came out on a snowy morning.
“There’s a girl named Nichele Benn who lives in a rehab (and) she has mental disabilities,” Hiltz said. “She didn’t want to do what the staff wanted her to do and acted out and now she’s being charged for it.”
Benn, who has epilepsy, cerebral palsy and cognitive delays, has been arrested and charged on several occasions following violent outbursts and has served time in custody.
Bearing signs comparing Benn’s plight to that of Ashley Smith, a young New Brunswick woman who died in federal custody, the group chanted, “help people first.”
Volunteer advisor Kim Smith said the Truro chapter of People First contacted the group and asked members to participate in the morning of solidarity.
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The day before the protest, Smith told kingscountynews.ca he thinks it’s fair to connect Benn’s story with that of Ashley Smith.
“Do we want to take people who are suffering and just dump them in prison?” Kim Smith said. “This could easily become the case.”
He likened the Benn case to “a canary in a coal mine” and said the protest is for “anyone who wants to stand up for the idea of helping each other.”
“Any of us could become disabled,” Smith said Sunday morning. “I could be in a car accident tomorrow.”
“We need to advocate for all people, not just the disabled,” People First member Heather Tracey added.
Courts not the solution
Benn’s mother Brenda Hardiman has been a vocal advocate for her daughter.
Last year, Hardiman told the Truro Daily News the 25-year-old woman and others like her would be better served by being dealt with through the medical system instead of the judicial system.
Hardiman has been critical of the provincial government’s approach to dealing with special needs adults.
According to Elizabeth MacDonald, spokeswoman for the Department of Community Services, department policy is not at fault in this case.
“Individual care-giving facilities, as independent employers, develop their own Occupational Health and Safety policies which meet their needs and help ensure the safety and security of the individual exhibiting aggressive behavior, other residents and staff,” MacDonald wrote in an email Jan. 2. “No policies exist at Community Services which guide or regulate who can call police or in which situations police can or cannot be called.”