EDITOR’S NOTE: This story contains disturbing content.
As a child, Cariboo-Prince George MP Todd Doherty had to stand and watch as his brother’s hand was pressed to the hot burner of a stove.
In a debate on mental health in the House of Commons on Oct. 20, Doherty spoke publicly for the first time about the abuse he and his brothers faced growing up.
“While I have never shared this publicly, I live every day with the emotional and physical scars of the abuse that my brothers and I dealt with back home. My hope is always that if a person finds themselves experiencing some or all of what my brothers have, that they will see that they can overcome. They are not broken, and they are not weak,” Doherty said. “I can still remember the smell of burning flesh and the sight of my brother's skin hanging off of his hand. We were lined up to watch. We did not know if we were all getting this, or if it was just my brother Kevin.”
Doherty did not identify the abuser, only referring to her as “she.”
The burner had been on for some time and was purple-hot.
“It was a bad day. Why? I do not know. Was the canned food stacked properly? Were the dishes done? Was the garbage out? It did not matter. Whatever played in her head, we were going to have to pay for it. We had been here before. We knew what was coming,” Doherty told his fellow MPs. “As we stood there, tears slowly ran down our cheeks. We were all terrified. She yanked his little arm. It was barely able to reach the top of the stove. I remember thinking that he even stood on his toes to help her deliver the punishment. She held his arm in place as she placed his tiny hand onto the burner. I could hear the sound of his flesh burning. Oddly, I do not remember him crying or screaming, maybe because our screams drowned out his. She did not even blink as she flung him to the side and looked directly at my brother and me.”
The incident was just one of many, Doherty said.
“Just a couple of weeks earlier, I had been on the receiving end of a can of soup that was thrown at me. As I entered the kitchen, as pots and pans clanged violently, the can hit me squarely in the corner of my eye, opening up a gaping gash that required stitches, all because the cupboards were disorganized,” Doherty said. “I can remember Trent and Kevin thrown into their bedroom, something that was knocked over and the slapping around, over and over, their cries and then silence. Did she finally do it? Did her anger and hatred finally boil over to end with her killing one of us?”
Doherty said his reason for speaking publicly about the abuse he and his brothers suffered is twofold: the first is he wanted to help combat the stigma associated with mental health issues and show abuse sufferers they aren't alone, the second is to spur greater action to support people suffering with mental health issues.
“I know we have made huge strides as a society when it comes to mental health, but we have so much further to go. There was a time not so long ago when people were embarrassed to talk about their struggles. Feeling sad, hurt or upset was something to be ashamed of,” he said. “Education has been key, and recent statistics show that mental illness will directly affect one-third of, or 9.1 million, Canadians over the course of their lives. Prior to the pandemic, in any given year, one in five Canadians experienced a mental health issue.”
Doherty said he doesn’t have the solution or all the answers, but urged the government to form a mental health parliamentary committee to study the issue as quickly as possible. Every dollar spent on mental health, returns $4 to $10 to the economy, he added.
Improving access to treatments for depression could boost the Canadian economy by $32 billion per year.
Doherty said the abuse had a lasting impact on him and all of his brothers, especially Kevin.
“He lives on the streets to this day. He was shot twice with a shotgun last summer. He is gripped in our country's opioid addiction,” Doherty said. “I talked with my brother last summer, after he had been shot twice with a shotgun, and he said all the right things. He said that he was going to get clean. This is someone I have taken off the street so many times over the last 20 years. I have no idea why he is here. When I sit with other family members who have lost loved ones to overdoses, they do not have the answers either; they just know something needs to be done.”
The first step to is to talk openly about the issues, so those who are suffering know they are not alone, he said.
It wasn’t until 2020 that Doherty and his brothers talked about their past. He and his brother Trent met in a restaurant and they both started shaking and crying, as they talked.
“For many years, I did not even tell my wife and my kids about this. I just knew that each and every day I wanted to live, not to perpetuate the dysfunction. I did not want to talk about it. As I said at the start of my speech, we did not talk about this stuff. I am tired of hiding it. I phoned my brother Trent just before this and said, ‘This is our story. I hope you're okay with my sharing this,’” Doherty said. “I have a stepbrother by the name of Elvis. He messaged me last week. He is 54, the same age as me. He shared something with me. We have never talked about this. I thought I was the only one. He messaged me and he said it has been eating him up all these years and he has never talked about it. That is what we need to break. Even as brothers, we never talked about this stuff. As families, we never talked about this. We are afraid to talk about it.”
He said sometimes politicians need to throw away the talking points and be real human beings.
“I lost my brother-in-law to an overdose in 2008. Each and every day, I believe that if we, as leaders, share our stories and tell people and show Canadians that it is okay to come forward and share our story, we will break the stigma,” Doherty said. “I have been a Member of Parliament for seven years, and I have cried way too much in this chamber, but I honestly believe that if we throw away the talking points, speak from the heart and work on tangible things, we can show people who are struggling and suffering silently that they too could maybe, one day, regardless of where they come from, stand in this hallowed place and be a member of Parliament, that they can achieve anything, and that they can overcome the abuses they faced.”