Anxiety, insomnia, aggression, paranoia, depression. These are the invisible battle scars that still torment Dominique Brière, 25 years after serving as a UN peacekeeper during the Bosnian war.

“We landed at Sarajevo airport right in the middle of the bombing,” says Dominique. “The trauma started that first day and never let up.”

In 1992, after the fall of communism in Europe, the Balkan region fractured along ethnic lines and descended into a long and brutal civil war. Dominique went to the region as part of a large international peacekeeping force that was sent to protect civilians and curb the violence. But the mission in the former Yugoslavia was particularly difficult. The wounds of peacekeeping are not always caused by hostile fire or landmines, and they do not always leave physical scars. Human brutality on such a scale leaves a deep impact on those who see it.

“I witnessed many massacres and I came close to death myself,” Dominique says quietly. “I experienced a lot of stress in a very short period of time and that developed into PTSD.”

PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is a mental health condition that can develop after exposure to trauma. Nearly 1 in 10 people in Canada may develop PTSD at some point in their lives. Military personnel and first responders are particularly vulnerable. Though the symptoms are often invisible to the outside world, for people like Dominique who suffer from PTSD, the effects can be debilitating. Being in a crowd full of people can trigger an anxiety attack. Recurring nightmares lead to insomnia. Sleepless nights spark aggression and, around every corner, depression lurks.

“People don’t understand because these are invisible diseases, you can’t see what’s going on,” says Dominique. “People think we’re faking, that it’s not a real problem. I would much rather function every day without problems — but with mental health issues, every day is a new challenge. We never know how we’re going to react in a situation.”

According to Statistics Canada, more than one million people in Canada live with a mental health disability and – like Dominique – 90% of these people live with a physical disability at the same time. This co-occurrence, as Statistics Canada refers to it, makes it particularly challenging for people like Dominique to find a job and keep it, in large part because many people still wrongly believe that persons with disabilities are unable to work. Dominique has been off work for over a year, working instead on his health and quality of life.

In fact, in its 2018 report, Roadblocks on the career path: Challenges faced by persons with disabilities in employment, the Canadian Human Rights Commission found that across Canada, the employment rate for men and women with disabilities is substantially lower than people without disabilities. For men like Dominique who have disabilities, the employment rate is 49.8%, compared to the 77.1% employment rate of men without disabilities.

Dominique is not alone on his journey. A one-year-old black Portuguese water dog named Nala is at his side and on duty, 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Nala is a recent graduate of a not-for-profit organization that provides service dogs to veterans who suffer from PTSD and substance-use issues.

Nala is trained specifically to detect problems associated with PTSD. When Dominique is feeling anxious or stressed, Nala nudges him or puts her paw on his arm. This simple act distracts Dominique from the stressor, forcing him to interact with her and refocus on the present moment instead.

“Since she’s been with me, I’ve reduced my prescription medications from 14 medications a day to four and my sleep has improved too. I don’t have to be hyper aware of everything around me while I sleep anymore because I know that she is doing that,” says Dominique, Nala sitting by his side. “My family and friends have noticed a big decrease in my stress and anxiety levels thanks to Nala.” Nala perks up at the sound of her name and nudges Dominique’s leg with her nose.

“You know we’re talking about you.” His face immediately softens into a smile.

‘‘People don’t understand because these are invisible diseases, you can’t see what’s going on.’’

“With PTSD, it is daily work if we want to be functional and healthy. With Nala’s help, I’m going to work on myself to get better.”

The Commission’s position on the inclusion of people who use service dogs

Persons with disabilities in Canada have a right to use a service dog to work, live and participate in their communities with dignity and independence. Governments, employers, and service providers have a legal obligation to recognize and respect this right. Service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks to support people with visible and non-visible disabilities. Leaving a service dog to do their work undisturbed is a simple way we can all help foster inclusion.

In 2018, the Commission provided input into the federal government’s proposed Accessible Canada Act — legislation that will put the onus on all institutions and “matters within the legislative authority of Parliament” to proactively eliminate barriers for all persons, especially those with visible and non-visible disabilities. In statements and addresses throughout 2018, Chief Commissioner Marie-Claude Landry publicly expressed how the Commission is eager to see this law passed and to see a barrier-free Canada become more of a reality.
In 2018, in anticipation of the Accessible Canada Act coming into force, the Commission began working closely with other federal organizations that will have a role in resolving accessibility-related complaints. Together, we are committed to putting people over process. Through a “no wrong door” approach, we are putting measures in place so that people with accessibility-related complaints can be referred swiftly and easily to the right organization.