Championing Change: Lembi Buchanan’s Journey to Advocate for Mental Health and Tax Fairness in Canada

In this interview, Stigma-Free Society is excited to highlight the impactful work of Lembi Buchanan. Lembi is a leading advocate for Canadians living with mental illness, taking on the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) single handedly – and winning. Her dedication and perseverance lobbying the federal government for over 20 years has helped to ensure fair tax treatment for her husband Jim and others living with bipolar disorder.

When Lembi established the “Fighting for Fairness” campaign in 2001, she had every reason to be optimistic. Instead, she discovered a dysfunctional government agency that was obsessed with balancing the budget, even when it meant denying a modest tax credit to the very people who need it the most. In her recently published Erin-Brokovich-style memoir An Accidental Advocate of taking on the tax bureaucracy, Lembi also shares intimate details of a love story spanning more than 50 years with a bipolar partner providing hope for others facing similar challenges.

Can you tell us about your journey as an advocate for Canadians living with mental illness and your motivation behind taking on the Canada Revenue Agency?

Photo by official photographer Sgt. Ronald Duchesne, Rideau Hall © OSGG, 2016.

I never had any intention of becoming “an accidental advocate,” but I couldn’t let my husband down when Jim appealed his case to the Tax Court of Canada. He was counting on me, and I suspected there were hundreds of individuals, like Jim, living with bipolar disorder and unjustly denied the Disability Tax Credit (DTC) by the CRA.

I would learn the hard truth early on in our relationship that our society discriminates against the mentally ill. Jim was first diagnosed with manic-depressive illness, more commonly known today as bipolar disorder, in 1973. Since then, fighting for fair treatment meant ensuring access to the best medical care and reliable job security, and when that failed, private and public income support programs.

The “Fighting for Fairness” campaign and the Coalition for Disability Tax Credit Reform were instrumental in bringing about major amendments in the Income Tax Act. Could you share some key strategies or moments from your advocacy efforts that contributed to your success?

Although I had no legal training, I refused to be intimidated by a government agency that was not acting in good faith. I decided to research previous court cases and represent Jim in court. In May 2001, Judge Diane Campbell ruled in Jim’s favour, calling it an “obvious case.”

At the time, I was just getting started, launching my “Fighting for Fairness” campaign. Although I didn’t know anything about advocating on behalf of others or the political process, I thought it would be easy to right a wrong. So, I decided to capitalize on the wide-spread interest demonstrated in my husband’s court case. I invited major national health charities and organizations to band together as the Coalition for Disability Tax Credit Reform to lobby the federal government for fair tax treatment for all people with disabilities.

I also reached out to my MP, the Honourable Carolyn Bennett. She followed up on my recommendations to fix the DTC application process by supporting

our Coalition’s efforts and arranging for hearings in the House of Commons. Subsequently, a unanimous vote by all parliamentarians led to the creation of the Technical Advisory Committee for Persons with Disabilities.

As a member of the Committee, I drew attention to some of the more egregious practices toward people living with a severe and prolonged mental illness. Our work led to major amendments to the Income Tax Act in 2005, expanding the eligibility criteria to thousands of individuals that had been previously discriminated against because their mental impairments were not viewed as disabling as people living with physical impairments. I was honoured to receive the Meritorious Service Medal for my “crucial role in income tax reformation… (that) led to persons with mental and episodic disabilities benefitting from the federal tax credit.”

What advice would you give to individuals or organizations looking to initiate change in government policies or programs, particularly when it comes to advocating for people with disabilities?

I quickly learned that the keys to patient advocacy go beyond collaboration and networking. Successful patient advocacy demands perseverance, stamina and the refusal to give up in the face of a bureaucracy that routinely discriminates against people living with a severe mental illness, and in particular, people living with bipolar disorder who are vulnerable to unpredictable mood swings and erratic behaviour.

Your memoir, “An Accidental Advocate,” provides insight into your personal life and your relationship with your husband Jim. How has your personal experience influenced your advocacy work, and what message do you hope readers will take away from your memoir?

I credit Jim for his unfailing support for my advocacy work over the years and for the courage to share our story. When Jim encouraged me to write my memoir, he expected me to be completely honest about the challenges we have faced throughout our marriage. He wanted others to gain insight into the complexities of bipolar disorder and its impact on families and friends. Jim also wanted others to understand the importance of unconditional love that restores our faith in humanity and gives us hope for better days ahead.

As co-chair of the Disability Tax Fairness Alliance, what are some of the ongoing challenges and priorities in ensuring that government programs and policies do not discriminate against people living with severe mental illnesses?

As co-chair of the Disability Tax Fairness Alliance, I continue to advocate for people living with bipolar disorder to ensure that government programs and policies do not discriminate against them. When I finished writing my memoir, I felt that a chapter in my life was closed, and that fairness had finally prevailed with senior bureaucrats in the Departments of National Revenue and Finance. Surely, after all of the deliberations over the years, they were willing to recognize that people profoundly affected by a severe mental illness should also be eligible for the DTC. So much for wishful thinking. Instead, our government has doubled down, making it virtually impossible for people living with bipolar disorder and other diseases with recurrent and fluctuating periods of disability to access the tax credit and benefit from other important financial supports such as the Registered Disability Savings Plan and the Disability Child Benefit. Only those with a “very limited capacity” in their mental functions 90% of the time are eligible for the DTC.

Looking ahead, what do you see as the most pressing issues or areas for improvement in the support and treatment of Canadians living with mental illness, both in terms of tax policies and broader societal attitudes and resources?

A major concern right now is whether the new Canada Disability Benefit will use DTC eligibility as a gateway for the proposed federal income supplement targeted to working-age Canadians with disabilities. As it stands now, people living with bipolar disorder are at risk of being denied this once-in-a-generation opportunity to break the link between disability and poverty. There is a renewed urgency to protect the rights of individuals that have already been stigmatized, labelled, shamed, and judged. They also need the steadfastness of a government that recognizes that they too, are worthy citizens, entitled to the same income supports as people living with physical disabilities.

To get in touch with Lembi and/or purchase her book, contact her here [email protected].

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