This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
April 15, 2014 started like any other end-of-semester day. Bermuda Shorts Day at the University of Calgary meant that the campus was filled with underdressed students skipping their final classes to start drinking earlier than the lectures they slept through all year. I've never been one for big crowds, and the idea of being surrounded by my belligerent neon-clad peers, soaked in mimosa and blaring top-40 mashups, was hardly the way I wished to usher in my well-earned freedom. Fortunately, many of my friends shared a similar sentiment, and we decided to throw a small end-of-semester bash at my home.
I lived near the university in an older split-level with four friends I had grown up with. Preparations began early, intensifying with the arrival of a few eager friends surreptitiously drafted to help ready our divey house for guests. I hustled home after turning in my final paper for the year, my phone abuzz with friends looking to confirm party details. By early evening, people filled our modest house and had spilled out into the garage and yard. It was exactly what we had needed to collectively welcome the impending summer. I had no idea that in a few hours I would be sitting in a cold interrogation room, my hands and clothing caked with blood, detailing these happy moments to a cop while trying to understand how five of my friends had been stabbed to death at our party.
Within the week I was writing eulogies and attending the funerals of five friends who I'd invited to the party and talked with that evening, friends I planned a future with, lived with, relied upon, and loved. A new reality engulfing me with each passing day: The person who killed these friends in my home–my roommate, my high school crush, collaborators, mentors, confidantes—was also someone who I'd considered a friend.
I had invited Matthew de Grood to my home, and until that evening, these words would be meaningless to most, routine interactions that would otherwise recede into memory, but something very different happened. That night, Matt stabbed five people in a matter of minutes—while some friends and I left to get munchies—our return colliding with his exit from the house. In those brief moments, I lost six friends and found myself thrust into an arduous legal process and barred from my home.
The gruesome details would captivate people all over the world, and aggressive requests for interviews would drive my friends and I to reclusive tendencies beyond the immense grief we were already dealing with. Although I would be spared from testimony in court, my statements directly following the stabbings largely informed the agreed-upon statement of facts presented during the trial.
The evidence would show that Matt suffered delusions due to an acute mental break, a devastating episode that abruptly presented Matt's yet-to-be diagnosed mental illness. The complexity of his symptoms (or lack thereof in some cases) made it difficult to determine a specific diagnosis—not uncommon when multiple illnesses present themselves in an individual rather abruptly. The courts would conclude that Matt was not criminally responsible (NCR), a controversial decision that's still being debated.
The family and friends, suffering in the wake of such loss, now have to compose themselves for Matt's annual review hearings—a well-oiled machine to be prodded, pressed, and observed by the media. We know the courts better than most, in many of the worst ways, but we understand and have accepted our role in this.
But that night, as I stepped out from the car and saw Matt dart from the house, I was unaware of the chaos that was about to surround me—an all-encompassing wave of devastation that I am still dealing with today.
I just ran after a friend who needed help.
Matthew de Grood was my first and closest childhood friend. We met in kindergarten and always shared a similar unease around the majority of people—gradually, we accumulated a close-knit, yet diverse network of loyal homies who remain integral elements of our lives up to, and even after, all of this. We were not unlike brothers in our ability to go vast amounts of time without seeing one another, yet maintain an inexplicable bond and closeness throughout.
Matt and I have always shared similarities; born weeks apart and raised in the same well-established suburban neighborhood, we would grow to skate later. We had relatively harmonious, normal childhoods and excelled through primary and secondary school. At the behest of our parents, we enrolled at the University of Calgary and formed professional and personal bonds with peers and professors alike. Until that evening in April, we were both ideal reflections of our society's expectations and hopes—kind and engaging, with just enough optimism intact to believe we could maybe leave the world a better place than we came into. Since April 2014, we've been reduced to statistics in a much larger narrative of failings and injustice; those topics often discussed but impossible to fully articulate, much less understand, without experience and thoughtful reflection. The abstract systems (stigmas, structural limitations, and emotional repressions) we all partake in and reinforce had an impact on Matt and I, in many ways contributing to Matt's delusional state that evening.
Matt and I were made acutely aware of these systems through virtue of sitting with our parents around the dinner table; his father was a cop, my father is a doctor, and my mother was a nurse. Today, we share an intimate experiential knowledge of the intersectional gaps within our mental health, judicial, and social structures. This newfound knowledge and our shared trauma have enlightened me to the swarm of misunderstandings and unnoticed signals, which sadly allowed Matt's struggles leading up to that night to go largely unaddressed. These events have also reduced my ability to hold the strong opinions that distance allows and often fosters.
A single 24-hour period that occurred three years ago has become fodder for media, idle office chatter, dinner-table conversations, and social media feeds across Canada and the world. While understandable, I find the conclusions drawn are regressive, short-sighted, and will in no way work to aid in healing survivors, their families, Matthew de Grood, or the one of every two Canadians who will experience a mental illness by the age of 40.
Rather, I believe that the lack of understanding regarding the underlying causes of this tragedy demonstrates the societal misguidedness that has failed my friends, their families, and countless others. Without a progressive change in our mental health care attitudes and services, the same stigmas and failing systems that led to the deaths of five of my friends will continue, preventing those in need from accessing adequate care and setting the stage for similar tragedies to occur.
I'm slowly learning that I can't carry guilt for the symptoms I failed to recognize in my interactions with Matt—for my failure to help a friend in need leading up to this break. Despite numerous professionals reassuring me that there were few symptoms to notice preceding the event, and little that could be done during, there is an insatiable guilt—the "what ifs," which cannot be avoided. Though the technical term for this struggle is survivor guilt, surviving this ordeal is only a fraction of what haunts me. However, it's important to acknowledge and understand the interventions that can make a difference. The complexities of daily life can be difficult to untangle and comprehend, and the fog of helplessness can seem impenetrable and exhausting. It reduces our ability to have frank, open, and honest conversations that are often difficult and take time. Trauma is similarly pervasive, with a surreal edge; cutting through the bullshit of what we're taught or have come to know, exposing the primal emotion long neglected. It changes the way you approach friends and family, relationships, strangers—the foundational elements of life. Today, in a strange twist of irony, Matt and I have emerged with similar symptoms and diagnoses: PTSD, anxiety, depression—yet neither one of us has served a day in combat, nor visited a war zone.
Stigma is part of what stopped Matt and those close to him from identifying his illness in the first place: Nobody wants to believe that their loved one is unwell.
At this point, Matt is beyond the criminal justice system: He's a ward receiving treatment, not a criminal being punished. Yet for the past three years, I have seen this case discussed as a testament to the institutional failings of our judicial system; as if it is somehow unfair that Matt is not being treated as a criminal. He committed an unimaginable act, but I know that based on every shred of evidence and personal history that Matt did not commit murder in the first degree.
Many headlines last month have said that Matthew de Grood is now being granted "extra freedoms." This is true to an extent, but these are an established and routine part of his rehabilitation programs. The language used is crafted to provoke a reaction, not begin a discussion of the complex nuances of Matt's treatment plan and life, nor the elements of rehabilitation in Canada. The fact is that the current mental health care system has repeatedly failed every living victim of this tragedy, as well as other Canadians on a daily basis. Matt was found NCR and is currently receiving the best available treatment, and will be released when deemed fit by a panel of medical professionals and community members. Once he is out he will be subjected to the same everyday issues associated with accessing our over-burdened, misunderstood, underfunded mental health resources—in addition to having a highly public history and acute need. I know how brutal accessing these resources can be—albeit under better circumstances than Matt—and this is the most worrying factor for me regarding his inevitable release.
Rehabilitative methods, oriented toward safe and beneficial reintegration, are neither perfect in practice nor the correct course for all cases, which means that some cases do still present risks to the community at large. It is a fact that individuals suffering from serious mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than the general population. But focusing on the former rather than the latter only further contributes to the growing divide between those suffering from mental illness and the rest of society, regardless of whether such individuals have been or will ever be cause for public safety concerns.
Stigma is part of what stopped Matt and those close to him from identifying his illness in the first place: Nobody wants to believe that their loved one is unwell. The violent and tragic events that occurred, partly due to this, have now reinforced these stigmas, making it more difficult for others battling with mental illnesses to seek help. Safer communities are built through understanding, advocacy, and collective intervention. Much of the vitriol I've seen directed toward this case is not unwarranted, just misguided. Canadians worry that current legal precedents are lax, and opportunities for criminals to escape conviction by using mental illness as a defense are a normal occurrence, yet many fail to realize that those same legal precedents continue to allow the unjust confinement of other Canadians. To extend the reach of the law is to increase the power of those who define, enforce, and judge it, which will perpetuate misunderstanding, violence, and injustice. If you don't believe this happens in Canada, you should read this.
In addition, this case and that of Vince Li in Manitoba—the man who killed a fellow Greyhound bus passenger in 2008 and was found NCR—have retired debates regarding the release of potentially violent offenders into communities. Our overburdened and misused court system has recently been forced to release violent offenders, with no diagnosed mental illness and pending criminal charges, due to unconstitutional trial delays. Rather than tackling this backlog by rationally addressing the 20,000 pending cases for possession of a soon-to-be-legalized plant, the popular discourse maintains that these two cases, both confirmed instances of acute mental illness that have completed their legal proceedings, are the more pressing indicators of injustice and institutional failure.
My proximity to these events has left an indelible impression on me, and although I'm only just beginning my journey toward forgiveness, I've accepted that compassion and empathy inform rational, progressive decisions and change. I understand now how easily anguish and despair can produce regressive, knee-jerk reactions—fueled by fear and stoked by sensationalism. It frustrates me to no end that people refuse to see what is clearly to blame here and continue to perpetuate the conditions that led to this tragedy and will lead to others if we do not address them.
If it seems like I'm just advocating for a heartless killer out of misplaced loyalty, I know there is little I can say to convince anyone otherwise. Unanimity on these issues is a mirage, but if the numbers of those who understand my intent parallel the numbers of those impacted by the outcomes, we may just be able to make some meaningful change toward understanding and compassion for all—true justice. In all the discussions of legacy and remembrance of Jordan, Kaiti, Lawrence, Josh, and Zack, these are the ideals that defined my friends and the hope with which I continue on.
I am saddened by my role in the reaffirmation of these broken and unfair judgments, but I'm doing my best to prevent this pain from impacting others in the future. I too worry about Matt's release but not for the same reasons the average person does.