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New N.B. law allows supported decision-making for intellectually disabled residents

FREDERICTON — Dianne Cormier Northrup has helped her son and daughter, who both have intellectual and physical disabilities, communicate their key life decisions for years. Soon, her support role in that process will have a legal foundation.
In a screengrab from a recorded zoom interview Dianne Cormier Northrup (centre) with her son Robert Chamberlain and daughter Lynn Chamberlain talk with The Canadian Press about the province's new Supported Decision-Making and Representation Act. The new bill allows the children to appoint their mother and others to be people who support them when they are communicating important financial, health and personal decisions. The zoom screen grab was taken at the brother and sister's home in Bathurst, N.B. THE CANADIAN PRESS/CP

FREDERICTON — Dianne Cormier Northrup has helped her son and daughter, who both have intellectual and physical disabilities, communicate their key life decisions for years. Soon, her support role in that process will have a legal foundation.

New Brunswick's lieutenant-governor gave assent Friday to the province's Supported Decision-Making and Representation Act, which will allow people with intellectual disabilities to appoint those who will assist in important choices they make.

In a news release, Inclusion New Brunswick said the province "has become one of the few jurisdictions in the world" to implement a court-recognized, supported decision-making process. 

The new system will allow for a person with intellectual disabilities — who may have difficulty understanding and conveying information — to make decisions using the assistance of others who are appointed by the person or the courts. The Attorney General's office still has to provide details on how the new Bill will be administered.  

Sitting with her children, Rob and Lynn Chamberlain, who have a neurological condition called autosomal familial spastic quadraplegia, Cormier Northrup — who is 75 — says the legislation gives her a sense of security that she and others can give voice to the siblings' personal and financial choices.

"All of us are happy about the law because supported decision making is how we've always been doing it anyway. Now it's for real, and we can use it," she said during a zoom interview from Robert and Lynn's home in Bathurst, N.B.

During the zoom call, Robert, 55, and Lynn, 52, who cannot speak, vigorously nod their heads to show they agree with the legal changes.

Robert confirms with a slight movement of his head that at times it is hard to have others understand his decisions, and then nods vigorously and makes a sound similar to "Yes," when asked if he likes to have his mother assist others in understanding. 

He also smiles and nods in affirmation when asked if his mother is "a good talker," and the family shares a laugh.

When Lynn wants to add a point, she sometimes vocalizes sounds that suggests to her mother that there's further information her daughter wants to get across. 

During the interview, she indicated to her mother she wanted to make clear there are others in her support-decision making circle. The mother confirms, with Lynn nodding, that her aunts, Jeannine Duguay and Marie Meagher, along with her cousin Laurie Jean, will be among those authorized to assist in making decisions.

Inclusion Canada spokesman Marc Muschler says there are elements of supported decision making in other jurisdictions across Canada, but the New Brunswick law is more comprehensive in that it allows for a broader group of people to make use of decision making supports.

He said it also provides a two-track process for the appointment of decision making supporters: one for people who can appoint their own supporters, and one that allows for someone to apply to the courts to become an "decision-making supporter." 

Danny Soucy, a community planning advisor with Inclusion New Brunswick, says his son Daniel Soucy, 31, communicates through gestures and body language that he understands due to all of their years together.

"He can express his desires and we can translate his wishes," said the father during a phone interview from his home in Grand Falls, N.B.

Soucy said under the old law, if there was a significant decision to be made and Daniel couldn't directly convey his wishes to a health provider or bank, "we would have had to have him declared incompetent to make a decision for him."

"With this new law we'll be able to help and interpret what he wants and have the right decision for him made," he said.

The Bill says a person is capable of making decisions if they're able to understand information "relevant" to the decision, and appreciate the "reasonably foreseeable consequences" of a decision, "with the assistance that is available."

"A person is presumed to have the capacity to make a decision, unless the contrary is demonstrated," it reads.

Soucy does not see himself as an active decision-maker for his son, who has Down's Syndrome. Rather,  he says he tries to "provide my son with the right information, allowing him to ask questions."

"As a supporter you're not making decisions, you're helping people make decisions for themselves," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 18, 2022.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press