Séan McCann holds Great Big Christmas Party to help Queensway-Carleton expand mental health unit

Sean McCann will be performing with some of his musical friends at the Algonquin Commons Theatre on Dec. 7. Funds raised will go to the Queensway-Carleton Hospital Foundation campaign to expand the institution's mental health unit.

Séan McCann likes rolling rocks uphill. He believes in making a difference and he wants to do it. That’s why you’ll find the former member of Great Big Sea and current resident music man in Ottawa hosting benefits and working for a good cause or 20.

He’s also rolled up a few rocks of his own. McCann is a recovering addict and he knows what that means.

“I like to think of my life as purpose driven. That keeps me in recovery. I am drawn to certain causes. I can’t do everything I want to do, I know that now. I have had to learn to say no.”

But he will take the time for the right cause. “I rely on first hand experience. Stuff can look good on paper; professionals can make it look attractive and try to rope me in.” So he is careful.

When he put together a benefit for Guitars for Vets in 2017, “I went out and met some homeless veterans and that was it,” he was on board.

Now he’s gearing up for a benefit evening of music to help the Queensway-Carleton Hospital modernize and expand their mental health unit.

“Someone reached out and asked me if I would come in,” McCann said. “I often volunteer on psych wards and detox centres.”

A look inside the Queensway-Carleton’s mental health unit. Courtesy Queensway Carleton Hospital.

There can be a lot of corporate noise surrounding mental health campaigns, McCann says, “but not necessarily a lot of action. So when I see an opportunity to actually do something to change people’s lives, I will always go for that. For example, I was in Sudbury to raise money for their hospital about month ago. I asked to see the psych ward. I want to be in the middle of that.

“In the case of the Queensway-Carleton that’s exactly what happened. I went into the (unit) and was working with all kinds of people. For me that fills my heart. It sustains my recovery and fulfills my purpose and I know I am having a real effect.”

The hospital does need a new ward. The number of people seeking help is growing rapidly so the Queensway-Carleton is trying to raise $6 million to help get the work done.

Judith Scott, the interim president and CEO of the hospital foundation, told ARTSFILE the hospital recognized a few years ago that the mental health unit was one of the only remaining parts of the institution that had not been renovated since it opened in the 1970s.

“The hospital administration realized that while delivery of service was great, the space itself was pretty abysmal. It needed a change.”

Combined with support from the community, in particular with offers of help from important donors, they started the Hopes Rising campaign.

A vision of the future for the unit includes this new dining area. Courtesy Parkin Architects Limited

Scott said the upgrade is needed because “we are seeing a population coming through our emergency department in crisis. They need help and feel they may do harm to themselves or others. This is where they go.” The hospital emergency department gets about 80,000 visits a year and about four per cent are for mental health challenges. That’s been increasing.” The average age of patients in the unit is 39 years, she said.

As the hospital started to examine how to meet this need, the administration realized it needed to double the footprint of the mental health unit to better serve patients including the ability to expand, for example, arts and music therapy and other forms of treatment.

The hospital, she said, turned to McCann because of his ability to reach people with his story and his music and his earnest belief in the need to help.

“His story just speaks volumes,” Scott said, adding that it magnifies the message of the Hopes Rising campaign, she added. The campaign, which started three years ago, has now raised more than $5.5 million. The goal is to raise $6 million so the push to the finish line is on. In part, Scott said, the goal of the hospital is also to let people in the community know where they can get help for a mental health issue.

The hospital hopes that by spring 2020 work will begin on the expanded unit.

McCann worries that one day, without the expansion, the unit may not be able to help all those in need.

“We need that ward. The Queensway-Carleton is local. It’s a hospital I might go to if I get sick, so I am personally wired to it.”

The Dec. 7 event at the Algonquin Commons Theatre is what he is calling his first Great Big Christmas Party. The evening will feature Nova Scotian fiddler and Come from Away alumnus Anna Ludlow, Francophone pianist-percussionist Marianne Dumas, Dee Dee Butters and Rebecca Noelle. McCann will also be celebrating a personal milestone of being sober for eight years. Be prepared to sing, he warns.

When McCann does go into wards and does speaking engagements, he always brings along Old Brown, his guitar, “because the music gets me in. It opens hearts and ears.” It’s easy to be cynical looking in from the outside, but that doesn’t worry McCann one whit.

“I’m not worried if people doubt me. My brothers and sisters in addiction, I care about them. I care about people in prison. I went into one in Newfoundland and it broke my heart. I told them I got lucky; I didn’t get thrown in jail. I know I changed those lives. They know I am sincere.”

Often times he’ll be approached to do something and he’ll reject the message of the corporate sponsor. And when the organization in need comes back and says the sponsor has bailed, that’s when he says “I’ll come anyway.” It happens three or four times a year, McCann said.

These days his kids are in Grade 9 and Grade 6 and his family is raising two “bad” dogs. He is also finishing a memoir co-written with his wife Andrea Aragon called One Good Reason: A Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love and Music. It will be out next spring.  

Séan McCann’s Great Big Christmas Party
Where: Algonquin Commons Theatre
When: Dec. 7. Doors open at 6 p.m., show starts at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information: eventbrite.com

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.