Tareq is in his early 30s and lives in Mississauga with his wife. He studied political science and history in university, and graduated in 2013. He envisioned becoming a teacher, or working in a field like banking, insurance or government.
Shortly after earning his degree, Tareq experienced a major mental health crisis. He tried to get help, but struggled to control his behaviour. By 2014, he had been arrested twice and had racked up convictions for carrying a concealed weapon, assault and breach of probation.
“My interaction with the law was because of my mental illness,” he said. “Bipolar disorder with psychosis is my diagnosis. … Other than having an episode, I don’t get in trouble.”
He says when he was first arrested and taken to jail, he was in a manic state. He couldn’t make bail. “With mania, you just want to plead out and just be out as soon as you can without really looking at the consequences,” he said.
A few months later, Tareq started to understand “the extent of what a criminal record means… the repercussions of it,” he said. “It sort of invalidated my degree in a way… I can’t apply it in the workforce. That’s something I’ve been struggling with since 2014 until now.”
Tareq said that getting his life back on track has been incredibly difficult ever since then. Managing his mental health and getting the help he needs is one challenge. His criminal record is another.
“I’ve been applying myself and I’ve been going to interviews and then when it comes down to a background check, that’s when they start asking me questions about what happened and they act very suspicious about the explanation I’m giving them, right? I have to explain that I have a mental illness, that I incurred these charges because of my delusional state of mind, it wasn’t me at the time. I’ve been trying my best to maintain good mental health since and trying to obtain some meaningful employment ever since.”
Being a person with mental health challenges and a criminal record means experiencing “stigma on top of that stigma,” Tareq said.
Following his 2014 convictions, Tareq spent more than a year mostly unemployed. He tried to get around the problem of his criminal record by starting his own tutoring company for a while. He had a few clients, but nothing steady.
In 2015, his girlfriend, now his wife, signed him up to work for Elections Canada. “I worked a 15-hour shift that day, and that day motivated me to see if I could find work,” Tareq said.
Initially he worked as a general labourer for employment agencies. It took him six months to land a steady job with a moving company, a position he stuck with for five years, although he saw no chance for advancement.
“During those five years, I realized that everything I was trying to do was trying to get out of this criminal record barrier, you know, trying to work around it, trying to find an appointment where I can utilize the skills I have outside of general labour — the mental skills I have,” Tareq said. “Every time I thought about applying for something, they had a background check. Every time I logged onto a job [posting] on Indeed or LinkedIn or any of those job searching websites, they say they require a ‘clean criminal record,’ a ‘criminal record check,’ a ‘background check.'”
Even part-time work and volunteer positions — including in mental health peer support, where Tareq thinks his experience could be helpful to others — require record checks. With a ten-year wait time before he would be eligible to apply for a record suspension, Tareq said, “You’re really giving people no hope.”
Tareq had another serious bout with mental illness in 2021, and lost his job with the moving company. Since then, he’s struggled to regain any footing in the workforce. He’s had additional interactions with the law.
“I’ve been sleeping in a lot because I have nothing to look forward to in the morning, I have nothing to look forward to in terms of being a contributing member of society, being able to work and volunteer, it’s just not there… That really restricts you from reintegrating back and it feeds into the stigmas.”
Tareq moves between despair at the obstacles he faces and recommitting himself to hope, to his health, and to renewing his search for an employer willing to give him a chance.
“I think if I had access to the job market it would significantly improve my mental health and current state of mind. It would allow me to go into the workforce, be a contributing member of society on a daily basis, and I think I wouldn’t relapse as much.”
“A criminal background check shouldn’t be the end-all, it shouldn’t be what defines me as a human being. It shouldn’t define me or the skill set that I have to offer in terms of performing at a job,” he said.