Where few dare to tread

Research and innovation
Faculty of Health Sciences

By Leah Geller

Writer, Freelance

Dave Holmes
Photo: Valérie Charbonneau
Dave Holmes is fearless in fighting for the health rights of marginalized populations, from challenging psychiatric and public health practices to advocating for more compassionate care for mentally ill inmates.

To say that Dave Holmes does not shy away from tough topics is an understatement. In the 1990s, he worked as a street nurse, caring for people like prostitutes and crack addicts, and initiating one of the first needle exchange clinics in the country. “I was teaching people how to inject drugs in shooting galleries in Montreal. This was not very popular back then,” recalls Holmes.

Years later, while working full time in a forensic psychiatric facility, he also worked in collaboration with the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal as a psychiatric street nurse. He conducted research on risks associated with a wide range of sexual practices (condomless anal sex, sadomasochism, gay group sex, etc.), long before they were openly discussed in the health sciences, and he continues to do so. He was the first in nursing to research the sexual practices of men using gay bathhouses, work that was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) in 2004.

“Looking back, I guess I was doing what no one else was willing to do,” he says.

Many years later, the Faculty of Health Sciences professor and University Research Chair in Forensic Nursing continues to engage in cutting-edge research, focusing on the intersection of mental health and the criminal justice system. For example, his team is interested in studying how to place seniors who have been incarcerated for sexual crimes into nursing homes. He also recently received CIHR funding to look at the challenging issue of compassionate and ethical nursing care for patients who have committed violent crimes against nurses working in maximum-security forensic psychiatric facilities.

“We will be interviewing nurses in forensic facilities who witnessed an aggression against one of their co-workers and exploring how they can or cannot care for the aggressors,” explains Holmes.

Along with pursuing extremely difficult research areas, Holmes is fearless in challenging the establishment, especially within psychiatric and correctional institutions. He is a fervent supporter of the rights of patients and mentally ill inmates, and fights to ensure that nurses can deliver principled and ethical care, no matter what.

He has presented data to encourage psychiatric, forensic and correctional institutions to limit the use of seclusion and restraints, raising awareness about the “violence” of these practices. This included the tragic case of Ashley Smith, who died in 2007 while on suicide watch in an Ontario penitentiary.

In addition to his research and clinical practice, the professor has mentored and supervised more than 40 graduate students in Canada and abroad. Many have gone on to become faculty around the world and to influence practice, like Patrick O’Byrne (opposite page). “I’ll retire in seven to 10 years, but I know that all my former and current graduate students are committed to social justice,” reflects Holmes. It is an impressive legacy, one that will continue to transform the practice of nursing on the margins of society.