Life and death on the farm: the story of Éric Labine

Éric Labine was a farmer. That’s what he was born to do.
He grew up moving toilet paper roll hay bales around the living room with his toy tractors (Case-Massey only) and rode along on the real thing thanks to a wooden seat that his grandfather had bolted to the fender. He and his older sister Cindya wouldn’t get dropped off at the house after school, but at CB Farms, owned by Cyrus and Doris Beck, to do the afternoon milking. As a young man, he purchased 100 acres on the Front Road in Clarendon, started a beef operation and was investing in tile drainage for his fields. He had a long-term girlfriend, career goals and a close relationship with his parents and two sisters.
On July 15, 2019, he took his own life. He was 26 years old.
Family friend and dairy farmer, Robbie Beck, remembered how peculiar it was when Éric wasn’t accounted for that Monday night. Robbie even went over to see if he could help with the search, but to no avail. Police recovered Éric’s body with the help of a canine unit the next day.
“Everyone that was looking for him or missing him that night, first thought was when he was not accounted for was that maybe he got hurt by a cow that got aggressive, or got hurt in a piece of farm machinery or something like that,” he said. “Nobody, I don’t think, when he first went missing was thinking anything like the outcome ended up being.”
Cindya said that the response from other people in the community that knew him was similar.
“They didn’t believe it. You wouldn’t expect that from him at all,” she said. “He always had a smile. Yes, he’d be silent when he was mad but it wouldn’t last.”
Her voice tightened and tears welled at the edges of her eyes when she recalled the confusion and second-guessing that followed his suicide.
“How can I say, you never notice and I think that’s the most heartbreaking … ,” she said. “The people that approach me and say, ‘Did you not see this coming?’… Well, no. He told me two weeks before it happened, ‘Cindya, I’m f-ing tired.’ But that’s normal. It’s the end of June, we’re haying. He was coming to my house to get the wrapper to go wrap someone else’s hay and this was 7 o’ clock at night. His day was not yet over. He’d work to midnight almost.”
Family friend Stacy Howard remembered that Éric had dropped off some equipment at their farm the night before he died, and he expressed concern that her husband Larry was looking worn out.
“That was who Éric was, worrying about others before anything else,” she wrote in an email.
Éric’s younger sister Sophie said that overwork likely played a role in his decision, but added that there could have been other factors at play that they will never know about.
“I had to stop asking myself questions because eventually, what’s done is done, you need to move on from that,” she said. “You’d just go crazy thinking of all the reasons why.”
A group of friends and neighbours reciprocated Éric’s generous spirit in the days following his death, with a coordinated effort to help with his cows and bring his hay in from the field.
“For that amount of tractors going in and out … it was well managed,” Cindya said. “Six hundred bales in a day and a half? Amazing … Éric was so good to everyone else, he would be the person doing that for someone else.”
For his funeral, Robbie and several other local producers organized a procession of tractors that trailed the hearse through town, as a send off to their young colleague and friend.
“Him being so involved in farming … It was a fitting tribute I think,” he said. “I guess to a certain degree, we all get caught up in our own business but when something like that happens, everyone gets together to see what they can do to help out the family. Never seems to be a shortage of help when the need arises.”
“We’re extremely thankful being in a small community because of the support that we had immediately after,” Sophie said. “People were coming around the house, making sure we had food and stuff, making sure we were ok and not alone. But it’s whenever the everyday life needs to continue, it can be very overwhelming because everyone knows what you’re going through, everybody knows that things aren’t ok. It makes it hard to put on a smiling face.”
Unfortunately, stories like Éric’s are not uncommon in the farming community. On top of being a dangerous occupation physically, mental and emotional stressors are also ever-present workplace hazards. A report released in May 2019 by the House of Commons’ standing committee on agriculture entitled “Mental Health: A Priority for our Farmers” lays out a host of challenges that producers deal with on a daily basis:
“They live with many uncertainties that put them under significant pressure, such as weather events, environmental challenges, market fluctuations, debt, regulations and paperwork.”
Uncertainty isn’t unique to farming, but having a job that’s so tied in to your lifestyle can make work troubles loom larger than other occupations.
“Like other types of self-employment, it’s not easy to shut off the business part of your brain and relax,” Robbie said. “It’s tough. You’re constantly planning and problem solving and going through scenarios.”
“There’s not a lot of room for error and we’re very dependent on Mother Nature,” he added. “Sometimes she’s working with us, sometimes she’s not.”
While there hasn’t been an extensive focus on rural mental health in Canada specifically, the studies that the report does reference paint a bleak picture. A study on Quebec farmers conducted between 2010 and 2011 found that 42 per cent of respondents found their days to be somewhat or extremely stressful, compared to 20 per cent in the general population.
Farming is a male-dominated line of work and men are at a much higher risk of dying by suicide (roughly 3 times more than women in the general population). Janet Smith, Program Manager at Manitoba Farm, Rural & Northern Support Services points out in the report that farmers have easy access to a host of ways to end their lives, from guns to chemicals, and added that there are plenty of farm “accidents” that are anything but.
“Unfortunately, we in the ag industry know of many farm suicides that are not publicly identified as such,” she is quoted as saying.
Men are also much less likely to reach out for help, whether from their peers or from professionals. In addition, finding the right resource to reach out to can be daunting.
“You have to be, first of all realizing that you need help and second of all, realizing that the help you need is out there,” Robbie said. “When you’re in some kind of a state where you’re having mental health issues, those are the times where you start telling yourself stories, that you don’t need it or it wouldn’t help anyways.”
Suzanne Laplante, an advisor with the Union des producteurs agricoles (UPA) in the Outaouais Laurentides region, said that the lack of services outside urban centres plays a big role.
“The fact is that they’re in rural communities and in many rural communities … the health services are at minimum,” she said. “When you’re suffering from mental illness or mental instability there’s not necessarily a resource close by that can help you.”
Laplante, whose husband and two sons work on the family farm, added that the younger generation of farmers are particularly vulnerable, as farm life has become more and more out of synch with modern, urbanized society.
“Today young people have different values, the value scale has changed,” she said. “When you are 26 or 28 years-old, and your friends are living that professional life, they work for the government, they get four weeks off every year, they have all kinds of advantages and you don’t get that, plus you work 60-80 hours a week to get minimum wage at the end. That has a strong impact.”
“Developing relationships, finding a wife or a husband that wants to join you on that journey, your decision to be a farmer, that’s definitely a big stress,” she continued. “In our younger farmers, we see more divorce. We didn’t see that before … They make that choice [to become a farmer] because they like the lifestyle and they want that lifestyle, but the impacts of making that choice at a young age are tremendous.”
Hard manual labour was something Éric was born into. He grew up on the Fourth Line in Clarendon as the middle child, 13 months behind Cindya and four years ahead of Sophie. When his father Yvon would interrupt his playing with miniature tractors to ask for a helping hand, Éric would jump up and warn his mother Diane not to touch the farm he had laid out on the living room floor.
The Labines had their own beef operation, but Yvon and the children also worked for the Becks. The bond between the two families goes far beyond a professional relationship.
“They were our bosses but we were non-blood family,” Cindya said. “Dad’s been working there for 29 years.”
Robbie recalled Éric tagging along with his dad and helping out as a youngster in elementary school.
“Just as a ten-year-old, he’d be hanging around, riding in the big truck with me or the tractor, he was around as long as I can remember anyways,” he said. “He was, how would you say, active. Not hyper, but he was always busy … Very helpful too, if someone needed a hand, he was always there. He was always able to put someone’s need for help before whatever he had on the go.”
Éric’s willingness to help other people was apparent from a young age and was one of the traits that Cindya remembered fondly. She said that as teenagers doing chores, they would make deals: Éric handled the tractor work while she tended the animals.
“He was a people pleaser, he could never say no to anyone,” she said. “Anything at all, if he did say no, he’d feel bad and just do it. That was the type of person he was.”
Between the age gap and natural inclination, Sophie didn’t take to farming like her older siblings, but she remembered Éric looked out for her around the barn.
“Éric and Cindya did the heavy lifting and everything, they really worked on the farm,” she said. “I mostly helped mom in the house. Being younger and everything, they already had the skills developed.”
“There was a family friend that was saying one of her best memories of Éric was once we were in the barn and we had to go behind the cattle and I didn’t want to and was afraid,” she continued. “But then he’s like, ‘It’s ok Sophie, take my hand and it’ll be fine.’ It might just have been to impress a girl, you never know, but still, he was always there for me.”
The three attended 4-H together and showed cattle at the Shawville Fair for many years. Despite Cindya being the self-professed animal person, Éric had a knack for performing in the ring. She remembered one year, after a particularly ugly incident where she accidentally killed the steer Éric was supposed to show, he took their backup animal and managed to bring in the highest price at the auction.
“You should have seen him in that ring, last place [conformation] and he got the highest price,” she said. “[He was] so proud, so proud.”
“He would beat me in showmanship,” she added. “I would be there all serious and he’s in the ring strutting, dancing almost, and he beat me.”
Whether it was during chores or at 4-H meetings, Éric had a reputation as a joker.
“He always had a bit of a punchline or something to finish off the conversation to get a little chuckle out of you … make light of whatever was being discussed,” Robbie recalled.
“Even if we were doing the [worst] job possible out there … Éric had a reason to crack a joke or something and make everyone laugh and lighten the mood,” Sophie remembered.
“I see a lot of my mom’s personality, the joker side and all that,” she added. “That’s more the Renauds, that’s my mom’s side of the family.”
Howard was one of the Labine children’s 4-H leaders and said that Éric sometimes needed to be convinced that certain activities, like square dancing, were worth his while.
“Éric would always grumble about learning to dance when there was work to be done, so I asked him one day if he ever wanted to have a girlfriend,” she wrote in an email. “His response [was], ‘Well yes.’ So I told him that girls love to dance and the most popular fellas know how to dance. Eric said to me, ‘Well then hurry up and teach me!’”
Howard added that Éric had similar complaints about learning to judge livestock and she had to explain that he judged things every day, like what breakfast cereal or shirt he chose in the morning. He excitedly told her several weeks later that he was practicing by judging girls, assessing them for straight teeth and other, uh, physical features.
“We certainly had a good laugh and he did learn to judge!” she wrote.
Cindya presented the first Éric Labine Memorial Bursary at the Shawville 4-H Club’s awards night in November. The time they spent together during that period of their lives is something she cherishes.
“Those were some of the memories that come on very often,” she said. “I actually saw kids with their steers, I guess two weeks before the fair, they were going around the field like that and it was … emotional. It kind of brought back that scenario."
After graduating from École secondaire Sieur de Coulonge, Éric’s technical inclinations led him to take a diesel mechanics course at Cégep de Saint-Hyacinthe. Even though he was far from home, he still managed to find his way into a barn when he wasn’t in class.
“He would milk cows on the weekends,” Cindya said. “That’s all he wanted to do, is to farm.”
Sophie said that her siblings leaving for college actually strengthened their bond.
“I think that caused some friction when we were younger … we were just different,” she said. “Then whenever he went to college, we didn’t see each other as much, that’s when we got closer … Same with my sister too, whenever she went away to college, that’s when we got closer.”
Cindya said Éric also had a very tight relationship with their father.
“He was his right-hand man,” she said. “They talked every day, if they didn’t see each other they spoke [on the phone] for ten minutes.”
“He was really close with mom too,” Sophie added. “Even though he was really busy or had to go somewhere, he’d always make his way to come into the house, give her a quick kiss, then run out the door because he had stuff to do. He’d always shout leaving the house, ‘Love me, feed me, never leave me.’ That was kind of his quote to mom.”
Upon returning to Pontiac, Éric set about looking for a piece of land to start his own operation and eventually settled on a 100 acre plot a stone’s throw from where he grew up.
“He found this one, it’s on the Front Road really close to dad’s,” Cindya said. “My parents are like the best support ever. They’d give you an arm and a leg for anything. He purchased it and started his own little cow herd, for beef.”
It was around this time that he met the love of his life, Tianna Narlock. He was introduced to Tianna’s brother Cooper through their mother, who also worked for the Becks. Cindya jokingly referred to Cyrus and Doris as the matchmakers, as she met her husband, Nick Hodgins, while working at CB Farms.
“He was supposed to go over and play video games with Cooper and that’s when he saw Tianna,” she said. “He kept going back over to ‘play video games.’”
Cindya recalled that he was pretty cagey about his newfound romance.
“It was pretty cute,” she said. “It took him a while to introduce her to us. That’s how you know it was serious right? He wanted to make sure opinionated Sophie would approve. He never said it like that, but that’s what we think.”
The two liked to take drives together, with Tianna sitting in the centre console to be closer to Éric. Sophie said that the running joke was that the truck was broken and required two people to drive.
“Éric had the same mentality as my father, like, it’s only cows,” she added. “The only animal he’d have around are cows, because they bring in the money. Well, until Tianna came around, then they had horses, they had chickens, they had cats in the house. She really nudged him. She made him happy, so then he wanted to make her happy as well.”
There is a growing awareness and response to the need for mental health services, particularly in rural communities.
“I think … in the general population, [mental health] is talked about a little more than it was, especially when you have an incident like Éric’s case,” Robbie said. “It brings it to the forefront even more.”
The Association québécoise de prévention du suicide has teamed up with the UPA to provide training to those who work with farmers to recognize signs of distress and connect those in need with mental health experts. Dubbed “sentinels”, these people are meant to head off self-destructive attitudes and behaviour before it’s too late.
“You’re not a psychologist, but you’re able to detect if someone is having difficulties, and maybe have them possibly referred to a professional,” Laplante explained. “That program is very popular, a lot of people are taking it.”
The focus is on training people who aren’t necessarily farmers, but deal with the farming community on a daily basis like agronomists, accountants or veterinarians. Since 2016, sentinel training has been given to more than 1,200 people across the province.
“A lot of the farmers use the accounting services that the UPA offers and the accountants are asking to get training in recognizing the signs of psychological stress, because they see it,” Laplante said. “They are the ones that have the farmers in front of them, and they see their numbers and the revenue dropping. They see the distress.”
A sentinel training program was planned for Pontiac in January but was cancelled due to a lack of participants. Another was held on Jan. 31 in Wakefield and Laplante said that they would be rescheduling another date in Pontiac shortly.
She added that her regional branch of the UPA is in the process of hiring additional rural social workers to be proactive and coordinate with local sentinels to reach people where they’re at. She said they’ve also subsidized a private hotline that members can call and have an immediate consultation with a psychological professional, with the possibility of follow-ups. According to Laplante, an understanding of agricultural life is crucial to providing adequate care to people in crisis.
“I wouldn’t say you have to be a specialist in farming to understand farmers, you just need to be aware, and to research a little bit if you want to help them out,” she said. “There are people that are really result-oriented, they want the results now. So, yes, if they feel that they’re wasting their time [they won’t reach out again]. That’s not necessarily farming, that’s being an entrepreneur. They want action, they want something to happen.”
Cindya stressed the importance of taking time to recharge, something that’s often overlooked by people with a herd of cows to tend to or a field of hay that’s about to get rained on.
“That’s the mentality too, ‘We don’t have time for that … We’ve got other things to do,’” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a big elaborate thing, but self care is important for everybody. [It] doesn’t matter who you are.”
Cindya is currently in the process of coordinating a Mental Health First Aid training course presented by Farm Credit Canada and Do More Ag at the Little Red Wagon Winery in Clarendon on March 12 and 13. The course is designed to give members of the public the skills to aid someone in crisis as well as identify developing mental health issues.
Those interested can contact rebeccabalsdon@hotmail.com or cindya.labine@hotmail.com for more information. The deadline to register for the two-day course is March 2.
The parliamentary report lists many recommendations for improving mental health care for farmers across the country, including a national strategy for addressing the issue, additional funding for traditional mental health services and increased promotion of hotlines and electronic health services. It concludes with this succinct assessment:
“Canada cannot expect its agricultural sector to grow and expand if it does not invest in farmers’ foundational well-being.”

If you or someone you know is struggling, dialling 811 option 2 in Quebec will connect you with a qualified social worker to speak with who can direct you to resources in your area. For those in crisis, Quebec’s suicide hotline, 1 866 APPELLE (1 866 277 3553), is available 24/7.

by Caleb Nickerson

A procession of tractors followed the hearse at Éric’s funeral, a tribute organized by local farmers

 

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