VICTORIA — The B.C. government is offering compensation to former residents of the Woodlands provincial mental institution in New Westminster who were shut out of a previous legal settlement.
Bill McArthur, sent to Woodlands at age five, is among hundreds of survivors been left out because a legal loophole.
“Justice has finally been done, after so many years of suffering,” said McArthur. “It’s finally brought closure to a festering sore.”
On Saturday, Premier John Horgan announced payments of $10,000 each for patients of Woodlands who were at the facility before 1974. The former “provincial asylum for the insane” was the site of horrific physical and sexual abuse, but government payments to former patients in 2010 only covered those who suffered at the facility starting on Aug. 1, 1974, based on a legal technicality.
“What we’re doing is righting a wrong,” Horgan told Postmedia News. “We’re ensuring all currently living survivors of the Woodlands experience get the respect and compassion they deserved throughout their lives but most importantly since the government excluded them from the class action suit.”
McArthur spoke Saturday in front of plaques commemorating dozens of residents who died at the facility. He recalled abuses he both witnessed and experienced at Woodlands, including rape, beatings and extended periods of isolation.
Children were lined up naked in a hallway every morning “like cattle” to use the bathroom, he said. If they didn’t move quickly enough, they were beaten with brooms or fists to the head. McArthur described seeing residents pulled down hallways by the hair “like a sack of potatoes,” or forced to take icy cold showers for no apparent reason.
“Other residents were deliberately burned with scalding hot water to the point where their skin would peel off in strips,” McArthur said. “This was deliberate action by the people who were charged with the responsibility of caring for us in a humane manner, and who failed to do so egregiously.”
Another resident, Luanne Bradshaw, said she was sometimes heavily medicated or locked in a “control room” with no lights for up to two weeks over the course of her 12 years at Woodlands.
“I’m very proud of how far I’ve come in just being a free person, living life as I see fit and making sure that my identity doesn’t get forgotten,” said Bradshaw.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said there are believed to be between 900 and 1,500 survivors of pre-1974 Woodlands, and the government expects to pay between $9 million and $15 million.
The decision caps years of fighting by pre-1974 patients who argued they were unfairly left out of a provincial apology and class-action lawsuit settlement because their claims predated a B.C. law that allowed citizens to sue the government for wrongdoing.
The new payments by Horgan’s government are ex gratia, meaning they are voluntary and don’t come with any admission of legal liability. Horgan said while the government legally doesn’t have to compensate the survivors, he felt a moral obligation to do so and help them achieve some semblance of closure for a dark chapter in their lives.
Woodlands opened in 1878 as the province’s insane asylum, was renamed Woodlands School in 1950 and finally just Woodlands in 1974. It housed children and adult with developmental disabilities, mental illnesses, runaways and wards of the state.
B.C.’s ombudsperson concluded in a 2002 report that Woodlands had been the site of widespread physical, sexual and psychological abuse against residents. Patients were beaten, kicked, shackled, isolated and bullied, concluded the report. Mentally handicapped girls were sexually assaulted, resulting in some pregnancies.
The then Liberal government reacted by publicly apologized to the almost 1,700 former residents estimated to still be alive at the time of the report. But a $2-million trust fund was harshly criticized when the up to $510 goodwill cheques to patients were linked to a point system that assigned rating values to the type of physical and sexual abuse suffered, to determine how much money to provide.
A class-action lawsuit was certified in 2005, which prompted the government to settle in 2010. The province offered between $3,000 and $150,000 for each patient in compensation.
However, the government also imposed the 1974 cutoff date because that was when the law that allows people to sue government for wrongdoing, called the Crown Proceedings Act, came into effect. An attempt to appeal that was dismissed, leaving as many as 500 former patients at the time without compensation. Former residents said that the arbitrary cutoff date, though legal, was morally and ethically wrong.
Horgan said it’s unclear how many pre-1974 Woodlands survivors are still alive, but the province will be making every effort to find them.
In opposition, Dix spent almost 12 years advocating to expand the settlement and offer fairer terms. He embedded the promise in his 2013 election campaign as NDP leader. Dix praised the survivors who “have persisted against prejudice and mistreatment from the province for decades” and said he hoped the additional money would bring “some small measure of justice for them.”
“I give full marks to Adrian for all the work he’s done on this group,” said Horgan, adding Dix introduced him to survivor groups and argued how important it was to help them all.
The government will also pay up to $10,000 for patients who were housed at Woodlands after 1974, though the amount could vary depending on how much those patients already received in the previous settlement. The government said Sunday it expects to have paid out the new compensation packages by March 31, 2019.
Woodlands was closed in 1996. Its buildings were largely gutted by a fire in 2008 and then destroyed in 2011.
“It will help us close the chapter,” said Horgan. “For those British Columbians who know of the Woodland story, I think they will be grateful, and for those that don’t perhaps it will give them an opportunity to look back and see how far we’ve come as a society and how much further we have to go when it comes to working with people with developmental disabilities.”