Recently I’ve been looking back through my portfolio of projects I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked on. I came across an opinion piece I wrote for a local paper (local as in Metro Vancouver) following a multi-disciplinary event series I created, which was hosted by Douglas College in 2009. The series was called The Woodlands Project, and it was a month-long exploration of the institutional experience inspired by a ‘school’ in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada for children who have physical and developmental disabilities.
Woodlands opened in the mid nineteenth century as an asylum for adults with problems ranging from psychological disorders to poverty. By the mid twentieth century it was a home for children whose parents were not able to care them because of their mental, physical and behavioural needs. Woodlands closed in the late 1990s as part of a province-wide move towards ‘community living’, which is a highly contentious topic – obviously integration into a community is positive, but if it’s done as a cost-cutting measure (which it was) then how do you ensure the most vulnerable don’t fall through the cracks?
There were many sides to Woodlands (and similar institutions such as Riverview in Coquitlam, BC). Although it was a haven for many it was a tortious, abusive hell for others. In 2001 the Government of British Columbia finally admitted that abuse at Woodlands was systemic, and many former residents launched a class action lawsuit. Some of the stories are horrific – from children’s teeth being pulled out without anaesthetic as a means of preventing biting, to children being left in soiled bedclothes, to headstones from the institution’s graveyard being pulled up because they were ‘too disturbing’ to look at for elderly patients in a nearby hospital (some of the stones were used to build a staff BBQ pit). But many of the stories were also fond and happy, with residents recalling memories of a sense of belonging and community – some former residents would regularly return to the Woodlands site and sit on their favourite bench long after the institution had closed.
Douglas College and the site of Woodlands (now a shiny new condo development called ‘Victoria Hill’) are less than a mile apart, and many former residents still live in the area, so their stories are tremendously interesting and relevant, but beyond the media coverage of the lawsuit and the urban myths and rumours their voices were seldom heard. In 2006 I was tasked with developing a project that was of relevance to the community and I found inspiration in their stories. What happened in the subsequent three years was a result of artistic collaboration, dedication and community support.
What follows is an updated version of an article that was published in a local newspaper following the event .
Examining Woodlands: How far have we really come?
Working on a project which examines the historical flaws in our system reveals the gaping holes that still exist.
Douglas College was abuzz with activity and excitement in anticipation of a project three years in the making as we launched our Woodlands Project – a month-long exploration of the institutional experience. For a bourgeoning special event coordinator, it was a major professional milestone. To conceive of an idea, convince colleagues of its worth, secure private funding and enlist the input of the community and the talents of various artists, and have everything fall into place—professional bliss.
That moment of personal satisfaction was quickly checked by the reality of what we were examining. Our project was an artistic and academic look at the ways we as a society have treated people who have mental and physical challenges in our province over the last 50 years. The stories we told were inspired by real people who experienced Woodlands and Riverview. Although many of the artistic elements were imaginary, the reality is that people lived this. As difficult as these stories are, they deserve to be told. These individuals deserve the respect and recognition afforded to everyone else in our community. Moreover, their stories resonate because they are not isolated; they are as old and far-reaching as the phenomena of institutionalization.
I believe you can judge a society by the way in which it treats its most vulnerable members. In Canada we pride ourselves on our public health care systems and social supports. But take a look around – do we really have that much to be proud of? Granted, we have come a long way in 50 years. We no longer lock everyone away for being deemed “unfit.” That is a definite improvement, but it is so shockingly evident that we haven’t come far enough.
I don’t think the average able-bodied, able-minded adult knows what support exists for those who cannot manage their own lives. You don’t have to look far to find countless stories of substandard, flea-ridden, bedbug-infested social housing units. If you are forced to survive only on the meagre pittance afforded to you by the government that is what you have to look forward to. If, by no fault of your own, you cannot support yourself you are essentially punished for it. How is this progress?
Many survivors of Woodlands and Riverview are pleased with the move towards deinstitutionalization. They are now active, contributing members of their communities, which is without question a positive thing. They have the same rights as everyone and are no longer locked away like criminals. But what about the others who need more support, of which there are many? Most decent, rational people should be in agreement that vulnerable children and adults need support, but so often it seems the burden of care falls to ‘someone else’ – the government, the family, the local community – and for as cheaply as possible too. Spare every expense.
We’re always so shocked by stories of abuse in care homes, but endemic indifference like this makes it easy to understand how that abuse happens again and again. We may not have lifted our hand to strike a vulnerable person, but how many of us have actually lifted a finger to help?
The Woodlands Project was held during March 2009 and included the following:
Imperfect – a play by Mary Burns with music by Doug Smith
Dead and Buried – a visual arts instillation by Michael de Courcy
Our Story – a panel discussion with former residents and employees of Woodlands
Asylum – a screening of a film created by Heidi Currie and lisa g
Media releases from the project can be found here:
For more information about the history of Woodlands and stories from survivors: