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Riverview Hospital’s East Lawn Building under construction, October 7, 1929. Established in 1904, Riverview Hospital is now part of the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital at Colony Farm. (City of Vancouver Archives)
Riverview Hospital’s East Lawn Building under construction, October 7, 1929. Established in 1904, Riverview Hospital is now part of the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital at Colony Farm. (City of Vancouver Archives)

Colony Farm

Life in the shadow of a Psychiatric Hospital can breed fear that spans generations Add to ...

Chief Kwikwetlem William – the man for whom the suburban community of Coquitlam is named – knew first-hand the perils of living near a hospital for the mentally ill. The chief – who lived to be 110, was there when the first steamboat arrived, and met the first white man to enter his community – was attacked by a pitchfork-wielding patient at Colony Farm during the 1930s. The Kwikwetlem First Nation and old press clippings say the chief suffered a head wound from the attack and lost vision in at least one eye.

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The chief’s scars were visible, but those of the Kwikwetlem people are more difficult to spot. Band members, including Fred Hulbert, now a Kwikwetlem band councillor, recall growing up on the reserve and sprinting from one residence to the other in perpetual fear of shadowy figures. The fear remains to this day. The first of the Kwikwetlem’s two reserves, on which the band office sits, is a short walk down a windy road from the now-notorious Forensic Psychiatric Hospital at Colony Farm – home to, among others, those found not responsible for their crimes due to mental disorders.

Colony Farm (as it is widely known) has had a home for the mentally ill on its grounds, in one form or another, since 1909. In recent months, the hospital made headlines due to patient escapes and employee safety concerns. The federal government last week announced it would introduce a bill to make it tougher for offenders who are mentally ill to be released from custody. The Kwikwetlem – who once numbered in the thousands but now have about 70 members – have for more than a century opposed having a mental hospital on what it calls its territorial land. While other Coquitlam residents might express concern about escapees, for the first nation people, it’s a pressing problem in their own backyard.

Dale Lessoway, the Kwikwetlem’s lands and resource manager, says the band has met with hospital officials multiple times, pleading for quick notification when a patient walks away. Speaking in a conference room inside the band office, a drum emblazoned with the Kwikwetlem logo behind his head, Mr. Lessoway’s frustration with Colony Farm is readily apparent. He thought the parties were on the right track earlier this year when the band was notified within an hour of a patient’s escape. But when 60-year-old Charles Hansen walked away from the hospital last week, Mr. Lessoway said, the band learned about it through the media, undoing any sense of progress.

The first nation has a protocol to respond to an escape. Every band member is called and a photo of the patient is uploaded to Facebook. On the most recent occasion, Mr. Lessoway met the band’s children after school to ensure they made it home safe.

“How would any other community react to this?” he asks. “It’s just going to be a matter of time before something bad happens.”

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The purpose of the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital is to make something good happen – and in the end, most patients leave safely.

“The vast majority of patients improve in terms of their mental illness,” said Johann Brink, clinical director of the current 190-bed facility. “They respond to treatment, they respond to our rehabilitative efforts and treatment programs. They are well enough to leave the hospital.”

Overall, treatment is the focus. The hospital does court-ordered assessments of patients as well as housing those who are found not criminally responsible for crimes.

“Patients, by default, have a major mental illness, so they receive medication,” said Dr. Brink, who has been at the hospital for 11 years, and in his current position for five years. “We have programs to address their mental illness, to improve their understanding of the illness, to understand the medications they are taking. We have anger-management programs. And we had addiction programs, because many of our patients have concurrent disorders.”

The average length of stay is three years, although Dr. Brink acknowledges that some patients will never leave. Men and women “intermingle” on hospital grounds if they have appropriate privileges, but there is a segregated residential unit for women, who represent about 10 per cent of patients.

Six levels of privileges determine a patient’s ability to move around the hospital grounds. Zero is restriction to a unit. Level One includes the option of being escorted by two staff to limited programs, such as the gym, within the secure area of the hospital. Level Three would be access to the grounds during specified hours. Dr. Brink said the facility is distinct in Canada for having a mix of security levels through which patients move, depending on their progress, within the same secure premises.

Dr. Brink said the bucolic setting between Lougheed Highway and the Fraser River helps with the treatment. “There is no hustle and bustle of the city,” he said. “It has a tranquil feel to it, which, I believe, helps patients in their recovery.”

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