But all is not entirely tranquil. Although he plays down violence on the wards, Dr. Brink acknowledges it happens, but tries to put it in context. “To describe it as a place where people should expect patients to steal up from behind and hit them over the head – that really is dramatizing matters. We have violent incidents. Yes. We have troubling incidents. Yes. It is a challenging population, so we have had some incidents of significant concern.”
However, he points to various measures to boost safety, including enhanced training for staff, better risk assessment and management – even having staff wear personal alarms and two-way radios.
The units have no uniformed guards, but Dr. Brink said that nurses and health-care workers are trained in “aggression management,” including how to subdue a patient. They are backed up by security staff who are ready to come into the units as required.
Darryl Walker, president of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, worked as a nursing aide at the predecessor of the current facility. Mr. Walker said Colony Farm is a challenging place to work because of the uncertainty involved. “You almost have to have eyes in the back of your head. The potential for violence is there, but it can come in many forms. It may not come at all. It may come from someone you least expect it to come from. … It’s very, very demanding.”
And then, of course, there’s the safety issue for those outside Colony Farm’s blue gates. Dr. Brink said he is sympathetic to the hospital’s neighbours, specifically the Kwikwetlem First Nation, and their anxiety about escapees. “I certainly understand and appreciate their concerns. They ask the appropriate questions and express the concerns,” he said.
He concedes the hospital failed to notify the band when a patient took an unauthorized leave recently, but “otherwise we do and it’s our commitment to do that.” He said he has met with the band on the issue. As part of an effort of outreach, he said band officials have toured the hospital. There has even been talk about aboriginal programming that would presumably focus, initially, on the 10 to 14 per cent of patients who are first nations, but eventually involve others.
“They have a right to want to know how the hospital operates and they need to have confidence in the way we run this hospital.”
The history of mental-health treatment in the Colony Farm area begins in the early 1900s, when the area was used to grow food for patients at the Provincial Hospital for the Insane in New Westminster, B.C. Around the same time, work began on a new mental health facility, Riverview Hospital, on the slopes north of Colony Farm. Patients worked the farmlands as part of their treatment, eventually supplying produce and meat for Riverview. “The farm was considered the province’s showpiece and people came worldwide to see the farm, cattle and prize-winning Clydesdale horses,” area historian Anna Tremere wrote in a chronicle of Colony Farm. In time, residences for the mentally ill, including returning war veterans with mental-health issues, went up on-site. Farming operations were ended in 1983.
Even with all that history, it was not assured that the Forensic Psychiatric Hospital – which opened in 1997 – would be at Colony Farm. Opposition came not just from the first nation, but from a city councillor who said the hospital should be in the Rocky Mountains “or on an island somewhere.” A 1993 report by the hospital developer said the south side of Delta’s Alex Fraser Bridge and Boundary Bay Airport were both explored. Traffic congestion was among the reasons both sites were nixed. Colony Farm was praised in that report for its agricultural capability and seclusion, among other things.
Mr. Lessoway said band members have enough day-to-day issues to tackle, such as poverty. He said they should not have to carry such concern for their personal safety. At one point he said, “We have been looking into our options.” He does not go further, or explain if legal action is on the horizon.
In another instance, he concedes the fear might not always be rational – that those who escape might not be the most dangerous, that they might always head for the highway instead of for the reserve.
But the fear, like the memories of those who have lived near Colony Farm for all of their lives, remains.
On the record
Cases at Forensic Psychiatric Hospital where patients have not arrived at a pre-arranged destination or returned from unescorted leave at agreed time or have not notified staff:
-42 unauthorized absences since 2010 among 19,000 leaves (20 unauthorized absences in 2010; 17 in 2011; five in 2012)
-Thirty-one of the 42 returned within 24 hours. One is still missing.