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Brian McInnes, seen here on June 30, 2020 in Thunder Bay, was 18 when he arrived at the Oak Ridge division of the Mental Health Centre in Penetanguishene, Ont.

Brandy Kenna/The Globe and Mail

A psychiatric treatment program developed by an Ontario doctor after a visit to Mao Zedong’s China in the 1960s was an assault on vulnerable people, and not an acceptable form of medicine, an Ontario judge has ruled in a lawsuit brought by 28 former patients.

The 310-page ruling, which comes 20 years after the patients launched their lawsuit, and with eight of them now dead, was greeted as vindication by Brian McInnes, a former patient at the Oak Ridge division of the Mental Health Centre in Penetanguishene, Ont., a maximum-security facility.

Mr. McInnes was 18 when he arrived at the centre. He said his parents hadn’t believed what he’d endured there – including periods in which he was given LSD on a daily basis, and others in which doctors consulted a psychopathic killer on Mr. McInnes’s treatment.

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“I remember when I got out of there telling my parents what they did to me, oh boy, the wrath came down. ‘Are you really crazy? You can’t make up lies like that. That’s the government, they wouldn’t be doing stuff like that,’ ” Mr. McInnes, now 61 and living in Thunder Bay, told The Globe and Mail.

“We were a society that existed outside of your society,” Allen McMann, also 61, a former patient living in Vancouver, said in an interview. “What they put into my head I can’t get out.”

The program ran from 1966 to 1983. One of the two main doctors involved in its creation, Gary Maier, called it “the greatest experiment in psychiatry.” His colleague, Elliott Barker, went to China in 1965 to study the use of coercion in character-reshaping methods in prison camps, evidence showed.

Among the program’s methods: the heavy use of mind-altering drugs such as LSD; the chaining together of naked patients in an unfurnished room for days on end, with liquid food given to them through straws in the wall; and the use of patients who functioned, in effect, as the therapists, and were given the right to use physical force.

The patients had been involuntarily committed to Oak Ridge. Some had been accused of violent crimes, and found to be “insane” and therefore not guilty. Others were placed there under mental-health laws for their own protection or that of others. One was just 14 when he was committed for treatment for borderline personality disorder. Their participation was coerced – they were told they would not be released unless they took part, evidence showed.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Morgan held the province of Ontario and the two psychiatrists who founded the program legally and financially responsible for short- and long-term harm to the men. He said the treatment amounted to assault and battery, and violated the doctors’ and government’s fiduciary duty – the obligation a person or organization has when holding power over another. The government had “knowingly assisted” in the assault and battery, he said, calling it a “paradigm case of opportunity and power on one hand, and vulnerability on the other.”

Damages will be set at the next stage of the proceedings.

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A previous judge, Superior Court Justice Paul Perell, had ruled three years ago that the treatment constituted torture, but the Ontario Court of Appeal threw out the ruling over unfairness in the legal process and ordered a new trial.

The lawsuit began as a proposed class action in 2000, rejected by a judge in 2003, a ruling upheld on appeal. In 2006, it was reconstituted as a multiplaintiff action. The two sides fought for years over whether the lawsuit was barred by a statute of limitations, and then whether five plaintiffs could be added.

William Black, a lawyer for Dr. Maier and Dr. Barker, declined to comment while the legal process is continuing. Brian Gray, a spokesman for the Ontario Attorney-General’s Ministry, said the ministry is carefully reviewing the decision and has no comment while the matter is still in an appeal period.

Joel Rochon, a lawyer for the patients, called the events a cautionary tale about abuse of power. “Left unchecked, power and authority (especially sanctioned by the government) can result in the violations of the most basic rights, including the right to personal dignity,” he said in an e-mail.

The program was no secret. Dr. Barker wrote about it as early as 1968 in a psychiatric journal.

Mr. McInnes had been physically and sexually abused since childhood, and wound up in Oak Ridge for a theft and an assault committed in a difficult custodial situation in a boys’ training school, Justice Morgan said.

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In an interview, Mr. McInnes said that at least one of his fellow patients was there for child-sex killings, and some for other killings. “The terror that I felt, not knowing what’s next, what are they going to do to me now? Every day I feared for my life.”

He said the doctors would use a patient who had killed a man as a teacher in the program: “And the doctors say, ‘What do you think this patient needs,' and he says, ‘I think he needs scopolamine.' Really? You’ve got a psychopathic person handing out treatment to a young person?”

He said he was given LSD several days in a row. “All the LSD they put me on, day after day, constantly hallucinating. I didn’t know if I was going to survive.” He added that while he, like many people, enjoys watching horror films, “I lived one.”

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