Speaking from the site where a notorious school and psychiatric facility used to stand, one of its survivors says he finally feels a festering wound begin to close.
Bill McArthur, who was sent to Woodlands in New Westminster, B.C. at age five, is among hundreds of survivors who had been left out from official compensation, because a legal loophole excluded them from a 2009 class-action settlement.
That changed on Saturday, when provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix announced that all survivors who lived at the facility before 1974 – the year that it became legal to sue the provincial government – will receive $10,000 in compensation.
“Justice has finally been done, after so many years of suffering,” said McArthur. “It’s finally brought closure to a festering sore.”
Woodlands operated from 1878 until 1996, providing care for children and adults with developmental disabilities and some individuals with both developmental disabilities and mental illness.
Abuse at the facility is well documented and in 2002, then-provincial ombudsperson Dulcie McCallum confirmed widespread sexual, physical and psychological abuse had occurred.
After a class-action by former residents was certified, the then-Liberal government won a ruling in the B.C. Court of Appeal to exclude former students who lived at Woodlands prior to Aug. 1, 1974 from compensation. That was the date the Crown Proceedings Act came into effect, making it legal for citizens to sue the provincial government.
McArthur, who had been the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit but left Woodlands ten days before that cutoff date, said the exclusion was one of the most painful things he has experienced in life.
“Abuse is abuse is abuse. It doesn’t matter when it happened,” he said.
McArthur spoke Saturday in front of plaques commemorating dozens of residents who died at the facility. He recalled the 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.
Dix said there are believed to be between 900 and 1,500 survivors of Woodlands, and the government expects to pay between $9-million and $15-million.
More than 800 residents were eligible for compensation following the original class-action lawsuit, but it was a long and arduous process to establish claims after the fact, Dix said. The total amount already distributed through that process, which is complete, was between $4-million and $5-million.
Recipients of the new compensation, which the province is offering voluntarily or “ex gratia,” will not have to prove abuse, he said.
In addition to the pre-1974 residents, anyone who was eligible for a settlement as a result of the class-action lawsuit, but opted against coming forward for any reason, will also be eligible for the $10,000. And anyone who received less than $10,000 through the lawsuit will have their compensation topped up, Dix said.
Dix noted that a significant number of the pre-1974 residents have died and their families will not be eligible for compensation.
The province expects all monies to be paid out by March 31, 2019.
“Most of the residents of Woodlands were the province’s most vulnerable people. Many were children, some were wheelchair bound, some had developmental disabilities, others had mental illnesses,” Dix said.
“They were placed in a government facility with the understanding, for them and their families, that they would be cared for. That fundamental trust was severely breached.
“We know, and I know, that no amount of compensation can make amends for what people such as (McArthur) have experienced – the struggle they’ve experienced and the abuse they suffered. But it’s important that we acknowledge what people went through and help, I hope, give residents the sense of closure they deserve.”