In the past, it was common practice to label people with intellectual disabilities as “mentally retarded” or “mentally handicapped” and place them in institutions, or in segregated schools or workplaces, where they had few rights.

The institutionalization of people with intellectual disabilities in BC began more than a hundred years ago with the creation of a large institution in New Westminster, first called the Provincial Asylum for the Insane and later known as Woodlands School, or just Woodlands. Other large institutions – Tranquille, Glendale, and the Endicott Centre – were later created around the province. People with intellectual disabilities lived in these facilities apart from their families and communities, sometimes for their whole lives.

This short video chronicles the closure of insitutions in BC and honours the history of the community living movement.

What’s wrong with institutions?

We now know that institutions cannot begin to tap the potential of individuals to learn, participate and contribute to their communities. They isolate people from family, friends, and communities. And increasingly, we are finding out that they create high risk environments for abuse and neglect.

The experience of the past few decades has shown that no one needs to be separated from their community because of a disability. Living among family, friends and neighbours fosters new abilities and creates communities where everyone is welcome. Even those who require extra support or specialized care have a better quality of life when they receive care and support in their home and community, rather than in an institution.

The Change to Community Living and Inclusion

One of the primary goals of the movement for “community living” has been to close institutions and help people return to communities and participate as full citizens. The movement was started mainly by family members who dreamed of a better life for their sons and daughters who lived in institutions, who wanted them to learn in school, have friends, and be welcomed in their community.

People with intellectual disabilities also began to advocate for their own rights to live as full citizens, and created the “self advocacy movement.”

As a result, attitudes towards people with intellectual disabilities have changed dramatically over the last few decades. In 1996, BC became the first province in Canada to close all its large institutions for people with intellectual disabilities. Today, people who were once segregated from society are meeting new neighbours, co-workers, schoolmates and friends, and participating as citizens in their communities. That’s what “community living” is all about.

What is Inclusion BC doing about institutions?

Inclusion BC continues to advocate at the provincial and national level for the right of people with intellectual disabilities to live as full citizens in their communities. Even though BC has closed its large institutions, there are no guarantees for future generations. Institutions remain open in other provinces and many parts of the world, and invisible walls continue to isolate people, even when they live in the community. Our national federation, the Canadian Association for Community Living, is campaigning to end institutionalization across the country.

Inclusion BC also works in partnership with the BC Self Advocacy Foundation on projects that help to share the history of institutions, deal with the effects of institutions on the people who lived (and worked) in them, and make sure we never create institutions again.

Woodlands Institution

Woodlands institution opened in New Westminster on May 17, 1878 as the Provincial Asylum for the Insane, later re-named the Provincial Hospital for the Insane. In 1950 it was renamed Woodlands School and in 1974 the name was changed again – to Woodlands. Although the asylum was originally presented as a modern approach to treating “lunatics” and the “feebleminded, it was soon criticized as gloomy and unfit for its purpose of caring for people today referred to as having psychiatric disabilities and intellectual disabilities.

The philosophies of care and treatment changed over the decades, from custodial care and confinement to hospital or medical care to education and development. In the 1920’s, authorities decided that the Woodlands site would serve only people with intellectual disabilities, and other residents were moved to Essondale. While there were many exemplary staff at Woodlands and notable efforts – as early as 1885 – to ensure appropriate treatment of residents, inquiries and investigations into conditions, treatment and mistreatment of residents occurred in virtually every decade of Woodlands’ existence. Abuse and overcrowding were problems throughout its history.

The 1940s saw a significant increase in staff training and the focus of the institution shifted to education in the 1950s. By the late 1950’s there were approximately 1400 people living at Woodlands. Due largely to the advocacy efforts of families, in 1981 the provincial government announced plans to close Woodlands. Community placements were planned and implemented over the next 15 years. Woodlands finally closed in 1996, marking the culmination of a long struggle to end large institutions in B.C.

Following the closure, in response to allegations by former residents of abuse at Woodlands, the Province asked former BC Ombudsman Dulcie McCallum to conduct an independent review. In August 2001, McCallum submitted a report, called The Need to Know. The government released the report and their response to it in July 2002. The report found that there was evidence of physical, emotional and sexual abuse at Woodlands, and that the abuse was systemic in nature – in other words, the way Woodlands operated contributed to the occurrence of abuse.

The report made 12 recommendations about steps the government should take next, including doing a more in-depth review of abuse at BC institutions and making an apology to people who were abused. In response to the McCallum report, the BC Self Advocacy Foundation and the Woodlands Parents Action Group held consultations throughout the province with former residents and family members of former residents. Reports from these consultations, respectively entitled The Need to Make Amends and Having a Choice supported McCallum’s recommendations. The former residents also called for the demolition of the institution buildings and a role for themselves in the demolition.

Also in 2002, a class action lawsuit was launched against the provincial government on behalf of former residents. Due to a legal loophole, Woodlands survivors discharged from the institution before August 1974 were excluded from the settlement process. Woodlands survivors, Inclusion BC and our supporters provincially and nationally urged the provincial government to include all survivors in the settlement.

On March 31, 2018, the Province of BC announced plans to compensate former residents of woodlands who had been excluded from the settlement. The government also announced plans to raise settlement amounts to $10,000 for all survivors, who started receiving payments in October, 2018.

Woodlands Memorial Garden

The Woodlands Memorial Garden is in New Westminster, B.C. on McBride Avenue near Blackberry Drive. The site remembers and celebrates the lives of people who lived and died in Woodlands Institution.

Attached to Woodlands was a cemetery where over 3,300 former residents of Woodlands were buried. When the construction of Queen’s Park Hospital began in 1977 beside the Woodlands property, the cemetery was closed and made into a park. At that time over 1,800 grave markers were removed and all but a few hundred were “recycled” or disposed of. Some were used to make a barbeque patio on the Woodlands site for the use of staff. Others went off site for use at construction sites, and others were used to build retaining walls for the creek flowing through the Woodlands property.

In 1999, the BC Self Advocacy Foundation and the BC Association for Community Living, with the support of the provincial government, began planning the Woodlands Memorial Garden. The garden was designed by Erik Lees and Associates, who received a partnership award from BCACL for their dedicated and creative work on the garden.

The memorial garden design includes three key elements. A memorial sculpture called the “Window Too High” references the experience of institution residents who could not see out of the high barred windows. A reflective pond uses a pattern of stones under water that echoes the pattern of burials in the cemetery. And finally, the names of all those buried in the cemetery were restored to memorial walls placed in groups along a pathway that circles the cemetery site. Each memorial wall has an inset into it grave markers that have been salvaged, along with plaques engraved with names of those whose stones were not recovered.

On June 27, 2007, the Woodlands Memorial Garden was officially opened to the public.

The Demolition of Woodlands

On October 18, 2011, former residents of Woodlands and their supporters gathered to witness and speak to the demolition of the building’s last remaining structure, the Centre Block. The structure represented one the last and most imposing physical reminders of the institution, which confined and segregated people with disabilities in BC from 1878 until 1996.

The ceremony was organized and led by BC People First, who worked closely with Inclusion BC to ensure that the voice of former residents was heard on that day and into the future.

“Today’s demolition symbolizes the closing of one chapter in our history,” said Lorie Sherritt, then President of BC People First. “The next chapter will see former residents everywhere fully supported to live in the community and are apologized to and compensated for the harm done to them.
Photo: Members of BC People First
at Woodlands Demolition Ceremony.