Neil Swanson knows it’s a sensitive subject but it still needs to be talked about.
The Coquitlam resident spent 33 years working at Woodlands School, a former New Westminster institution that is linked in many people’s minds with stories of physical, sexual and emotional abuse of mentally challenged and/or just plain unwanted children.
The recent debate in New West about what to do with one of the remaining buildings – known as the Centre Block tower – has dredged up a lot of feelings among past residents, many of whom would like to see the tower gone. But the city is looking at three options to preserve the tower in some way, either as a ruin, a reflective garden or re-used as a community building, and has just finished a round of consultation with stakeholder groups.
The most vocal among them in recent years has been former residents and the groups that represent them, recounting stories of abuse they claim occurred there.
As a former employee, Swanson doesn’t deny that horror stories occurred over the 118-year history of the erstwhile residential facility near the banks of the Fraser, but he feels that, contrary to popular belief today, abuse was not widespread or systemic.
Abuse claims, he asserts, have been blown out of proportion to the point where they’ve unfairly damaged the reputations of the countless caregivers who worked there.
“It was a beautiful place to work and could be a really nurturing atmosphere,” said Swanson. “A lot of good people worked there.”
Woodlands first opened in 1878 as the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, was renamed the Woodlands School in 1950 and closed its doors for good in 1996, but tales of abuse continued to emerge. The Vancouver Sun eventually ran a series of devastating articles by investigative reporter Kim Pemberton and the NDP government of the day appointed Dulcie McCallum, a former provincial ombudsman and long-time advocate for the disabled, to look into the matter.
McCallum released a report in 2002 entitled ‘The Need to Know’ that was, in a word, damning: “[Abuse] rarely got reported to police, rarely got reported to the Superintendent of Children, rarely got reported to relatives and parents,” said McCallum. “There’s rarely any documentation on the person’s file, other than the actual documentation of the hurt. And they moved the personnel around rather than firing them or terminating them.” She summed up the abuse as having been “systemic” and a class action suit filed on behalf of Woodlands residents swiftly followed.
“I just don’t think it was as systemic and systematic as it was portrayed,” said Swanson. “I never witnessed any myself.”
Other long-time employees also paint a more complex picture of the facility.
“I have nothing but fond memories of my time at Woodlands,” said Myrna White, who retired in 1986 after spending over 30 years at the facility. Her sister and two daughters worked there as well.
“I think the way they’ve written about it has been terrible and has hurt me deeply,” she said.
New Westminster city councillor Betty McIntosh also feels McCallum’s report wasn’t entirely fair or balanced.
McIntosh, a former emergency room nurse who would sometimes be on duty when Woodlands residents were brought into hospital with injuries, said it is important to remember the volatile nature of some of the residents.
“Some injuries could have been caused by another resident. I think the assumption that it was always the staff doing it is wrong,” she said. “I think it is really unfair to malign everybody. I’ve known a lot of former employees over the years and I can’t believe that any of them were anything but very charitable people.”
The Liberal government that took over from the NDP didn’t think much of the report either, calling it “flawed,” but eventually offered both an apology and a controversial out-of-court cash settlement that would require residents to prove that they had been abused.
Residents of the school who were there before 1974—essentially the elderly and most vulnerable—were excluded from the deal.
Gregg Schiller, a coordinator for the We Survived Woodlands group, who was instrumental in making the abuse public, maintains his belief that it is doubtful staff were unaware of the alleged wrongdoings.
“Obviously not every single person was abusive but the system where they worked was,” said Schiller.
Neil Swanson says he just wants to make sure his own story and those of his col- leagues won’t be forgotten.
“We were charged with the care of the children who were unwanted and forgotten by not only their biological family, but society in general,” he said.
“We not only raised our own families, but we raised these children in the same manner. I am extremely proud of the contribution my co-workers and I made to make this world a better place.”