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Dix would allow all Woodlands survivors to apply

Former Woodlands
Former Woodlands' patients cheer the beginning of demolition of the centre tower of the former mental institution.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER FILE

All Woodlands survivors will be allowed to apply for compensation for the abuse they suffered if the New Democrats are elected in the provincial election in May, NDP leader Adrian Dix announced on the grounds of the former school in New Westminster on Monday.

The provincial government and the courts have established a cutoff date that excluded survivors released before Aug. 1, 1974 from applying for compensation.

"Ending this discriminatory action is going to be one of the first acts my cabinet will complete within its first seven days of office," said Dix in a press release. "Providing some of the most marginalized British Columbians a sense of closure and justice for the systemic abuse they suffered is a priority not just for me, but for the people of our province. Despite repeated opportunities to do the right thing, the moral thing, the Liberal cabinet has systemically resisted treating Woodlands survivors with fairness and compassion."

It was welcome news for New Westminster resident Bill McArthur, who left Woodlands in late July 1974, about 10 days before the arbitrary date.

"The fact that he's made a commitment proves to me beyond a shadow of a doubt this province has had the ability to compensate all along, and has just chosen not to do so," said McArthur. "That's a form of abuse itself."

McArthur was put into Woodlands because he was too much for his parents to handle. He said he was raped by a staff member when he was five or six, held underwater in a bathtub full of ice water to the point of drowning, had "the living pudding beat out of me" when he was eight by a staff member while being held down by two others, and sexually abused by a known serial abuser when he was 14.

“I should never have been put in there,” said McArthur. He can’t understand why he was ineligible for compensation while others who were there later are.

“It may be legal, but it’s not right. It’s unconscionable,” said McArthur, who estimated there are more than 300 in the same position as him. “The government should hang its head in shame for what it’s done for the most marginalized people in society

He is hoping Dix’s commitment, if the  NDP are elected, would also result in a speeding up of the process. He said although more than 800 people who are eligible have applied, only six have been paid.

“At that rate we’re looking at well over 100 years,” said McArthur dryly.

New Westminster NDP MLA Dawn Black said the New Democrats would improve the timelines for compensation if elected.

“There would be a process you would still have to go through. But [Dix’s] commitment is to ensure that process would be completed in a quicker way than it has been to date,” said Black.

McArthur and Black both noted the longer the government delays, the more survivors who would be eligible for compensation will pass away.

“There’s something quite shocking about that,” said Black.

The B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities and the B.C. Association for Community Living (BCACL) have been lobbying on behalf of the Woodlands survivors for years.

“It just seems fundamentally unfair they wouldn’t be able to put their name forward,” said Faith Bodnar, BCACL executive director. “I would certainly welcome the government taking a similar position (as the NDP). We’ve wanted them to do that ever since the settlement (for post-1974 survivors) was announced. It’s the right thing.”

The NDP pointed out reports by the provincial Ombudsman in 2001 and the Public Guardian and Trustee confirm systemic sexual, psychological and physical abuse at Woodlands took place, but the government has responded by fighting former students in the courts.

“First they tried to deny them the right to apply for compensation as a class by arguing that there was not an institutional problem at Woodlands, just a ‘few bad apples.’ And then instead of entering a settlement agreement when the former students won the right to compensation, they pursued a separate challenge to reduce the class by creating a cut-off date,” said Dix.

Hector Bremner, the BC Liberal candidate for New Westminster, said the government is trying to find a respectful and timely solution to the problem within the law and doesn’t think Dix’s approach of photo ops and announcements is appropriate.

“Taking advantage of this for political gain is not helpful to anybody,” said Bremner. “We care very deeply about that and we want to find a solution... He is blaming the wrong people and trying to capitalize on emotion.”

He said he’s spoken to many Woodlands survivors and those subjected to the residential school system and his heart goes out to them. He accused Dix of not being truthful when discussing the Aug. 1, 1974 date because it was the New Democrat government of Premier Dave Barrett that set that cutoff.

While the speed of the processing of the compensation claims that have already been made may be worthy of a conversation about the system, government staff are working hard within the law and within the system to process the applications, said Bremner.

McArthur said the compensation could range from $3,000 for being slapped to $150,000 for severe sexual abuse. Woodlands School, a provincial institution for children deemed to have mental disorders, was opened in 1950 and closed in 1996.

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