Waterford Hospital: Closing since 1971

“The lunatics of 2015…will be digging no more trenches because those who are responsible for the health and well-being of the people of this province fail. We will work in an entirely different way.”

April 30, 2015 was just another day in the long march of a centuries-old tragedy in Newfoundland and Labrador. It wasn’t new. It wasn’t a surprise. It has all happened before.

On that day, we were told that we were just going to have to live with the continued operation of the Waterford Hospital. For another ten years possibly. The wind had changed. Too bad. The Minister of Health is very disappointed about it all. It’s all really too bad. It’s just too bad there is no easy, concentrated package of votes to be gained by keeping a promise to improve the lives of desperate human beings. It’s too bad cynical self-interest just can’t save the day on this one.

They didn’t even have the courage to say the project was cancelled. Oh no. It’s just “paused”. What was hoped to be gained by this transparent, weak and inept attempt at spin is unknown. Presumably, there must be a belief that the mental health community, and the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, are fools who can be coddled with uncreative euphemisms. There must also be a belief that this would not be taken for what it is: Profoundly insulting.

It’s really too bad we had been promised a new facility for the last decade or so. It’s really too bad Williams, Dunderdale, Davis — the whole lot — enthusiastically proclaimed the imminent demise of the Waterford. Promised it. Pledged it. Nodded sagely and sombrely over it. Jerome Kennedy, the long departed brains of the entire Conservative outfit, championed it. It’s all really too bad.

It’s really too bad politicians of all stripes have been in broad agreement on this stretching back to some distant point in the 1970s. To quote Dr. David Atwood: “They started closing this hospital in 1971.”

1971. We have been at this since 1971. We have been up and down over this road for 44 years.

That’s more than a lifetime for many. Lifetimes that have been spent whiling away the hours caught on the sharp edges of that statue of stigma and pain. Lifetimes spent desperately grasping for some thin comfort in the even thinner cracks in the edifice. Cracks made through the constant, relentless hammering of generations of advocates, families and inmates. Cracks that grow more numerous with each passing year.

It took the bulk of those 44 years for a Jerome Kennedy to arrive to actually create some marginal movement, to impart upon his privileged associates what was actually occurring in the realm of mental health in this province. Jerome knew what he was doing. The Progressive Conservative Party owes him more than they could ever imagine. He was listened to for a time. No longer. Jerome, like the New Waterford, is gone.

When Kathy Dunderdale bid him farewell and spoke her famous “blood being on the cabinet room floor” quote fondly memorializing their time together, he went quietly. The New Waterford will not. Indeed, it will come. Kicking and screaming into the world like a child if necessary. It will come.

At this point, it is without question that some old bureaucrats will bristle at the implications of the above. They will speak of partnerships, and stakeholders, and alliances, and going forward together. All of that. All that has been said a thousand times before by people long forgotten in the history of our home. They will say that somehow the Waterford is a special project, that the stakeholders and advocates must work together to develop creative solutions to bring this vital piece of human infrastructure into existence.

The more things change the more they stay the same

In 1900, at a particularly hellish stage of the history of mental health in this province, the grand project of creating a new portion of the grand old facility was underway in Newfoundland.

A letter to the editor in the Evening Telegram from “A Friend of the Lunatics” wrote he “was troubled to find that its poor unfortunate inmates, are compelled to dig from early morning till late at night, endeavoring to get a water supply to the building.” The situation disturbed him so he demanded “that the Board of Works institute an enquiry into the management of the Lunatic Asylum.”

The Friend of the Lunatics went on: “Is it fair to the inmates of that institution to have them wading in water, digging over half a mile for this supply.  I say it is not, and the person in charge ought to be brought to account for his conduct.”

The lunatics of 1900 dug the trenches to bring water to the Hospital. They brought it life.

The lunatics of 2015 are not digging trenches. We are in them. We stand on the backs of the labour of those tortured men and we do not forget them. We do not forget what was done to them. We will be digging no more trenches because those who are responsible for the health and well-being of the people of this province fail. We will work in an entirely different way. We are raising this issue to such a level it will soon become impossible for any politician to turn away from this project. It is you who will dig the trenches this time. We are not the “mentally ill”. We are the electorate.

The day is rapidly approaching when yet another death will not produce yet another inquiry. There will be no more Luther Inquiries. There will be a march. There will be candles. There will be portraits held aloft. There will be tears.

We no longer require Friends of the Lunatics to speak for us. We speak for ourselves. We speak for our families. We speak to the people of this province.

You are standing in the way of our emancipation.

“No longer a hospital”

The Waterford Hospital is no longer a hospital. It is the symbolic embodiment of everything that has gone wrong with our society’s conceptualization of mental illness and mental health for generations. It is a vast receptacle of human misery, pain and failure. It’s continued existence validates stigma. It is a spiritual blight on the soul of Newfoundland. It is harming people with mental illness in this province. It is a retrograde, obsolete, offensive, backward institution that is not fit for modern human beings, employing methods and tactics that are not fit for modern human beings.

The new facility we were promised was to be built to implement the recovery model. This is the dominant model of modern psychiatry. The recovery model starts with the premise the served person is a human being. This is the emphasis. Humanity. Decency. Autonomy. The person is not a disease carrier. They are a person who requires support with the aim of maximizing their potential as a being.

 We are raising this issue to such a level it will soon become impossible for any politician to turn away from this project. It is you who will dig the trenches this time. We are not the “mentally ill”. We are the electorate.

To this end, the new facility was to have private rooms. Privacy. What an unheard of luxury. How presumptuous of those with mental health conditions that they would want their own room and bathroom, their own key to enter their room, their own sense of safety and security. The new facility was to have a dedicated art gallery with the means to sell same to the public. What a silly idea. Clearly, no one in the province wants to buy the artwork of lunatics and madmen. It would never sell.

Never mind that the Canadian Mental Health Association has been supporting itself for years by doing exactly that. The New Facility was to have café facilities for the public. That would never work. Nevermind that one of most prestigious mental health supporting organizations in the province does exactly that already. The New Facility was to have natural lighting. How silly. What good is natural light and windows that can open? What difference does it make?

None at all I suppose to a thoughtless person looking in. It means the world to those inside.

The New Facility was to eliminate the line between the community and the hospital as much as possible. It was to break down the physical barrier that sustains the barrier of the mind that causes so many so much pain. No matter. We will break down the barrier if you will not. We will render it impossible for this state of affairs to continue. Your barrier will evaporate in due time.

The New Facility was to have a museum. What good can possibly be achieved by remembering anything of the past of that place?

This… is the entire point.

“One thing has changed”

There is much to remember. There is much to be told. There is much that needs to be known. We will not have begun to leave the old world behind until the day when all people appreciate what was done on the road of good intentions to their fellow human beings through the years. The foolishness of ego will be swept aside. This is owned by no one. We have collectively failed for well over a century to grapple with this problem. We have made incremental progress which is only now coming to fruition. It will be memorialized.

They will be memorialized.

The New Facility was to have a monument, a monument commemorating all of those who suffered and died on that lovely piece of real estate overlooking the park for so many captive, dark years. People without names. People who left this Earth the way a lost animal might. They were to be memorialized and acknowledged. They lived and died from the beginning, through the 30s and 40s while a man across the sea had resolved to kill every bipolar and schizophrenic he could find using the same logic espoused by some of our own citizens.

There will be a monument. I will bring my child to that monument and I will tell them what happened. I will tell them what we used to do to people. I will tell them what we no longer do. I will tell him that if he grows up to be bipolar like his daddy, he does not have to be afraid because people who care about him made a world where he is safe and loved.

This will come to pass. Because one thing has changed.

The lunatics are not running the asylum. They are running the world outside. There are more of us outside now than inside, and we are calling to our brothers and sisters within. A part of us is in there with them. We will not abandon them. We will not forget them. We will lean upon the walls in our numbers until they fall. We will continue our encirclement from the outside. We will continue to change the culture from the outside. They will be with us again, outside.

That is where the change will come from. That is where the change is coming from.

They will be remembered.

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