Posts Tagged "Rob"


Rob Shaw: Compensating Woodlands survivors a long, emotional journey

by admin

VICTORIA — When the province began offering compensation last year for survivors of abuse at the Woodlands mental institution, it looked as though efforts to right a historic wrong committed against some of the B.C.’s most vulnerable people were finally at an end.

But it turns out that announcing the money was the easy part. Finding the survivors and getting them cheques was much more complicated than anyone imagined.

A year after the announcement of $10,000 payments, the government has compensated 1,113 people, including 394 people who were at the school before 1974 and were cut out of a past settlement under the previous Liberal government.

It has spent roughly $10.7 million out of the $15.8 million compensation fund. No one is quite sure how many survivors are unaccounted for, but a new round of letters and calls are going out to find approximately 400 people — likely elderly, suffering some type of developmental disability and still living with some type of support or care programs.

Health Minister Adrian Dix, an advocate of the victims for more than a decade, has extended the compensation program for another year in an attempt to find more people.

“There’s still more work to be done,” said Dix. “We’re continuing to reach out and find people and engage with people and make sure everybody who is eligible for a payment gets the payment.”

Woodlands opened in 1878 as B.C.’s “provincial asylum for the insane.” It later housed children and adults with developmental disabilities, mental illnesses, runaways and wards of the state. It closed in 1996 and was destroyed in 2011.

B.C.’s ombudsperson concluded in a 2002 report that Woodlands had been the site of widespread physical, sexual and psychological abuse against residents. Patients were beaten, kicked, shackled, isolated and bullied, concluded the report. Mentally handicapped girls were sexually assaulted, resulting in some pregnancies.

The job of finding the former residents fell to Antje Helmuth, a government librarian who volunteered to lead a small team inside the Ministry of Health.

As she tracked them down, she experienced first-hand the gamut of emotions felt by survivors at the idea of compensation — some were overwhelmed at the offer of so much money, others deeply distrustful and bitter at government, some thought it was a hoax like a fake Canada Revenue Agency scam call, and a handful refused completely or gave the cash back because they didn’t want to reopen such a dark and painful part of their lives.

“Quite a few families asked me to let them know when the cheque was in the mail, so they could be there to support the person when it arrived because they knew they’d be very distressed when it arrived because of Woodlands memories,” said Helmuth. Others, she said, wanted to be there to make sure the recipient understood he significance of $10,000 to their lives.

Helmuth started with two lists of names — files from a class-action lawsuit against Woodlands and an Excel spreadsheet someone in government had manually compiled years ago from an old patient card index.

The only criterion was that a person needed to be alive to get the money. Many Woodlands survivors have died and the rest are mostly senior citizens with mental and developmental issues. Helmuth narrowed out the deceased using the vital statistics database. She reached out to the public guardian and trustee, which handled the finances and health care of some survivors. She put ads in every newspaper in B.C., started a social media campaign to reach families and met with advocacy groups.

There were also regulatory hurdles. The government had to issue a cabinet order to make sure the compensation wasn’t declared income and deducted from a person’s benefit payments. That involved three ministries and approval from the Canada Revenue Agency.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix meets with Woodlands Project team members (from left), Antje Helmuth, Dix, Jasmine Lowey, Norine Sauvageau and David Godfrey outside the library at legislature. 



A ministry call centre handled inquires from survivors, care givers, family members and friends. Helmuth’s team was able to cut through red tape and get cheques mailed, in some cases within two weeks. Then she’d follow up if a cheque wasn’t cashed, helping to troubleshoot bank deposits, mailing addresses and other snafus.

One part of the job did keep Helmuth up at night was fear that the money could make the survivor (often living in poverty) a target for financial abuse. Perhaps they’d be tricked into giving the money to someone else, or not recognize the enormity of the sum.

“My biggest concern in this whole thing is somebody is going to be taken advantage of,” she said. “Because we’re really talking about such a vulnerable population.”

The team developed safeguards, including conversations with family and friends, checking documents to see who had power of attorney, making sure the money was in the survivor’s name, and in some cases mailing the cheque to a safe address so the person could receive it discreetly.

She also got to see how the money brightened troubled lives.

“One person wanted a new bed and it sounded like they hadn’t received a new bed since they were a child — I actually looked and saw the person was born in the 1950s,” said Helmuth.

“One person really wanted to go on a cruise. They were up north and their home-share provider said we are going to go on B.C. Ferries.

“Lots of dental work and orthotics and those type of things they could pay for now. Two folks mentioned they could stay in their home that they had inherited longer now.”

A few — in their 80s with the mental capacity of a four or five year old child — wanted to go to Disneyland.

Vancouver lawyer David Klein, who spearheaded a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Woodlands survivors in 2005, praised the year of work by government.

“They implemented an extensive outreach program and have reached more of the survivors than I expected, and paid out more people than I’ve expected,” said Klein.

“It wasn’t just lip service, (Dix) empowered the staff that were working on this to take the needed steps to find as many of these people as possible and put some money into their hands.”

The extension of another year is the right move as well, he said.

“There will be people who are never found,” said Klein. “But if in that year they find another 20 or 30 or 50 people, it will be worth it.”

Dix said he’s been incredibly proud of the work the ministry team has done.

“They’ve been thoughtful, they’ve acted with integrity, with compassion, they’ve adjusted and learned and I think for people on the other end they’ve made an enormous difference,” he said. “I am really impressed.”

Helmuth, 62, said the work has been its own reward.

“In my 24 years of government it’s been the absolute highlight of it,” she said. “It’s been the most worthwhile thing I’ve worked on.”

[email protected]


To contact government Woodlands survivor project, call toll free 1-888-523-7192 or email [email protected]

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Rob Shaw: NDP government ‘reviewing’ a basic human right for girls

by admin

VICTORIA — Annie Ohana was in her classroom at L.A. Matheson high school in Surrey last week, when an all-too-common scene played out. A young woman ducked into her room after the final bell rang and quietly asked: “Ms. Ohana, do you have a tampon or pad?”

“Teachers at schools and counsellors, especially as women, we do often keep a little stash of products,” said Ohana.

So Ohana, the Aboriginal department head at the school, gladly reached into her own supply to help out. It made the difference between the student being able to stay at school for her extracurricular activities, or having to leave.

“She was volunteering for something, but instead of going home because of her period, she was able to ask me,” said Ohana. “I was able to provide it, but that’s my own money …  the system should provide it. In this case I was there, but what if I was gone?”

It’s a question increasingly being asked by teachers, parents, students and advocates in hundreds of schools across the province. Why is there no provincial funding to provide free tampons and pads for female students in school washrooms?

Instead, B.C. has a patchwork system that varies from school to school and often results in embarrassment and shame for female students.

Some districts put coin-operated dispensers in women’s bathrooms (requiring girls to have exact change to get a pad or tampon while bleeding and in need). Others schools have literally nothing. In some cases, like in Burnaby North Secondary, students have taken it upon themselves to organize free baskets of products in washrooms because nobody else will do it for them.

Some schools do offer free tampons or pads — but only if the student interrupts her teacher in class, asks to be excused in front of all her classmates, walks to the office, waits in the queue at the front desk and then asks the (possibly male) receptionist in front of everyone else sitting in that office if she can please have a tampon thank-you-very-much. You couldn’t create a more cumbersome and humiliating system if you tried.

L.A. Matheson teacher Annie Ohana.

Mark van Manen /


Some girls can’t afford to buy their own products. And there’s cultural and social stigmas around menstruation that can leave young women, at a difficult time in their life, isolated from family and friends. It’s even more difficult if the student is transgender. The very least the education system could do is offer them a discreet, free, and easy way to get a tampon or pad from every school washroom, without having to ask.

One in seven Canadian girls have missed school because they couldn’t get a tampon or pad during their period, according to a Procter & Gamble survey.

The issue was raised at the legislature by Green Leader Andrew Weaver during International Women’s Day. He based his question on a suggestion from one of his staff members, Stephanie Siddon.

Education Minister Rob Fleming responded by pointing to community grant programs that schools could try to tap, while offering to conduct more research into the issue.

It was an unimpressive display of leadership, said Weaver.

“There are some things that you just think about for 30 seconds and you realize, yeah that just makes sense,” said Weaver. “Here we are in 2019. You just do it. This falls into that. … “I would have thought he’d just have done it.”

Weaver’s own quick calculations — done in the middle of an interview using public pricing for hygiene products — pegged the rough cost at $200,000 a month for the education system, or $2.4 million a year to give more than 260,000 enrolled female students access to tampons and pads.

That amounts to a “rounding error” in the ministry’s $6.5-billion annual budget that should be acted upon without wasting time researching further, said Weaver.

New Westminster became one of the first school districts in Canada to fully fund feminine hygiene products when it voted last month to spend $10,000 of its own operating budget on dispensers and $7,000 annually to stock them with free supplies for women.

The issue is also on agendas for school trustees in Surrey, Greater Victoria, Cariboo-Chilcotin, Burnaby and Vancouver.

School districts are charging forward on their own, while the province lags behind.

The government could save time and effort by simply listening to advocates like Douglas College professor Selina Tribe, who has been clear, consistent and vocal about the issue for months.

Or Sussanne Skidmore, the secretary-treasurer of the B.C. Federation of Labour who is helping lead the United Way’s Period Promise campaign that sent a letter to Fleming on March 7 asking him to “take a leadership role in addressing period poverty in our province.”

“If there’s public policy around this, we can normalize it and make it no different than toilet paper,” Skidmore said. “It’s a human right.”

How frustrating it must be for socially progressive New Democrats to watch their government move so slowly on a clear-cut human rights issue like this.

“There are lots of leaders stepping up to say it can be done and it’s not that complicated,” said Skidmore.

Social Development Minister Shane Simpson is set to announce B.C.’s new poverty reduction strategy on Monday. There’s no good reason why this couldn’t be included.

Fleming said in statements last week that he’s “committed to supporting students around the province who need access to these products and I look forward to putting forward a plan soon.”

In the meantime, he said, “ministry staff are currently researching this further.”

Researching what exactly?

Is there some sort of cost-benefit ratio needed before the minister will sign off on funding access to hygiene products?

Is there a price to be put on the embarrassment faced in having to ask the office receptionist or school nurse (if the nursing office hasn’t already been eliminated due to cutbacks) for a tampon?

Is there a figure we can apply to how many days it’s acceptable for a female student to go home sick because they get their period in class and have nowhere to turn?

Does the ministry research the cost of toilet paper or soap?

For Ohana, who teaches social justice to her high school students, the issue is clear.

“To me, this is tied in to social justice,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s a human right. It’s a human reality.

“There’s a shame element,” Ohana added. “If girls can feel they can be proud of their bodies, and part of that being menstruation, that’s going to impact their self-esteem and confidence.”

That’s worth the cost.

Free advice to the education minister: Just do it.

[email protected]


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