Former psychiatric patients testify about harmful impacts of experimental treatments

·3 min read

Former patients of a maximum-security psychiatric facility who were subject to a series of “horrific” experimental treatments are appearing in a Toronto court via video feeds from across the country to testify at a three-week long damages hearing.

Last June, Justice Edward Morgan of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice found two former psychiatrists who worked at the Oak Ridge Division of the Penetanguishene Mental Health Centre, along with the provincial government, liable for what their lawyers call unethical and degrading human experimentation between 1966 and 1983.

Dr. Elliott T. Barker and Dr. Gary J. Maier gave patients high doses of hallucinogens and mind-altering drugs, including LSD and alcohol as the cornerstone of one of the programs. They confined naked men together for days on end at the facility along Georgian Bay’s Asylum Point, now known as Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care.

Eight of those 28 patients have died since the lawsuit was launched 20 years ago.

The first hearing revealed "varying degrees of harm” perpetrated by the two doctors in which the judge found the Crown also liable and in breach of their fiduciary duties “by perpetrating assault and battery."

The current hearing is meant to quantify the damages by establishing the income patients lost as a result of their treatment in Penetanguishene and other related impacts.

While the lawyers for the former patients haven’t yet attached a dollar figure to their claim, it is expected to be in the millions.

Rod Joanisse told a court Monday that his brother, Danny, could have had a career with the family’s successful printing business in St. Catharines, possibly as a partner, were he not plagued by the effects of his time at Oak Ridge.

As a 16-year-old, Danny was repeatedly cuffed to a convicted pedophile murderer, deemed, like many others at Oak Ridge, to be not criminally responsible for his crimes. The judge earlier found the teen “was humiliated, degraded, and deprived of any sense of security.”

Danny, who died last year after testifying at the original hearing, had cut off two of his own fingers, but that didn’t stop him from doing tasks around the printing plant, his brother testified.

But recurring nightmares prevented him from sleeping, increasingly interrupting his work schedule, he added.

“He was more than capable,” the surviving Joanisse told the court this week.

Allen McMann, now 61, told the hearing he spent five years on welfare after his release. And a letter from the welfare office finally prompted him to find some direction for his life and he signed up for a janitorial training program with Goodwill Industries.

“I basically froze; I had a lot of shame,” McMann said, adding that he didn’t know what to do up until that point.

That course eventually led him to a career of window cleaning, which he said suited him because it meant not having to deal with people, something he said is difficult as a result of his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

McMann was considered to have a behavioural problem, was a bully in school and had stolen a car when he was sent to Oak Ridge in 1975 at age 16. There, he was deemed difficult to manage and remained at the facility until 1978.

As part of the experimental treatments, he was coerced or forced to participate in humiliating programs he didn’t know were experimental, according to court documents.

He was placed in a “capsule” with groups of naked men and locked in an isolation cell for group encounters where he spent his 17th birthday. That included being coupled with “a prison-hardened, seasoned killer who was several decades older than him.”

The damages hearing is expected to continue for three weeks over the next four-week period and is to culminate with closing statements by lawyers for the former patients, the doctors and the provincial government in mid-December.

Marg. Bruineman, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, barrietoday.com