Woodlands Memorial Garden

Wondering what the image above is? It’s a view of the Woodlands Memorial Garden, opened in 2007 to commemorate over 3,000 former residents of Essondale and PHI (later known as Riverview and Woodlands) who were buried in an institutional cemetery on the Woodlands grounds in New Westminster, British Columbia.  This cemetery was no longer used after the late 1950s, but the graves of former institution residents remained, marked by plain flat rectangular gravestones.  In the 1970s, the BC government “decommissioned” the cemetery and turned it into a “park,” removing all but a few of the gravestones but leaving the graves undisturbed.  For two decades, those buried here were unacknowledged and forgotten.

In 1998,  community living advocates rediscovered this unmarked mass grave and decided something had to be done about it.  With government support, a coalition of community members – including parents and former residents of Woodlands – worked to create a memorial garden that properly honoured those buried on the site.  Many grave markers were returned to the site and set into memorial walls, while commemorative panels inscribed the names of every person buried here.  A sculpture called The Window Too High was added to signify the confinement and invisibility endured by those who lived in institutions.  Newly updated interpretive panels throughout the site offer background information about institutions and the cemetery’s history.

The Woodlands Memorial Garden is at the north end of the Victoria Hill housing development in New Westminster, at McBride Blvd. and Columbia Ave.

Are you looking for a lost relative who might have been buried at the Woodlands cemetery? Here are two online sources to check:  Find a Grave cemetery finding aid,  and Michael de Courcy’s website about the Woodlands cemetery, Dead and Buried. If you want help searching for other sources and records about your relative, contact Pat Feindel (pfeindel@sfu.ca).


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Woodlands Tower Demolished

On October 18, 2011, former residents of Woodlands, along with friends, family members and supporters, gathered in New Westminster to witness and celebrate the demolition of the last remnant of the institution that has haunted their lives for decades.  Hosted by BC People First and Inclusion BC, the demolition of the Woodlands Centre Block tower marked the end of an era that sought to keep people with intellectual disabilities segregated from society and easy targets for abuse and neglect.  Former residents played a leading role in the ceremonies and gave the final signal to workers to start up the backhoe and begin demolition.

While a demolition cannot erase memories of experiences at Woodlands, at least the building, as a symbol of past oppression, has been removed from the landscape. The City of New Westminster has since been coordinating a committee of volunteers who are developing historical panels to be placed on the site where the Centre Block stood.

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Woodlands Tower Demolition October 18, 2011

Demolition of the Woodlands tower in New Westminster is slated to take place October 18, with the involvement of former Woodlands residents. People First of BC is coordinating this effort. Check here soon for more details.

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Woodlands Centre Block Tower Will Come Down

On July 12, 2011, the City of New Westminster announced its approval of a recommendation to demolish the only remaining fragment of the Centre Block building on the former grounds of Woodlands in New Westminster. After a series of fires in the summer of 2008, only the centre tower of the building was left standing. The fate of the tower has been the subject of much debate and public discussion over the last two years. The city cited the wishes of former Woodlands residents and the costs of preservating the tower as determining factors in the decision to demolish it.

Opened in 1878 as the provincial asylum for the insane, Woodlands later became an institutional facility for children and adults considered to have developmental disabilities. After Woodlands closed in 1996, the buildings stood vacant until, in 2003, the Onni Group of Companies purchased the property from the province for redevelopment. Onni was charged with preserving the Centre Block as a heritage building, but the developers claimed that restoring the brick façade would be more complex and costly than they anticipated. In the summer of 2008, much of the structure was destroyed by four fires that occurred in quick succession. Subsequently, the remaining shell of the building was torn down, except for the centre tower, which survived the fires.

Through a consultation process conducted by the City of New Westminster, former residents and community advocates made it known that their preference was to demolish all traces of the Woodlands buildings, to remove the constant reminder of the horrors of living there. Meanwhile, community heritage advocates supported retention of the tower for its historic and cultural value. A 2009 city report recommended preserving the tower, suggesting at least three options, but after public consultations, a 2011 report reversed that recommendation, favoring demolition instead.

It appears that the wishes of former residents converged with budgetary concerns, resulting in a decision to demolish the structure. The BC Association for Community Living has requested a ceremonial event in which former residents can witness or participate in the demolition. Whether Onni and the City will comply with such a request remains to be seen.

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Novelist portrays life inside Woodlands

Perusing the summer edition of BC Bookworld last month, I came across a letter to the editor referring to an earlier article dealing with Woodlands. My curiosity piqued, I located the original article in the spring edition, called “Darkness at the Edge of the ’Burbs.” It consisted of an excerpt from novelist Gina McMurchy-Barber’s fictionalized account of life inside Woodlands from the perspective of a young female inmate. Written for young readers, Free as a Bird is the story of Ruby Jean Sharp told in her own voice, from her first arrival at Woodlands as a young child to her eventual release as a young adult and her explorations of family and city life in the Lower Mainland.

Though fictional, the novel is based on conditions witnessed inside institutions such as Woodlands, and incorporates local landmarks and community agencies in Vancouver. By narrating events from Ruby Jean’s point of view, the author creates a compelling and moving story. It shows the challenges and prejudice faced by many of those who lived in institutions and made the transition to community. It also portrays Ruby Jean as resourceful, adaptable and able to learn — skills that enable her to survive and succeed in difficult circumstances. People like Ruby Jean, labelled as developmentally disabled, of course, were (and often still are) assumed to have none of these abilities. The novel uses phonetic spelling and a style of writing intended to convey Ruby Jean’s way of speaking, but at times I found this distracting and unconvincing.

In an afterword, McMurchy-Barber recounts that she had a sister with Down syndrome who was never institutionalized. The author became a community support worker for children and adults with learning disabilities, and worked for a brief time at Woodlands, where she was shocked to see the conditions under which residents lived. She soon left Woodlands for a job at the Community Living Society, which supported people with developmental disabilities to live in the community.

Free as a Bird, by Gina McMurchy-Barber. Toronto, ON: Dundern Press, 2010, 168 pp. $12.99 (in Canada). Teachers guide: www.dundern.com/teachers. BC Bookworld article – vol. 25, no. 1, p 19. BC Bookworld letters – vol. 25, no. 2, p. 4.

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This blog will bring you news and reflections on disability history in British Columbia, and items of interest that I come across in my research on family experiences of institutionalization.

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