Jean Steel was treated at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal for what is now believed to have been postpartum depression. She was never the same again.
Christinne Muschi / MONTREAL GAZETTE
When Alison Steel was four and a half years old, her mother, Jean, was sent for psychiatric care at McGill University’s Allan Memorial Institute, part of the Royal Victoria Hospital, suffering from what is now believed to have been postpartum depression.The outgoing woman of 33 who liked to play sports and socialize emerged from treatment at the Montreal institution months later a shell of her former self. She no longer displayed emotion with her only child, and took to sitting in the dark and scribbling cryptic codes. She would never hold Alison. She remained disabled until she died.“In my childhood I was very much alone,” Steel said. “I spent my time in my room and my mother would just sit in the dark.”Jean Steel had been the patient of Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron, a renowned psychiatrist, who, it turned out, had subjected hundreds of patients between 1948 and 1964 to massive amounts of mind-altering drugs, repeated bouts of electroconvulsive shock therapy and tapes of words or phrases repeated hundreds of thousands of times in an attempt to “de-pattern” his patients — wash their brain clean in order to rebuild them. Cameron’s experiments, which were funded by the Canadian government, were also paid for in part by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency — the CIA — which was funnelling money to mind-control research around the continent.
Alison Steel holds a photo of her mother, Jean, in her home in Knowlton. Jean was a patient of Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron, who conducted experimental electroshock treatments at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal in the 1940s-’60s.
Christinne Muschi /
On Feb. 13, Steel, Marilyn Rappaport and roughly 40 other family members of patients who were treated by Cameron filed a legal action in Quebec Superior Court demanding payment of $1 million per family — $850,000 for physical and emotional damages, and $150,000 in punitive damages — from the Royal Victoria Hospital, the McGill University Health Centre and the Federal Government of Canada. The legal action states that Cameron’s research was funded in part by four grants from the Canadian Department of National Health and Welfare between 1948 and 1964, totalling $162,206, which would be equivalent to $1,696,350 in today’s dollars.“The destructuring depatterning treatments caused permanent psychological damage to the patients,” the suit reads. “The institutional Defendants knew about or were wilfully blind to, and facilitated, approved … the experimental treatments performed by Dr. Cameron.”The legal demand, described as a direct action, should be heard in court, or settled out of court, within two years, lawyer Alan Stein said. It was filed three weeks after an application for a class-action suit was filed in Quebec Superior Court by relatives of victims by the Consumer Law Group, seeking unspecified damages from the same defendants as Steel’s action, as well as the U.S. government. More than 300 relatives have signed onto that suit. Lawyer Stein said family members are able to join both legal actions.In 1992, the Conservative government agreed to pay 77 of Cameron’s victim’s an ex gratia settlement of $100,000. Since then, Steel and a few other family members have been able to win court payouts from the federal government, on the requirement that they not discuss the settlements.
Highlighted portions from the bedside notes in the medical file of Jean Steel, part of the paperwork collected by her daughter Alison Steel. Jean Steel was treated at the Allan Memorial Institute.
Christinne Muschi /
Family members came together last year to organize a group called Survivors Allied Against Government Abuse to figure out their legal recourse.In a statement, the Trudeau government said it was reviewing the lawsuit application.“The government of Canada believes in taking a fair and compassionate approach to victims and their families,” Department of Justice spokesman Ian McLeod said. “In this case, the government acknowledges the damages and painful scars of the victims who underwent the ‘depatterning’ treatment technique, as well as the impact on their families, and has taken action to provide assistance to those affected.“The government of Canada asked a third party, George T.H. Cooper, to conduct an inquiry into Dr. Cameron’s ‘depatterning’ work between 1950 and 1965. The Cooper Report concluded (in 1986) that Canada did not hold any legal liability or moral responsibility in respect of these treatments.”The McGill University Health Centre acknowledged that Cameron “carried out experiments at the Allan Memorial Institute during the ’50s and ’60s,” but said it wasn’t responsible for his actions.The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.“This is a dark chapter in the history of the Canadian government and I would like to see some kind of apology, as well as compensation, once and for all,” Stein said. “Those people were used as guinea pigs.”“The Canadian government has been keeping this a huge secret since Day 1,” Steel said. “It’s barbaric how they treated those patients. I think the patients and their families that have suffered their whole lives deserve justice. … Not one patient came out of that hospital healed — they just came out worse.”firstname.lastname@example.orgThe National Post contributed to this report.
The Allen Memorial Institute in Montreal in 2014.
John Mahoney /
Montreal Gazette files