Former Woodlands residents celebrate demolition of centre block

It was a beautiful day for demolition.

Many former abused residents of Woodlands School gathered early Tuesday afternoon on the lawn of the infamous institution with its picturesque view of the Fraser River.

They were there to watch the last remnant of a building, first opened as an insane asylum in 1878, be torn down. Most of it was destroyed in a series of fires in July 2008, but the centre block survived.

On Tuesday, it stood there in the sun, worn and dirty, surrounded by rubble, shrubs and barbed-wire fencing. It was laid bare, its brick innards poking out. Bars on the windows of wards called Riverdale and Fraser Glen, where Robert Keen lived as a developmentally disabled teenager from 1957 to 1965, were still there.

Lorie Sherritt of B.C. People First Society stepped to the microphone to start the proceedings off before a crowd of about 200 survivors, their families and friends, and media.

"Never again!" she chanted during her speech to signify no child would be abused in a similar institution.

"Never again!" the former residents, many in wheelchairs, shouted back in unison.

Although several local politicians were present, and city council had signed the building's death warrant, none of them spoke during the ceremony.

Woodlands survivor Bill McArthur told everyone, "I saw unspeakable atrocities." He has led the charge for compensation from the province for those who resided there before Aug. 1, 1974. The government has settled claims for those that lived there after that date, but not the 850 complainants who were there before then.

"The government has shown total disrespect for our rights, and total disregard for our feelings," said McArthur. "I am ashamed to be a British Columbian. I am totally angry how this government has treated the survivors of Woodlands."

He went on to say if anybody thought the demolition would bring about closure they were mistaken. "It will not. The only way to get closure is to get the compensation they deserve."

Fred Ford of the National Task Force on Deinstitutionalization said, "It's not closure, it's not an end of the story. There should be an apology and compensation including those who lived here before 1974. They should not be hiding behind a stroke of a pen and they should accept responsibility."

At the same time as the ceremony, Public Safety Minister Shirley Bond spoke to reporters at the legislature in Victoria about the possibility of further compensation.

"It was the B.C. Court of Appeal that actually determined that the class action suit would include only those individuals post-1974. So I understand the concerns that people are expressing. I want to ensure the process moves forward as quickly as possible," said Bond. "There are currently four claims in front of two B.C. Supreme Court judges, and they will set the pattern for settlement that will take place for hundreds of former residents. I'm led to believe that we can expect to see that decision rendered in the not-too-distant future."

Back in New Westminster, survivor Richard McDonald (1952-62) stepped to the microphone and asked for a moment of silence to remember all who died at Woodlands. He and McArthur then joined with fellow former residents Leonard Zimmer and Shelley Starr to issue the command for the excavator to do its duty.

As the arm of the big machine rose and made its first break on the west wall the crowd chanted "Go! Go! Go!"

Bricks and mortar began slowly crumbling away. A big cheer went up a few minutes later when the front roof came down.

"Keep it up!" Keen called to the machine operator from his perch along the paved trail that meanders through the Victoria Hill subdivision. Although former residents hugged each other as the walls came tumbling down, few tears were shed.

Every day since the Millennium Line was built, McDonald has taken the SkyTrain to work with a couple of his friends who also lived at Woodlands. He'd always look at it as the train rolled by but his friends, who he says had suffered more abuse than he had, wouldn't look.

"When is it going to come down?" they would ask McDonald.

"Its days are numbered and when it comes you're not going to have to look at it," he replied.

"Now we can say people don't have to look at it any more because it would be in the past. Now everybody can live in peace," said McDonald just before giving a big cheer along with the rest of the crowd as the centre block front came crashing to the ground.

"When I'm on SkyTrain tomorrow (Wednesday) and when I look over I will say, 'Gone! Finally! Now I'm in peace'” said McDonald.

—with file from Tom Fletcher

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