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Wrestling with the Woodlands story

Faith Bodnar of Inclusion BC stands at the site of the former Centre Block building that was part of the Woodlands complex. In her hand is a brick from the old Centre Block. - Grant Granger/NewsLeader
Faith Bodnar of Inclusion BC stands at the site of the former Centre Block building that was part of the Woodlands complex. In her hand is a brick from the old Centre Block.
— image credit: Grant Granger/NewsLeader

The story must be told, but it has to be told right.

That’s why it took longer than expected to come up with the words for the Woodlands interpretive panels. A lot longer.

It appeared to be all done a year ago. That’s when the task force charged with coming up with the contents for the panels thought they had come to a consensus. They were to go where the notorious institution’s Centre Block used to be and feature narratives and images of Woodlands’ architecture, history and decision making.

But although some of its former residents and their advocates had agreed to the wording, when they took a step back they felt the panels would not adequately reflect the terrible conditions and its systemic abuse. So the task force reconvened to come up with new wording.

“For us it was a matter of conscience,” said Faith Bodnar, executive director of Inclusion BC.

Her group represents many people who lived at Woodlands before it closed in 1996. “Until we had it absolutely right we could not sign off on it.”

The final result has the unanimous blessing of the task force, which included representatives from the city, community groups and Onni Group, builder of the Victoria Hill residential development where Woodlands was located.

“We’re really happy,” said Bodnar. “It was a long, difficult process, but I fully support the content that is going on the plaques. It represents a fair and honest depiction in those panels of the kind of things that happened at Woodlands and why, and the history of Woodlands.”

Bodnar said it was the right decision to take the extra time to tweak the panels for the former “provincial lunatic asylum.”

A report by a former B.C. ombudsman documented years of systemic abuse at Woodlands which opened in 1873.

“It was never a good place for people to be, but that was part of the record of the people at the time,” said Bodnar. “From my perspective … we wanted to respect that many of the people that worked there were good people.”

The final product does not include the “Individual Voices” panel. The task force determined its inclusion was “problematic” because it only represented recent history. It was not reflective of all groups, according to a city staff report. In its place will be a panel of historic photos.

The quotes “did not accurately capture the experiences of some former residents; and that the memories evoked were still quite ‘fresh’ and potentially controversial and painful,” said the report written by city heritage planner Julie Schueck and social planner John Stark.

“We didn’t want to add any further hurt to anybody,” said Bodnar.

“For me it was a really profound experience,” Bodnar said of working with the task force.

“At times the issues were deeply disturbing, and it was a place where we had an opportunity to come to terms with what happens at an institution … There was some reconciliation happening around the table.”

Mayor Wayne Wright said he understood why there was so much concern about what would go on the panels.

“To deal with something like this is emotional to say the least. To talk to some of the individuals they’re still living this,” said Wright.

He added the former residents can get some comfort and closure in knowing the buildings are no longer there. “[Demolition] doesn’t change what happened, so we’re trying to fix it up for the future,” said Wright.

Council gave its support to the final product at its March 3 meeting.

“It is a good news story, sometimes to get it right you have to revisit it,” Stark told council.

An unveiling of the revised panels is set for a late spring council meeting. The city budgeted $4,000 to design the panels. Onni will pay for their construction and installation.

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