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'Historic day': Supreme Court won't examine Oak Ridge abuse lawsuit

'The plaintiffs are relieved that justice has finally been served and that our courts have confirmed that these horrific programs were wrong,' says lawyer
All that remains of the former Oak Ridge are these gates. A new facility was constructed on the property at Asylum Point in Penetang serving as Ontario's only maximum-security psychiatric facility.

The provincial government and two doctors have failed to convince the Supreme Court of Canada to re-examine a multimillion-dollar decision in favour of psychiatric patients who endured experimental and cruel treatment at Penetanguishene’s maximum-security psychiatric facility during the height of the psychedelic era.

That means 27 patients — 19 of whom are still alive — will finally receive compensation for “degrading and inhumane” experimental treatments conducted between 1966 and 1983. The awards for the patients range from $1,000 to $2.7 million each, totalling more than $9 million.

Meanwhile, the fight to bring attention to the way mental health patients have been treated in Ontario continues. Rochon Genova LLP, the Toronto law firm that took on the Oak Ridge case during its formative years 23 years ago, has launched another lawsuit, this one focusing on what it describes as a parallel “operation of a medically meritless, experimental patient-run program” in a southern Ontario facility.

The Supreme Court, in its list of decisions released Thursday, stated simply that leave to appeal the Oak Ridge decision was dismissed, bringing the lengthy legal battle to an end.

The original decision followed a trial held over 70 days three years ago. Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward M. Morgan ultimately found psychiatrists Dr. Elliot Thompson Barker and Dr. Gary J. Maier, along with the Crown, liable for using pain as an instrument in a treatment program all those years ago.

“This is a historic day for access to justice,” lawyer Joel Rochon said of the Supreme Court’s decision to not pursue the case. “This result has been 23 years in the making.

“Although it has been a long journey, it is important to hold the government, doctors and other professionals accountable, particularly when they are entrusted with the care and treatment of individuals with mental illness.

“The plaintiffs are relieved that justice has finally been served and that our courts have confirmed that these horrific programs were wrong and they should never have been subjected to them.”

The largest amount, $2.7 million, was awarded to the family of Danny Joanisse, who was taken to the Penetanguishene facility when he was 15 years old. During his time there, the slight boy was made to spend several days in “the capsule” with a convicted pedophile killer.

The capsule, an invention specific to Oak Ridge during this period, consisted of an eight-by-10-foot soundproof room that was constantly lit. It was described in court documents as a windowless room that had an exposed toilet and no furniture. Patients, who were made to strip naked, ingested food and water from straws protruding from holes in the walls and were subjected to sleep deprivation.

Joanisse spent “horrific” teen years undergoing the psychologically painful programming at Oak Ridge. The trial judge found Joanisse was humiliated, degraded and deprived of any sense of security at Oak Ridge. He underwent treatments that caused lasting harm that effectively prevented him from reintegrating into society until the last decade of his life and extended his paranoia, anxiety and mental anguish for the rest of his life.

Although he testified during the case, Joanisse died during the trial judge’s deliberations and never saw the outcome of the case.

The two doctors, influenced by the psychedelic culture at the time, had the patients ingest LSD, consume alcohol and take other hallucinogens and mind-altering drugs at the former Oak Ridge division of the Penetanguishene Mental Health Centre, which is now the site of the Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care.

Rochon earlier drew a parallel between those days at Oak Ridge to some of the experiments conducted by the Nazis during the Second World War. What happened at Oak Ridge, he suggested, contravened the Helsinki Declaration, which outlines the ethical principles around human research, and that doctors are held to the ethical standards of the Hippocratic Oath.

While the Ontario Court of Appeal modified part of the original decision, including removing the award for one of the 28 plaintiffs, and lowering that of three others, lawyer Golnaz Nayerahmadi, also acting for the plaintiffs, said the decision is largely upheld.

That includes a precedent-setting key aspect making up the core claim. The trial judge found the province had the fiduciary duty through the Ontario Mental Health Act to provide care and humane treatment to the involuntary forensic patients.

They had a duty to "do that with dignity and proper treatment, not subjecting patients to experimentation and torture and this sort of degrading and coercive program,” said Nayerahmadi.

“The trial judge’s finding that Ontario in operating Oak Ridge … had an obligation to act in their best interest by providing them with observation, care and treatment is precedent-setting in recognition of the rights of mentally ill patients, forensic patients in these facilities to be treated with a high level of dignity and respect regardless of their circumstances and whatever they may have done to end up in this facility.”

Many of the patients who were part of the program were among the country’s most dangerous, some of whom were found not guilty by reason of insanity. Some are locked up indefinitely and have been there for more than 40 years.

The same law firm is representing another group of patients at the former St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital, which it says implemented programs akin to those invented at Oak Ridge.

The basis of that proposed class action involves the use of male Oak Ridge patients — who suffered from serious mental illness and had committed violent, including sexual, offences — to operate another social therapy program involving mentally ill female patients held at St. Thomas in the only forensic ward for women in the province.

The women and adolescent girls considered to be “unmanageable” had been found unfit to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity and were involuntarily detained.

Some of the principles and methods underlying the St. Thomas Social Therapy program, the suit alleges, mirrored those developed and implemented at Oak Ridge.

“In particular, the purpose of the St. Thomas program was to break down the patients’ defences and personalities. Force, humiliation, deprivation, punishment, and restraints including cuffs were used to coerce the participation of the patients in the program,” reads the statement of claim.

It seeks $100 million in general damages for negligence, assault, battery, and breach of fiduciary duty along with an unspecified amount in aggregate damages and $75 million in punitive damages.

The representative plaintiffs, Martha Banman and Ruth Atkin, by her litigation guardian, Ellen Atkin, claim two doctors are “liable in breach of fiduciary duty, assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and negligence to the class members,” with Ontario being vicariously liable.

The statement of claim filed last year alleges patients were subjected to psychological, physical and sexual abuse.

The latest suit has not been certified as a class action.