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Lawsuit moves forward for families of Montreal brainwashing experiment victims

The Gazette logo The Gazette 2022-03-03 Katelyn Thomas, Montreal Gazette
Alison Steel holds a photo of her mom, Jean Steel, in her home in Knowlton, Quebec in 2017. © Provided by The Gazette Alison Steel holds a photo of her mom, Jean Steel, in her home in Knowlton, Quebec in 2017.

A lawsuit by the families of patients subjected to experimental psychiatric treatments in Montreal between 1948 and 1964 can move forward, a Quebec Superior Court judge has ruled.

The decision comes after the defendants — the Government of Canada, the Royal Victoria Hospital and the McGill University Health Centre — filed a motion to have the lawsuit partially dismissed.

Alan Stein, the lawyer representing the victims’ families, said Wednesday the judgment “establishes a very, very important precedent.”

The lawsuit was initially filed in 2019 by Alison Steel and Marilyn Rappaport on behalf of themselves and more than 50 families whose loved ones were treated by Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron, a renowned psychiatrist who was found to have subjected hundreds of patients to unethical psychiatric treatments at McGill University’s Allan Memorial Institute.

The treatments — performed on people like Steel’s mother, Jean, who probably suffered from postpartum depression — involved repeated electroshock therapy, mind-altering drugs, induced comas and tapes repeating words or phrases thousands of times to “de-pattern” patients, or wash their brains in order to rebuild them. The experiments were funded by the Canadian government and, in part, by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which had been funding mind-control research around North America as part of Project MK-Ultra.

The treatments left patients shells of their former selves, and families were kept in the dark while they were happening.

Steel said on Wednesday when her father and maternal grandmother decided to send Jean for treatment, “they believed that the Allan Memorial Hospital and the doctors there would be able to help her.”

“You wouldn’t ever think in this day and age — or back then — that there’d be anything like that that you would have to worry about,” she said. “But they didn’t help her, they made her worse. And (the family) knew nothing about it. … It was all secret, and it still is secret.”

The judgment, rendered last week, was in response to a motion to partially dismiss the lawsuit to drop the families other than Steel and Rappaport, Stein explained.

“That would mean that each one of the (families) would have to take individual actions and incur all kinds of legal expenses,” he said. “The whole purpose of this direct action or a class action is to give access to justice to not only parties who have deep pockets, but everyone.”

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Among other things, the defendants claimed there was no common interest between the families and those acting on their behalf.

“I don’t understand that at all because the common interest we have is obvious: our family members were brainwashed by Dr. Cameron and the hospital,” Steel said. “They all got the same exposure, the electroshock therapy, sleep treatments, the different drugs. … We’re fighting for the families that had to endure growing up with a parent that suffered these experiments and weren’t able to be a normal, healthy person.”

 Psychiatrist Ewen Cameron was paid by the CIA and Canadian government to conduct brainwashing experiments. Psychiatrist Ewen Cameron was paid by the CIA and Canadian government to conduct brainwashing experiments.

In a statement Wednesday, the McGill University Health Centre said while it acknowledges Cameron’s research “continues to be controversial, and its consequences, unfortunate … the courts have already established that the Royal Victoria Hospital was not considered, by law, the employer of Dr. Cameron; at the time, he exercised his profession in an autonomous and independent manner.”

The Department of Justice, for its part, said “Canada is conducting a review of the court’s decision” to dismiss its motion. It added an inquiry into Cameron’s work concluded, in 1986, “that Canada did not hold any legal liability or moral responsibility in respect of these treatments.”

Despite not being found responsible, the department said “Canada decided, for humanitarian reasons, to provide victims with financial assistance. The Depatterned Persons Assistance Plan was set up to provide victims of these treatments with an ex-gratia payment.”

Steel received a payout of $100,000 years ago on the condition that she not discuss it. While today’s lawsuit demands $1 million in damages per family, she said it’s not about the money.

“I wasn’t planning on suing the government for myself,” Steel said. “But after our group was formed and talking to all these other people who have been through the same thing, it was mentioned that we might be able to get compensation for losing our loved ones in our lives growing up. Because what they did was wrong. And the thing is, they kept it a secret — they kept saying to my father ‘Oh yes she needs to come back for another treatment and she’ll be getting better soon,’ but meanwhile, they’re filling her head with stuff.”

Steel added she’s ecstatic with the latest development in the case.

“When I got the news last week, when Mr. Stein called me, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I haven’t felt this happy for a long time. It just opens up a new window for us to move along and hope that we can get justice for all of our members.”

With files from the Montreal Gazette’s René Bruemmer.



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