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Dark history may temper public input on former hospital at Riverview

Theresa Balfour, who was a patient at Riverview Hospital, a former mental health facility, from 2006-2007 and is against the reopening, walks along Fern Terrace on the Riverview Hospital grounds in Coquitlam, B.C., Tuesday, February 25, 2014.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Coquitlam resident Teresa Balfour has a complicated relationship with Riverview Hospital: She appreciates the beauty of the grounds when she walks through them on her commute, but she also recalls the darker side of the Lower Mainland's former hub of mental-health care.

"Riverview was a very scary place," said Ms. Balfour, whose brother Michael died in its East Lawn facility in 1990. "You didn't know if you'd ever get out."

B.C. Housing, the ministry in charge of the grounds, will hold open houses on Thursday and Saturday to present and discuss plans for the future of the park-like surroundings of the facility, which for a century has been a crucible for the evolving attitudes about mental illness, the people who suffer from it and their treatment.

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Housing Minister Rich Coleman said the province has no firm plans or preconceptions of what to do with the land; the open houses are meant to examine a range of options, from turning the historic site into a tech park to ensuring it remains a centre for care.

Update: B.C. to revive Riverview as an addiction and mental health treatment centre

"I think we'll see people talk about housing. I think we'll see people talk about a tech park type of thing that would attract jobs to Coquitlam," Mr. Coleman said. "I think we'll hear people talk about other health facilities [as well]."

Richard Stewart, mayor of Coquitlam, wants Riverview to remain a focal point for the treatment of mental illness, which he said his city has long embraced.

"We're a little unusual in that regard," Mr. Stewart said. "We want these facilities in our community."

Riverview opened a century ago, and by the 1950s, had about 5,000 patients from all over the province and almost as many staff.

Horrific treatments – methods once considered the norm – became the subject of lawsuits and government settlements. In an out-of-court settlement in 2005, the province awarded $450,000 to nine women who were forcibly sterilized there between 1940 and 1968.

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The sterilizations were done after the province embraced eugenics, the belief that sterilization of the mentally ill, criminals and the poor was an acceptable measure to improve society.

Treatment of mental illness shifted in the 1980s, and governments began moving patients from institutions into the community. Riverview was dismantled piece by piece over the next 30 years. Although a small, high-security psychiatric facility remains on the site, Riverview Hospital itself closed for good in 2012.

Many of the buildings on the site have tremendous heritage value. These buildings – along with an arboretum that has hundreds of tree species – give the grounds a park-like feel that many would like preserved. But some of them are falling into disrepair.

Mr. Stewart noted the grounds have been used for television and films, and he suggested expanding such activity could allow the site to generate revenue. TV shows shot at Riverview range from MacGyver to The X-Files and Battlestar Galactica.

Jane Duval, executive director of the B.C. Schizophrenia Society, wants Riverview to continue its involvement in mental-health care. She said that many of the people discharged in the move to deinstitutionalize are now on the streets of the Downtown Eastside, among other places, or in the criminal justice system.

"It's a huge scandal," she said. "One of these days, I think we'll look back on it, and it's going to be a very shameful incident in our past."

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The Kwikwetlem First Nation claims the Riverview lands as part of its traditional territory. One of the nation's reserves is adjacent to the grounds, and archeological evidence shows human activity in the region as long as 8,000 years ago. Band administrator Dale Lessoway said he hopes plans for the site can strike a balance between health facilities, nature preservation and housing development.

"We'd like to see what's best for the land and for the community as a whole, including the [Kwikwetlem] nation," Mr. Lessoway said. "We want to see it done right, and with the assurance that our rights and titles as well as the archeological aspect of the land is respected."

But Ms. Duval is skeptical.

"Everybody wrings their hands about [mental health], but nobody seems to be able to do anything much about it," she said. "The resources are just never there. Every politician from every level of government I've ever talked to, municipal, provincial and federal, they all say, 'It's terrible, it's terrible.' But nobody does anything."

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