ARMCHAIR ARCHIVES – Is a return to big institutions the answer to street problems?

Essondale. (Image: Govt of BC)

The following column was originally published on Oct. 2, 2021.

THERE WAS A TIME when the streets weren’t full of homeless, addicted, and unstable people. A time when you could freely stroll the sidewalks, when public washrooms weren’t used as shooting galleries, when alleyways and doorways weren’t defecated and urinated on, when shoppers and shop keepers weren’t harassed.

Some communities, of course, had their “village idiot,” as they were so derogatorily called. There was one in the town I grew up in. They said he’d suffered a head injury in the war. They said he had “a plate” in his head.

He was harmless, a part of the community. Those who weren’t harmless were in Coquitlam in Essondale, the so-called “loonie bin” (formally an “insane asylum”) that was later renamed Riverview.

Mere mention of the word “Essondale” conjured up scary imaginings of lobotomies, shock therapy, and incoherent, babbling, hard-to-control patients.

The early approach to mental illness, going back to the gold rush, was to lock them up or ship them somewhere else. When the first institutions were built, they provided medical treatment, though some of the treatments were cruel, experimental, and often ineffective.

Essondale opened in 1913 and gradually expanded to include a facility for troubled teens, a psychiatric-nurse training school, a veterans’ unit, and a TB treatment centre.

Patients could enter the institution’s Crease Clinic voluntarily for psychiatric treatment. Stories of those treatments, however, are not for the weak of heart.

Most Kamloops residents are familiar with the basic history of Tranquille School, which began as a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1907 and was repurposed as a mental illness facility in 1959.

I visited Tranquille several times in the 1970s when it was still open and found it somewhat depressing but well-run. It included not only the dysfunctional mentally ill but also intellectually disabled. Some had severe physical disabilities as well. Tranquille, which closed in 1983, never had the negative reputation Essondale did, nor of the notorious Woodlands School in New Westminster.

The closing of Essondale/ Riverview in 2012 is regarded as the beginning of the homelessness epidemic in B.C. The idea behind phasing out institutions was to provide new homes in small community settings, but many patients more or less ended up on the street, without the supports they’d had in the big institutions.

Essondale/ Riverview’s 190-bed Forensic Psychiatric Hospital — also known as Colony Farm — continues to house the criminally insane. That’s where Allen Schoenborn was sent after murdering his three children in Merritt in 2008.

De-institutionalization has been anything but a success. From time to time, thought is given to stepping back to the old days of big institutions that gave us control of those who don’t conveniently fit into everyday society. An alternative to the criminal justice system and programs that seem so woefully inadequate.

Coun. Denis Walsh broached the idea this week during a City council meeting. His vision is of what he calls a “resort” for want of a better word, for those who need constant supervision and support.

He says putting them into the core of cities places them at risk of predation and without the kinds of programs that will help them cope. Build a new facility that could do that, he suggests.

It certainly isn’t the first time this concept of large new, modern facilities designed with compassion, free of the stigma and problems of the old institutions has come up. A couple of years ago, Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog proposed a return to institutionalization in “extreme cases.”

“Because the alternative is we just leave them out on the streets until they die,” he told the Victoria Times Colonist. “It’s time to recognize that some people do need a form of institutionalization where they are protected and cared for and have some hope.”

Kevin Griffith, a shelter co-ordinator in Nanaimo, agreed with Krog. He said he understood concerns about taking away people’s freedom “but what kind of freedom do they have if they’re being incarcerated and they’re being victimized on the streets on a daily basis? What kind of life is that?”

He said community supports didn’t happen the way they were supposed to when the institutions were shut down. “We know what happened when they closed Riverview. All the people ended up at (Vancouver’s) Downtown Eastside.”

There is, in fact, a plan for a new centre on the Riverview grounds but with only 105 beds, not as a patient-warehousing facility and certainly not as punishment, but as one for proper treatment of patients who need to be off the street at least for awhile, who can’t care for themselves. It’s called a “leading edge, evidence-based health-care model” and is currently posting for jobs. At the least, it’s an acknowledgement that the current system isn’t working.

The concept of a new-style of institution for addictions and severe mental illness isn’t as far-fetched or odious as it might seem at first blush — nobody wants a return to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Whether there will ever be the political will to revisit the big-institution model is another question.

Mel Rothenburger is a regular contributor to CFJC Today, publishes the opinion website, and is a recipient of the Jack Webster Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. He has served as mayor of Kamloops, school board chair and TNRD director, and is a retired newspaper editor.  He can be reached at

About Mel Rothenburger (9634 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

2 Comments on ARMCHAIR ARCHIVES – Is a return to big institutions the answer to street problems?

  1. Donna Christensen // May 26, 2023 at 4:23 PM // Reply

    We definitely need a safe, helpful place for our mentally ill adults.
    My son lives at home with me.
    It is really difficult. How can we treat the vulnerable this way. Kick them to the streets. So far, I have not been able to find help for my son. I am really worried about what will happen to him when I pass. The government needs to make more safe places for these people. I think the government needs to take less and put money back into our health care system.

  2. Ian MacKenzie // April 29, 2023 at 6:36 AM // Reply

    I’m glad to see you repeat this editorial of two years ago. If anything, those two years have proven to us that the questions/suggestions you and Denis Walsh pose have greater urgency than ever. As the addictions, mental illness, and deaths become more a fact of life than ever it is more than ever incumbent upon our provincial government to get the lead out and return to some historical practices that placed the public first and the most vulnerable in some form of civilized institutions. As a society we’ve clearly proven over the years since Tranquille closed in 1983 that the experiment of throwing those vulnerable under bridges, or tents by the river has had calamitous results.

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