Steadfastly practical in his approach to civil rights, Paul Caune overcame a system of abuse and committed himself to helping others do the same
By Spencer van Vloten
December 30th, 2020
Having been forced into the notorious George Pearson Centre, Paul Caune successfully fought to be free of a system of institutionalized abuse and neglect. Paul is bringing attention to experiences like his, and the wider issue of civil rights for disabled people and persons in institutions, through his film Hope Is Not A Plan.
We talked with Paul—a recipient of the 2014 Courage to Come Back award—about the film and his advocacy work.
Spencer: When did you decide to make Hope Is Not A Plan, and how did that come about?
Paul: 7 or 8 years ago I got a Facebook message from Colin Andrew Ford, saying he would like to meet me. He had seen articles about me in the news and wanted to talk with me about making a film of my story.
I told Colin I had no interest in being in a film about a brave little guy in a wheelchair. Everyone does that and there was a much bigger story here, one that wasn’t being featured in films or the media, and that story is that most people with disabilities in Canada do not have a practical way to enforce their civil rights. To Colin's great credit he recognized the bigger story.
Together we spent the next 14 months fundraising, building our crew, traveling around the country, interviewing people.
A lot of disability advocates are counterproductive because they speak in jargon, they speak like sociologists and no one can understand what they’re saying. We want this film to open the eyes of someone who hasn’t necessarily gone through any of this and may not know any fancy jargon, yet still at the end can understand our message.
Spencer: How did you find it making a film, having never done it before?
Paul: Reflecting back, I’m not sure where we got the energy to do what we did in making this film. I guess because we knew what we wanted to say and how we wanted to say it, that made things easier. It also helped that we got a great crew together and worked with so many people who gave their time and energy.
Spencer: The film discusses the overwhelming evidence of institutions being abusive places, places of ‘sanctioned neglect’, and the stories told in the film, from you, from Rita McDonnell, Barb Westfield, Daniel Gladstone highlight this—abuse and neglect. Why do you think these types of abuses are so prevalent in institutional settings?
Paul: Because people are evil. Many of my friends on the Left have childish assumptions of human nature and presume that humans are naturally kind and benevolent, but human beings are prone to evil and it’s simply childish to ignore evidence of that.
So when you get a group of people, who for whatever reason, are physically or mentally keeping themselves alive with the assistance of physically stronger individuals, you have an innately dangerous situation. When you concentrate all this in a building, an institution, you inspire the worst parts of human nature.
The reason people with disabilities are abused so much in general, is that they have no power, in any society in the world. Regardless of which country it is, what the ideologies, ethnicities, or incomes are, the outcomes in all these places, from the late 18th century on, is overwhelming the same: bad , bad, bad for people with disabilities and anyone in institutions, including seniors.
You know what’s consistent across all these examples? Human beings are in charge, and people with disabilities have no power.
Spencer: Canadians like to think they’re different
Paul: Canadians flatter themselves in regard to how fair their society is. It’s almost like ‘Americans are mean, Americans are racist, but we aren’t’, and that’s simply not true, for people with disabilities, for Indigenous people. Ask residential school survivors how nice Canada is; ask Barb Westfield or anyone who lived in Woodlands how nice Canada is.
Paul with family as he is awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal
Spencer: Why do you think it upsets people so much when persons with disabilities want to make their own choices about how to live? Barb Westfield wanted to live on her own so she could have a pet and stay up until when she wanted. Cathy Grant wanted to use her funding how she wanted, but CLBC wouldn’t accept that.
Our society shaped is by nature, which we can’t control, and by whoever has the power across the generations.
We as a group don't shape the services that we are told meet our needs. So, when people in a society are seen as pieces of furniture, this is reflected in the services they receive. Hence, within these systems, people with disabilities are treated like inanimate objects that can be disregarded or thrown around with impunity.
Spencer: A common issue in institutional settings, one you faced when the psychiatrist wrongfully tried to commit you, is that persons living in that environment are not trusted, and are constantly looked upon with doubt and skepticism when they report issues. Does this stem from the dynamics we discussed earlier?
Paul: This goes back to the power imbalance. We need the power to enforce compliance to the Charter on policymakers, doctors, nurses, case workers, social workers, CLBC, and so on. Right now we don’t have that power, and so these groups can act with impunity because no one is holding them to account.
In BC there is a government body called the IIO—the Independent Investigation Office. They investigate cases such as when a police officer uses deadly force. Why don’t police do it themselves? Because the police can’t be trusted to investigate themselves, and it’s the same with all the doctors, nurses, politicians, and really anyone.
So, we need real power to enforce compliance, and we need independent investigative bodies who actually hold our systems and the people in them accountable.
Let me give you an example. Health authorities admit they are systemically racist against Indigenous people. In the media they said they’re sorry, but no one was fired, no real changes of substance were made, and that should be no shock to anyone because that’s what happen when these authorities get to hold themselves ‘accountable’.
When health authorities or any other public body is allowed to hold to themselves to account, they don’t hold themselves to account.
Spencer: You have been a fighter, for yourself and for other persons with disabilities through your advocacy work and film work. But, as noted in the film, people with disabilities, and especially those in institutional settings, often experience a type of learned helplessness due to the lack of control.
For those who are listening or reading, what advice would you give them about how to advocate for their rights when they are in an institution or experiencing injustice in the broader community?
Paul: The first thing is to grow some balls.
After you grow your balls, you have to ask ‘what do I want?’
I knew what I wanted----I didn’t want to go to live in Pearson, I didn’t want to be treated like shit, I wanted to get out of Pearson fast. If, in your mind and heart, you know what you want, and decide that you want to be free, then ask ‘how do I get the things I need to be free’.
You should also have no illusions about the situation you’re in. Hope is not a plan; no one is going to help you just because you have hope. Be honest about the rules of the game and know what they are. Be able to tell yourself ‘those rules have been rigged against me, so I’m not gonna play their game’.
Disability advocacy groups are mostly mediocre unfortunately. They don’t work together and aren’t involved in the political process., To be more effective they should consolidate and become involved with the political parties to get a foothold in the system, because that’s ultimately how our society is going to be reformed—through the ballot box and class action suits.
Paul and his books. In 2014, he was honoured with the Courage to Come Back award.
Spencer: In the film, the Americans with Disabilities Act is used as a model of the type of legislation which Canada and BC needs to protect and enforce the rights of persons with disabilities. What is it that makes this legislation a good model?
Paul: The ADA is explicitly a civil rights act to impose standards of rights for persons with disabilities. In Canada a federal act is pointless , whereas in the US you can sue state governments for not being in compliance with federal legislation. Our federal government would never do something like that.
We need to have strong laws within each province, we need the BC government to pass a strong act and to enforce it against those who violate it.
We to have a statute passed in BC that creates something like the independent investigative office, an independent body that has power to investigate civil rights violations of people with disabilities and seniors anywhere in BC, whether that’s nursing home, a private school, etc.
We need government lawyers to show up and say, we’ve got accusations; we’re going to investigate, if evidence justifies it, we’ll bring legal proceedings, and those legal actions must then take place. You can’t let any government agency or private corporation decide for themselves if their system violated a disabled Canadian's civil rights.
Spencer: Speaking of legislation, the province has held consultations on accessibility legislation and has announced they plan to bring this forward in 2021. What are your thoughts on that?
Paul: Why do more consultation when already done plenty of consultation over the years? And why so wishy-washy about getting the legislation in—you should’ve passed the act in first year that you were in power.
The proposed name of the act is ‘accessibility’; it’s not civil rights, it’s not independence, it’s not freedom, it’s not dignity. No proposed legislation will be credible if it’s not based on enforcing civil rights. That must be the foundation that leads to accessibility and all the other outcomes we want.
And if you cannot stop BC’s health authorities from being systemically racist, and they face no consequence when it’s well known they are and they even admit it, what’s to make people think you will enforce this law, a law that you’ve dawdled on getting passed? The track record is not one that can be trusted.
Spencer: Tell us about Civil Rights Now
Paul: Civil Rights Now is a non-partisan, non-profit group that I co-founded with a group of like-minded citizens, working with the motto that a right without a remedy is nothing at all.
Our only goals are to get legislation passed so that individualized funding becomes a statue of the law, and to create an independent body to investigate civil rights violation of people with disabilities and seniors.
We’ve met with MLAs to make our pitch and propose solutions to the problem we’ve faced. We don’t speak on behalf of people with disabilities, we don’t have that right, but we propose what we think could help many disabled people and seniors.
During elections we have tried to convince each party to make a commitment in their platform that, if elected, they would pass civil rights legislation. So far we haven’t succeeded.
Paul speaks at an event with Civil Rights Now
Spencer: How can people support the work that you’re doing for civil rights?
Paul: Share the film and the film’s website with people they know, especially if you know MLAs.
Look at the Civil Rights Now website, look at our proposals, and email your MLAs: ’if you want my vote next time, pass these laws now’.
Join a political party of your choice, help shape policy within the party, and get elected.
Sue, sue, sue. If you think you have the time, money, energy, and actionable grounds to make a charter challenge against the BC government, you should do it.
And push hard to have these issues dealt with. Talk to people about freedom and independence, let them know that if the government is not enabling independence, they are the enemy. There's no such thing as “disability rights”. There's only civil rights of Canadians. We don’t need hugs, or lots of talk about tolerance and inclusion, we don’t need touchy-feely therapy, what we need is citizenship and an effective way to enforce our civil rights.
Spencer: What is next for you?
Paul: I have slowed down, and to be frank, I am an eccentric recluse, and that’s my future. For the most part, I just want to keep to myself, my friends, my family, and read my books. My idea of a good time is reading a book. So I prefer not to be involved in any big projects
But life happens, things change, COVID comes along and you see horrendous deaths of seniors and people with disabilities across the country, yet no one is being fired or forced to resign, and it stirs me up.
People need a lot of help out there and many of us are on the edge of catastrophe every day. Most of time I don’t have energy or the means to help, but once in a while I can help, and things come up that force me to fight.
Big projects are my past, and I’m tired of health authorities and government wasting my time, but I’ll always be a fighter.
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!