George Pearson Centre is one of Canada's most notorious long-term care centres (Photo: HaniDani)
By Spencer van Vloten
George Pearson Centre is one of Canada's most notorious long-term care centres. In this series, The Curse of George Pearson Centre, we'll tell the harrowing stories of the residents who live there, and the family members fighting to protect them.
In part 1, we'll explore the creation of the centre, and how the circumstances of its founding laid the foundation for decades of controversy.
Part 1 - Captives and Incurables: The Founding of George Pearson Centre
If you drive past 700 West 57th Avenue in Vancouver, you’ll see it.
A long series of buildings—grey, unremarkable, and outdated – framed by an assortment of shrubs, pine trees, and grassy patches. From a distance, the site is easily mistaken for an unremarkable elementary school or something similarly commonplace.
But the story of the institution at West 57th is anything but commonplace.
Opened on May 14th, 1952, George Pearson Centre bears the name of George Sharratt Pearson.
A political firebrand and long-time MLA who was once Minister of Health, Pearson wasn’t subtle in his approach. He stoked fear and fervently marshalled anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II, calling for BC’s entire Japanese population to be forced out, even as the RCMP and Canadian Armed Forces assured him there was no threat.
It was thus with irony that when Pearson opened, initially as a tuberculosis treatment centre called the George Pearson Tuberculosis Hospital, its first patients were 9 Japanese men who had been transferred from an internment camp where they’d become ill as captives.
The first people treated in Pearson’s name were thus the people who’d become sick in the same oppressive conditions he’d championed for the BC’s Japanese population.
George Pearson (L) fiercely called for the removal of BC’s Japanese population, yet the first patients treated in his name were a group of Japanese men who’d been held captive in an internment camp (R).
While it initially provided a useful service in its treatment of tuberculosis, Pearson Centre faced an identity crisis just a few years after opening.
Medical advances quickly made it obsolete as a tuberculosis treatment centre, at which point it was reinvented with a focus on polio treatment. But, soon after, powerful medications were introduced which also made polio treatment centres redundant, and this once again left Pearson without a purpose, in search of yet another identity.
That would be found in the mid-1960s, with the rise of deinstitutionalization.
In 1965, the provincial government closed 3 degrading institutions for so-called ‘incurables’— adults with serious disabilities who were warehoused and kept from public view until they died.
With the government looking for another place to store these persons, and George Pearson Centre now having the openings, a partnership was readily struck.
Thus began the process of using Pearson as a dumping ground for past residents of other institutions, a process that would speed up through the 1970s as more institutions closed.
As a result, Pearson became one of the main sources of continuity from BC’s dark years, where persons with complex needs were cast into the shadows, forced to live outside of society in seclusion and restraint.
Pearson Centre became one of the main sources of continuity from BC’s dark years, where persons with complex needs were cast into the shadows
Although it’s undergone several changes in administration in the following decades, from the provincial government, to the BC Rehab Society, and now Vancouver Coastal Health, George Pearson Centre remains a place for adults with serious disabilities –the ‘incurables’ – to live long-term.
And at a glance, it doesn't seem so bad.
There are presently 114 long-term care beds. It has a Residents' Council. Each of its wards has a doctor, and there are respiratory therapists present Monday to Friday. It also has a unionized work force.
In 2018-2019, Pearson offered 5.49 total direct care hours (hours of care per resident per day): the largest amount of care hours of all the publicly funded long-term care facilities in BC. Its operating budget in 2014 was a whopping $14 million, indicating no shortage of funds.
On paper, it all sounds pretty good for the residents. But what happens at Pearson goes much deeper and darker, and must be traced back to the past.
Cursed From The Start
The historical account above highlights 2 factors which had a lasting impact on George Pearson Centre and the treatment of its residents.
The 1st is that, as a hospital for tuberculosis patients, Pearson was built with short-term cases in mind. This meant that it was never designed to house or treat permanent residents with complex needs; that was merely done on the fly out of convenience when Pearson was no longer of use as a tuberculosis and polio treatment centre.
The infamous Woodlands is one of the institutions that George Pearson Centre would receive many new residents from
The 2nd is that Pearson, from its inception, was embedded in a culture of control and restriction.
Built in the name of a man who advocated the imprisonment of Japanese-Canadians, its first residents were literal captives, and it found its lasting niche in carrying on the work of institutions where people were left to be out of public view, where nearly all aspects of their lives were out of their own hands.
Pearson, at its core, is therefore at odds with a model of living in which long-term residents are given the appropriate care, and are respected as individuals who hold the power over how what they do and how they are treated.
And the results speak for themselves.
George Pearson Centre According to the Experts: The People Who Live There
For decades, Pearson Centre has been at the center of controversy.
Almost every part of life at Pearson has been called into question by families, residents, and advocates: the quality of the food; the dreary, outdated building and depressing halls; the restrictions on visitors; and things much more serious.
Paul Caune, a former George Pearson resident who campaigned successfully for his freedom, has been one of the most vocal critics, and produced a film based on his own time in Pearson.
Hope is Not a Plan is chilling account that recalls the neglect, psychological abuse, and trauma that Caune and others, some of whom didn’t live to tell their tale, endured.
Sharing his experiences and those of other residents and families is so important, Caune says, “because they’re the only ones telling the truth about George Pearson Centre.”
A former Pearson resident, Paul Caune recalls his experiences in the film Hope is Not a Plan
The response of George Pearson Centre, of health authorities, and broader government to Caune and others has been tepid, to say the least. Staff say a lot of ‘sorries’, and, in some cases, there’s a hesitant admission that a patient didn’t ‘receive the best possible care at that particular time’.
But little to no official acknowledgment is given that a systemic problem exists within Pearson, and it’s the residents and their families who must keep paying the price:
Residents neglected, their bodies left to rot and eat themselves away
Residents left to suffocate and burn
Grown men in fear and tears, just at the possibility of having to go back
These are some of the stories coming out of Pearson today if you talk to residents or their families. But, shocking as they might be, as much as they conflict with our sense how people are treated in Canada, they’re still unheard by much of the broader public, and by many of the people with the power to make a difference.
That’s why, in this series, we’ll tell these stories, examining how institutionalized neglect and abuse has been allowed to continue for decades in a country that prides itself on doing the right thing, in a city that sees itself as a leader in this regard.
These are the stories of George Pearson Centre, an institution cursed from the start, and a place where people are cast aside and left to die.
Stay tuned for part 2 to read about one family's disturbing discovery.....
Further Reading: The Cruel Compassion of George Person Centre by Paul Caune
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to email@example.com!