This week on the fifth estate --
"The Sleep Room" [January 6, 1998]
When Canadians first learned that CIA brainwashing experiments had been carried out on Canadians... in Canada... with the knowledge of our government, it was tremendous shock. As the fifth estate was first to report in 1980, the work that Dr. Ewan Cameron oversaw at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal was shocking. Now, the story of Cameron's experiments and the victims' struggle for justice have been made into a riveting movie, to be broadcast on CBC Television this Sunday and Monday nights. For the victims of The Sleep Room, the horror has never really ended.
VELMA ORLIKOW (patient of Dr. Ewen Cameron): The man who I had thought cared about what happened to me didn't give a damn. I was a fly, just a fly.
VOICE-OVER ANNOUNCER: Revisiting Canada's infamous Sleep Room.
LINDA MACDONALD (patient of Dr. Ewen Cameron): I was...had to be toilet-trained. I was a vegetable.
VOICE-OVER ANNOUNCER: In the 1960s, Dr. Ewen Cameron conducted CIA-funded experiments on troubled Canadian patients he was meant to help.
ROBERT LOGIE (former patient of Dr. Ewen Cameron): It wasn't treatment for anything. It was out and out guinea pigs for brainwashing experiments.
VOICE-OVER ANNOUNCER: A fifth estate investigation revealed how one Canadian government secretly supported these horrific experiments, and then another blocked the victims' fight for justice.
JAMES TURNER (lawyer): The Mulroney government, in effect, stabbed its citizens in the back at every turn.
VOICE-OVER ANNOUNCER: Linden MacIntyre with the real-life victims of the Sleep Room, and, behind the scenes of a new CBC movie about this nightmare chapter in our history.
* * * * *
VOICE-OVER ANNOUNCER: The fifth estate with Trish Wood, Victor Malarek, Francine Pelletier, and tonight Linden MacIntyre.
LINDEN MACINTYRE: Welcome to the fifth estate. When Canadians first learned that CIA brainwashing experiments had been carried out on Canadians in Canada, with the knowledge of our government, it was a tremendous shock. As the fifth estate was first to report in 1984, the work that Dr. Ewen Cameron oversaw at his Montreal clinic was shocking. Now the story of Cameron's experiments and the victims' struggle for justice have been made into a riveting movie, to be broadcast on CBC television this Sunday and Monday nights. For the victims of the Sleep Room, the horror has never really ended.
Even if you don't know the history of the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal, it looks like a natural setting for a movie, a horror movie maybe. But then, the truth about what happened to hundreds of psychiatric patients there a long time ago is a horror story. And now it has become a movie, a dramatized account of a bleak chapter in the history of Canadian psychiatry, produced by a former fifth estate documentary maker, Bernard Zuckerman. The central character in the TV movie is a world-renowned psychiatrist at the Allan in the early sixties. His name was Dr. Ewen Cameron.
BERNARD ZUCKERMAN (producer, "The Sleep Room"): It's the classic story of good turning to evil in its most simplistic terms. Dr. Cameron started off as someone who was probably one of the most enlightened psychiatrists in the country, but then something happened. And whatever happened, suddenly here is this enlightened doctor, this noble doctor, who begins doing more and more and more bizarre experiments on his patients, to the point where he is destroying the minds of hundreds of people.
DR. EWEN CAMERON (clip): These are the days and hours of the ....
MACINTYRE: Inspired by the exuberant post-war optimism in technology, Cameron thought he'd achieved a major scientific breakthrough: how to repair a damaged human mind. The media rejoiced, even coined a phrase which would become a tragically silly oxymoron: beneficial brainwashing.
Linda MacDonald was a young mother with five children under the age of five when she started feeling low. Her family doctor knew just the man to make her better.
LINDA MACDONALD (former patient of Dr. Ewen Cameron): I was tired, I was depressed, my back was hurting, and so he said to the children's father, Why don't you go to Montreal and visit this Dr. Ewen Cameron, this famous man, who has all of these accolades, and have an assessment? So we went. My medical file even says that I took my guitar with me. And that was the end of my life. Within three weeks Dr. Cameron decided to call me an acute schizophrenic, and ship me up to the sleep room.
MACINTYRE: How long did they put you to sleep for?
MACDONALD: I was in a coma for 86 days.
MACINTYRE: Eighty-six days of unbroken sleep.
MACDONALD: Eighty-six...comatose, yeah, total comatose state.
MACINTYRE: The theory was simple: erase a disturbed mind and start all over again. One of Dr. Cameron's colleagues at the time was Dr. Peter Roper.
DR. PETER ROPER (former colleague of Dr. Cameron): The aim, I think, really, was to wipe out the patterns of thought and behaviour which were detrimental to the patient which was sick, and replace them with healthy patterns of thought and behaviour. I think this may have been stimulated by the effects of the American prisoners-of-war in Korea, how they seemed to have been brainwashed.
MACINTYRE: The movie, called "The Sleep Room", dramatizes one technique for brainwashing: extreme sessions of electro-shock therapy -- massive jolts of electricity, three or four times a day for weeks. According to her hospital records, Linda MacDonald had 100 of these treatments. She entered hospital for treatment of what we can now guess was postpartum depression; her records show the results of shock and radical drug therapy: May l5th, "Shows some confusion..."; June 3rd, "Knows her name, but that's about all..."; June llth, "Doesn't know her name...".
MACDONALD: I had to be toilet-trained. I was a vegetable. I had no identity, I had no memory, I never existed in the world before - like a baby, just like a baby that has to be toilet-trained.
MACINTYRE: She eventually went home, her depression gone, and her entire previous life gone with it.
MACDONALD (looking at photo album): ...and this is one of the twins, it was in '62, before I went to the Allan. And this is the same one, I think. I just look at the pictures and I know who that is, who they are, but I don't remember them as my children at all. I mean, I know that they came from my body, but there's no ... that's all. I don't know ... and that's because I was told that. So these are my children.
MACINTYRE: Robert LOGIE was little more than a child himself when he was referred to Dr. Cameron. He was 18. He had a sore leg; his doctor thought it was all in his head and sent him to the Allan. Like Linda MacDonald, he went through a nightmare of shock therapy and drugs, including LSD.
ROBERT LOGIE (former patient of Dr. Ewen Cameron): Well, I was given LSD about every second day, injected, and sometimes it was mixed with sodium amytol and other drugs.
MACINTYRE: Most of the drugs were experimental, but seemed suitable for brainwashing, or as Cameron preferred to call it, "de-patterning". Then, during the long sleep, the patient would be forced to listen to subliminal message that were supposed to print new, sometimes bizarre thoughts on his blank mind.
LOGIE: I was aware of the speaker under my pillow, I was aware of the words.
MACINTYRE: Which were?
LOGIE: You killed your mother.
MACINTYRE: You killed your mother.
MACINTYRE: Who was alive and well.
LOGIE: Who was alive and well. And
MACINTYRE: Over and over again this voice is....
LOGIE: Well, like I say, it takes about two seconds to say that message, and this was going on for 23 days. And when I went home, after being there, when I went home, my mother was there, and why was she there, and...it didn't make any sense.
MACINTYRE: So what was going on here? Dr. Ewen Cameron was, at one point, head of the World Psychiatric Association, and is still admired by some of his former colleagues. Dr. Peter Roper:
(to Dr. Roper) What is the possibility that we had a good, well-motivated man whose ego and ambition took charge of his professionalism and led him into some fairly dark places?
ROPER: Well, I would put that chance as pretty slight. I think it's more likely that, if he'd been around to defend himself when this story came out, we'd have a totally different picture of it.
MACINTYRE: What would he say? Put yourself in his shoes. What would he say?
ROPER: I think he'd say, Look, I treated these patients to the best of my ability. I didn't get all of them well, but most of them I got better than they were.
MACINTYRE: But in the movie, Dr. Cameron will not come off so well.
MOVIE CLIP ("The Sleep Room"): Most of these people were discharged as cured....
MACINTYRE: It accurately shows that many of his patients, inaccurately diagnosed as schizophrenics, were permanently damaged by his methods. Eventually even Cameron had doubts about his experiments. He left the Allan in 1964, died of a heart attack three years later. By then the hospital had quietly abandoned the experiments.
MOVIE CLIP: You destroyed these people for nothing. You can't just walk away from this, Cameron. It's come out and it'll ruin you. You can't walk away.
MACINTYRE: Nobody knows for sure exactly how many people Dr. Cameron and his colleagues exposed to the program of chemical and electroshock treatments they called de-patterning and psychic driving, a process which some experts have since called barbaric. But many years would pass before there would be any public or official acknowledgement of what those damaged patients had been through. It would take a dramatic disclosure in the late seventies that the Allan Memorial had been part of a cold-war program of brainwashing experiments, paid for, in part, by the CIA.
Hidden among its most sensitive files were CIA records documenting a project called MKULTRA. Between 1957 and 1961, a CIA front funneled about $62,000 U.S. for brainwashing research by Dr. Ewen Cameron. The American media got the story first, but the fifth estate exposed the magnitude of the human tragedy.
ERIC MALLING (clip, the fifth estate): Experimental drugs, including LSD, were administered to human guinea pigs. The patients were never told that their treatment was part of CIA experiment.
MACINTYRE: One of those patients was Velma Orlikow of Winnipeg. She'd been at the Allan in the late fifties for treatment of depression. She happened to be married to a member of Parliament, David Orlikow of the NDP. She'd considered Dr. Cameron a near saint. Now she was being told she'd been betrayed by him.
VELMA ORLIKOW (former patient of Dr. Ewen Cameron): It was an awful feeling to realize, when I found this out, that the man whom I had thought cared about what happened to me didn't give a damn. I was a fly, just a fly.
MACINTYRE: First she felt hurt, then she got angry and decided to sue one of the most powerful institutions in the world, the CIA.
DAVID ORLIKOW (husband of Velma): As a matter of fact, when she said she wanted to sue the CIA, I said, You're crazy. How can a couple of ... how can a hick from Winnipeg sue the CIA?
MACINTYRE: But she did, along with eight other former patients, a massive lawsuit that would consume many years and become an obsession for a distinguished American civil liberties lawyer named Joseph Rauh.
JOSEPH RAUH (lawyer): ...Cameron, all he did was what the CIA was in effect asking him to do, and what he said he was going to do, and he did it.
MACINTYRE: Rauh and a young assistant named James Turner knew they were up against a formidable opponent in the CIA, but they thought the odds would be evened a bit by help from a natural ally. They were in for a disappointment.
JAMES TURNER (lawyer): Well, we expected to have a very potent ally in the form of the Canadian government, and unfortunately, instead of helping their own citizens, because the Canadian government was worried about its possible liability, the Mulroney government in effect, stabbed its citizens in the back at every turn in the litigation.
MACINTYRE: Ottawa actually helped suppress a key piece of information, evidence that CIA officials at the U.S. embassy had actually apologized to the Canadian government when the CIA experiments were first revealed. Jim Turner is still flabbergasted.
TURNER: You've got to understand how important these apologies and expressions of regret were. This is an admission, this is legally admissible in court because it is one of the parties to the litigation saying, I did something wrong and I'm sorry I did it. That is prima facie evidence of negligence and of wrongdoing that goes a long, long way to bringing the case to a timely conclusion, instead of the protracted ten years of litigation that we had.
MACINTYRE: The movie underscores the impact of Ottawa's refusal to give the lawyers details of the CIA apology. The lawyers eventually upped the ante on the fifth estate.
MOVIE CLIP: Tonight on the fifth estate, starting revelations about the activities of the CIA in Canada.
MACINTYRE: With a publicity wave gathering momentum and the strength of the victims' case becoming more apparent, the CIA caved in the day before the trial was to begin. They settled out of court for $750,000 - at the time it was the largest settlement the CIA had ever awarded, and it provides a dramatic finale for the movie.
MOVIE CLIP: ...Because we made them pay. They couldn't beat us. We won You write that down, mister.
MACINTYRE: Producer Bernard Zuckerman says, besides the financial terms, this was a major moral victory.
ZUCKERMAN: Here you've got nine little Canadian victims taking on probably the most powerful institution in America, the CIA, and these little Canadians, they win, they get the CIA to settle and give them money and, in effect, an apology saying, What we did is wrong.
MACINTYRE: The movie ends with the CIA settlement, but the story didn't end there. Troubling questions would persist, especially about the government of Canada.
So why was Ottawa so ambiguous when it came to helping some Canadian citizens get compensation from Washington for what they endured in a program that was inspired mostly by American cold-war fears? Well, the answer was simple: the government of Canada was even more deeply involved in the Allan Memorial experiments than the Americans. Dr. Cameron's experiments were funded to the tune of half a million dollars by the federal department of Health and Welfare during the fifties, and the funding didn't stop then. They kicked in over $51,000 after the CIA project ended in 1961, which was when a young, stressed-out mother named Linda MacDonald became part of the Allan Memorial story. When she discovered that her own government had been funding brainwashing experiments on her, she made a dramatic decision:
(to Ms. MacDonald) You decided to take on the government of Canada.
MACDONALD: Oh, sure. Well, hey, considering what I'd already been through, that was a snap. You know, what else? Why not?
MACINTYRE: It must have become obvious to you fairly quickly that you were ramming your head into a brick wall.
MACDONALD: Yes, yes. I'm stubborn, too. It got to the point where every time, whether it was John Crosbie or Ray Hnatyshyn or then the Honourable Kim Campbell, it got to be, You guys, we're going to stay alive. And I said that to Brian Mulroney too - if you think I'm going away, you've got another thing coming. I'm not going to go away.
MACINTYRE: Linda MacDonald would hound the federal government for four years before finally, in 1992, Ottawa grudgingly agreed to compensate her and some of Dr. Cameron's other victims, $ 100,000 each, in exchange for signing away the right to sue the government or the hospital. But it was an ambiguous victory. Ottawa refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing at the Allan, a conclusion backed up by a legal review of what happened there. The report, by a prominent Progressive-Conservative lawyer relied partly on expert advice from Dr. Frederick Grunberg, one of Quebec's leading psychiatrists, who made two controversial assertions: that patients hadn't suffered irreparable harm and that they had consented to the treatment.
DR. FREDERICK GRUNBERG (psychiatrist): Well, what I meant is that the patient who were admitted at the Allan Memorial Institute were patients who went in voluntarily, so the sort of consent they gave [for] what went on was a sort of general consent to the hospital, the sort of consent that was given for surgery, for any other procedure.
MACDONALD: Consent had nothing to do with it. Dr. Cameron did not describe the treatment, he did not clarify, he did not give any way, shape or form, any kind of a hint at what was going to happen. That's not consent. And I don't even know whether he talked to me, because I'll never remember anyway.
MACINTYRE: Dr. Grunberg shares a widely held view in his profession about the legacy of Dr. Ewen Cameron.
GRUNBERG: I think he was a misguided man. He worked on a sort of a poor theoretical basis, and I think he was imprudent, considering. But I am convinced, and I'm still convinced, that he really wanted a therapeutic breakthrough, he had this motivation that he was going to break this terrible condition.
MACINTYRE: You seem to be saying the things that Cameron did were awful, but he meant well, so we'll forgive him, and the victims, or the patients, will have to live with the consequences.
GRUNBERG: It's not a question of forgiving. As I say, the thing is, we put what he was doing in the perspective of his time, and a lot of awful things were going on.
MACINTYRE: A lot of people are saying, considering the accepted practice and the science available at the time, this was an appropriate thing to do to you.
LOGIE: It wasn't treatment, if that's what you're suggesting. It wasn't treatment for anything, not a toenail or anything. It was out and out guinea pigs for brainwashing experiments. That's what it was.
MACINTYRE: It's been more than 33 years since the Allan put an end to the practices initiated by its most notorious doctor. It has recovered its world-class reputation as a leader in the treatment of mental illness. Dr. Peter Roper was dismissed from the Allan two years after Dr. Cameron left. One of the reasons: he insisted on following Dr. Cameron's technique.
MACINTYRE: You argued strenuously to continue the de-patterning of your patients.
ROPER: Well, I felt that I had a duty to my patients to give them the best possible treatment, and if there were some that were not responding to any other form of treatment, the only thing left was de-patterning for them. Then I felt that should be done.
MACINTYRE: You sound almost nostalgic for the fifties and sixties.
ROPER: Oh, no, it's not nostalgia. It's the question, I think, that bothers a lot of doctors: that it's rather sad if they're prevented from having that treatment because of administrative, political or other reasons which have nothing to do with good medical practice.
MACINTYRE: For Linda MacDonald, good medical practice in 1963 turned an emotional crisis into a horror that would haunt a lifetime.
MACDONALD: Oh, this feels strange.
MACINTYRE: This spring she returned to the Ottawa high school where she graduated in 1957.
ANNE ARGUE-HIGHLAND (former classmate of Linda MacDonald): Hi, Linda, I'm Anne Argue-Highland. How are you?
ARGUE-HIGHLAND: I was in the Lyre's Club. I don't know if you remember....
MACDONALD: I don't. I don't remember at all.
ARGUE-HIGHLAND: No, I guess not.
MACDONALD (looking at year book): And all of these people, we knew all of these people?
MACINTYRE: She has no memory of this place or those times, or even of who she was back then.
MACDONALD: Oh, there I am. Lookit. Look at me. Did they call me Lindy?
MACDONALD: I am who I am today. My family tells me that I am very much like the Linda that they knew when I was growing up: gregarious, always talking, laughing, singing, happy, positive person. I have no memory of that person. All I'm grateful for is that Cameron might have been able to wipe a memory, but he couldn't wipe the spirit.
MACINTYRE: The fifth estate will return in a moment ....