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BC loses bid to dismiss class action on alleged abuses at Burnaby school before certification

This is Part 1 of a Burnaby Beacon series looking at the alleged abuses suffered by girls who were incarcerated at Willingdon School for Girls in Burnaby between 1959-1973. You can read Part 2 of the series here.

A BC government bid to quash a potential class action lawsuit over a correctional facility for girls under 18 that operated in Burnaby between 1917 and 1974 was premature, according to a recent BC Supreme Court ruling.

The province’s summary judgement application can still continue, but only after the certification hearing for the class action. That application would have dismissed only the action against the BC government, and not against the other defendants listed.

The class action, commenced by Joanne Wesley on July 30, 2020, seeks reparations for alleged wrongs suffered by people who attended the Willingdon School for Girls.

The provincially-operated facility, first called the Provincial Industrial School for Girls and colloquially known as the “house of horrors”, was moved to Willingdon Ave in 1959—in the area of BCIT’s main campus now.

And it was referred to as a “home” for young girls under 21, but most often between the ages of 12 and 19, who not only committed crimes, but who exhibited traits like “incorrigibility”, “unmanageability”, and “sexual immorality.”

“These terms often indicated inappropriate expressions of sexuality. Some young women charged with incorrigibility and unmanageability were pregnant, in the parlance of the day, ‘out of wedlock’,” reads a thesis published by a UBC post-graduate student, Mallory Quinn Davies, in 2020.

Many of the inmates were placed there simply because they had a difficult relationship with their parents.

The facility was controversial even in its own time. Newspapers, including the Vancouver Sun and The Province, reported on horrific conditions at the Industrial School on a number of occasions before it was moved to Burnaby.

And while Willingdon School for Girls was known as “slightly less oppressive” than its predecessor, it was a grim place in which to be incarcerated.

A previous class action lawsuit filed in BC Supreme Court in 2004 alleged that “young girls were sentenced to lives of deprivation, abuse, and hard labour” at the institution.

The plaintiff in that action, Lynda Ann Parrish, claimed she was “sexually, mentally and physically abused, kept in solitary confinement and had at least one baby snatched from her” while an inmate between 1968 and 1973.

The province refers to the facility as “overcrowded”, with more than 100 girls incarcerated there at times.

By the 1970s, even politicians were raising concerns about the conditions there.

“I wish some of the Members would take a trip to that home. I know some have, and what I’m frankly amazed at is that their reaction has not been stronger,” Burnaby North MLA Eileen Dailly told the legislature in 1972.

“I ask you, what would you call a large institution with a high wire fence surrounding it, an institution which has a policy of locking girls in their rooms at night and where in 1972 we still see a solitary confinement room with a mattress on the floor, open toilet—five rooms.”

The NDP government eventually shut down the facility in 1974, and it was replaced by the Willingdon Youth Detention Centre—in its current form, it’s known as the Burnaby Youth Detention Centre, located at 7900 Fraser Park Dr.

While Burnaby was never host to what’s legally defined as a federal or provincial residential school, the Willingdon School for Girls housed a large number of Indigenous girls. Davies notes that in 1960, about a third of the girls incarcerated there were Indigenous—by 1969, the number had grown to 44%.

Indeed, the population of Indigenous girls in the school was large enough that academics found it a good opportunity to explore “the delinquency of Indian girls in British Columbia”, in a racist UBC research paper published in 1969.

The facility also had a persistent problem with girls attempting to, and in some cases succeeding at, escaping from the school.

“Those children came from emotionally disturbed situations; they had no semblance of treatment at home. When they arrived at the institution they automatically went on the escape route,” Dailly said to the legislature in 1973.

“The Vancouver City Police have catalogued case after case where girls from Willingdon School, at the ages of 16 and 15, escaped from that school, went downtown and immediately went into prostitution—an opportunity that did not exist in the small towns that they came from throughout this whole Province of British Columbia. But as soon as they arrived in Willingdon they were made available for that prostitution market.”

It’s unclear how the 2004 class action ended up proceeding. It was derailed by a startling realization; that the plaintiff, Parrish, had been tricked into hiring as her counsel a man who was not a lawyer at all.

The current lawsuit launched by Wesley in 2020 will be proceeding to a certification hearing—meaning the court will decide if it can proceed as a class action. The province, which is one of the defendants named, had applied for a summary judgment to dismiss Wesley’s claim against it before the action went to certification.

The province claimed in court that dismissing the claims against the government before the certification hearing would streamline the case and speed up the certification process.

The plaintiff, however, argued that she would appeal any judgement not in her favour anyway—therefore delaying the proceedings further.

The province also argued that the plaintiff had delayed in filing an application for certification, but the judge found that not to be the case.

The Beacon has requested a copy of Wesley’s notice of civil claim from her lawyer.