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Reinventing the Asylum


Tom Flanagan

 Author Notes

Professor of political science, University of Calgary, former director of research for the Reform Party of Canada (1991-1992), president of the Canadian conservative society Civitas

Books by Tom Flanagan
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First Nations? Second Thoughts
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Waiting for the Wave: The Reform Party & Preston Manning (1995)
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 Essay -

In March 1998, an RCMP constable shot Connie Jacobs and her eight-year-old son Ty to death on the Tsuu T'ina reserve near Calgary. The Mountie was called after Jacobs resisted a Tsuu T'ina social worker trying to take her children into care. When Jacobs fired a rifle at the Mountie, he fired back with a shotgun, killing both her and her son, who was hidden behind her.

An inquiry into the shooting has now revealed the awful conditions in which Connie Jacobs lived. She and her husband were alcoholics who fought violently when they were drunk. They lived with six children and grandchildren in a condemned house on the edge of the reserve. Both house and children were dirty and neglected. In a more enlightened age, the children would have been removed from this degrading and dangerous environment; but today there are no orphanages where they could be sent, and the prevailing orthodoxy is to keep families together at all costs.

Another item from the local news: the Salvation Army plans to build an eight-storey residential and service centre in downtown Calgary. It will have 140 beds for the homeless, two floors of transitional housing for men, a 46-bed unit for addictions treatment, and a 20-bed diversion or stabilization unit as an alternative to jail for mentally ill people who run into trouble with the law.

The Salvation Army's building will separate different categories of needy people rather than throw them together into a single residence, but the plan is still faintly reminiscent of the Bicêtre or Salpêtrière in seventeenth-century Paris. They were all-purpose refuges for orphans and old people, indigent and infirm, layabouts and lunatics, vagabonds and victims of all sorts. We are starting to rediscover the asylum, and none too soon.

In a burst of creative humanitarianism, the nineteenth century invented a remarkable range of specialized institutions for people in need: prisons and reform schools for the undisciplined; hospitals for the sick, including special hospitals for children and women; orphanages for abandoned children; residential schools for children with special needs, such as the mentally disabled, the deaf, and the blind; asylums for the insane and mentally disabled; and county homes for the indigent and aged.

Philanthropy or entrepreneurship created most of these institutions, though they were often partially supported by government contracts or subsidies. They were largely staffed by religiously motivated volunteers--priests, nuns, and brothers in Catholic institutions, clergy and dedicated lay people in Protestant institutions.

In the twentieth century, governments gradually took over the field by increasing public subsidies, weaving an ever tighter regulatory net, encouraging unionism and credentialism, imposing public monopolies, forbidding private initiatives, and finally assuming ownership and operational control. It seemed like progress for a generation or two, but then governments started to lose interest in the expensive, never-ending task of caring for the unfortunate.

In the late twentieth century, the state has been shutting down these institutions in favour of so-called "community care," with sometimes appalling results. Frightened children shuttle from one foster placement to another or, even worse, are returned to the "care" of incompetent mothers and their abusive boyfriends. Rebellious teenagers squat in abandoned buildings and panhandle for change on the streets. The insane wander through shopping malls by day and bunk in filthy boarding houses at night. Drug addicts and alcoholics sleep on sidewalks and defecate in back alleys. Prisoners are paroled early because the jails are too full to hold them. New mothers are sent home from hospital four hours after giving birth.

At the risk of sounding like an old codger (I am 55), let me point out that in the much-maligned 1950s homelessness, vagrancy, and begging were virtually unknown in North America. Why? Mainly because there were institutions to house, care for, and teach those who were unable to meet their own needs. Today, in a much wealthier society, we simply turn such people loose and wring our hands over the increase in homelessness.

The destruction of the institutions arose from the need of overextended governments to save money as well as from the boredom of politicians with "problems" that have no "solutions." But the most important cause was a degenerate liberalism that glorified individual freedom while forgetting that liberty presupposes ability and willingness to take responsibility for managing one's own life.

Governments have devastated our institutions. Orphanages and asylums are almost entirely gone, even hospitals for the general population are much diminished. We have to reinvent facilities for people in need. Using our greater wealth and medical knowledge, we can make them smaller, more comfortable and more personalized than the earlier asylums while still meeting the need for residential institutions. The Salvation Army is showing the way.

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