By James Stairs
Montreal- In a case that sounds more like science fiction than reality, a Montreal court is deciding whether a class action lawsuit can be brought against the Canadian government on behalf of more than 250 psychiatric patients who were unwittingly subjected to mind-control experiments in the 1950s.
At the heart of the complaints are the so-called MK-ULTRA tests that were part of a secret programme funded by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Canadian government in the 1950s.
The Cold-War-era experiments, carried out by a Scottish doctor in Montreal, included forced isolation, induced-comas, electro-shock therapy and the use of hallucinogenic drugs, including LSD and paralysis-inducing narcotics.
Lawyers for Janine Huard, a 78-year-old great-grandmother, told a Montreal court last week that their client suffered for years as a result of Dr. Ewan Cameron’s experiments at the Allan Memorial Institute, a psychiatric hospital based at Montreal’s McGill University.
The experiments were part of a controversial secret CIA programme, aimed at uncovering techniques of mind control and led by Cameron, who died in 1967.
MK-ULTRA was launched by the CIA in 1953 and headed by the American chemist Sidney Gottleib. It reportedly funded projects both at home and abroad, including the Montreal study, and hoped to be able to find ways to extract information from prisoners and influence foreign leaders through brainwashing.
The project was brought under scrutiny in 1974 when newspaper reporters uncovered that MK-ULTRA had drugged unwitting subjects in the US with hallucinogens and secretly observed their actions. The project had been disbanded a year earlier and all record of its activities were destroyed.
Cameron’s research specifically revolved around “psychic driving” – a potential cure, he believed, for depression and dementia that involved erasing patients memories and then building them back up again.
Huard said that she first came under the care of Cameron, a former president of the World Psychiatric Association, when she consulted him in 1951 regarding a case of postpartum depression after the birth of the second of her four children. She was in his care another two times up to 1962.
The court heard that Huard and hundreds of others were test subjects for Cameron’s “de-patterning” experiments, which included the repeated playing of recorded messages while patients lay in a drug-induced semi-comatose state.
Huard said that she underwent electro-shock treatments and was administered dozens of unknown pills a day, keeping her semi- conscious.
“She never knew that she was being subjected to these experiments or that she was being used by Dr. Cameron and his staff as a guinea pig,” Alan Stein, Huard’s lawyer told the court.
The aftermath of the tests, she said, left her unable to function normally, afflicted by memory loss, depression and by migraine headaches.
“I came out of there so sick that my mother had to live with me for ten years,” she told reporters. “I couldn’t take care of my children any more.”
The CIA paid Huard and several others 67,000 US dollars each as part of a 1988 class action settlement.
In 1994, the Canadian government compensated 77 of the most severely incapacitated former patients 100,000 US dollars each for damage they suffered from the programme.
Huard and 252 others were denied compensation at the time, since the long-term effects of the testing were not deemed serious enough to warrant payment.
In 2004, a court overturned one of the decisions and awarded 100,000 Canadian dollars (85,259 US dollars) to Gail Kastner, a former patient who had undergone severe electro-shock therapy to treat her depression in 1953 at the hospital but whose claim had been previously deemed ineligible.
This decision, Huard’s lawyers argued, opens the door for the current class-action request.
Lawyers for the government did not dispute Huard’s claims but argued that the tests happened too long ago for her to make another attempt at compensation.
“They demolished me,” Huard said as she entered the court. “They gave me terrible drugs, electroshocks, and made me stay in a bed with a mask over my face listening to recordings for hours a day. I was afraid.”
No timetable has been given regarding a decision from the court.