MONTREAL — A proposed class-action lawsuit over infamous brainwashing experiments at a Montreal psychiatric hospital was before Quebec's highest court Thursday, as victims attempted to remove immunity granted to the United States government.
The U.S. government successfully argued in Quebec Superior Court last August that the country couldn't be sued for the project known as MK-ULTRA — allegedly funded by the Canadian government and the CIA. U.S. lawyers argued that foreign states had absolute immunity from lawsuits in Canada between the 1940s and 1960s, when the program took place.
But survivors, and their families, of the experiments at Montreal's Allan Memorial Institute — which included experimental drugs, rounds of electroshocks and sleep deprivation — appealed that decision.
On Thursday, a lawyer representing the United States government told the Quebec Court of Appeal that the country should be immune from prosecution and that any lawsuit against the U.S. government should be filed in that country.
The court case stems from a class-action lawsuit filed against McGill University — which was affiliated to the psychiatric hospital — Montreal's Royal Victoria Hospital and the Canadian and U.S. governments after Montrealers allegedly had their memories erased and were reduced to childlike states.
Class-action lawyer Jeff Orenstein said Thursday he believes Canada's 1982 State Immunity Act, which outlines how foreign states can be sued in the country, is retroactive and can apply in this case.
He said the 1982 act allows foreign states to be sued in cases of bodily injury. "But this took place in the 1950s and '60s," Orenstein told reporters, regarding the psychological experiments. "And so the exception had not been in effect during that period so (the U.S.) argued that the old law would prevail and the old law was absolute immunity."
"What we're claiming is the law is retrospective, that you can look back even before the act was passed and apply it today," Orenstein said. He noted there were also exemptions during the 1950s and 1960s for commercial-activity lawsuits, adding that the Montreal experiments involved a funding arrangement between private parties.
"Even under the old law, you would be able to pursue in Canadian courts," Orenstein said.
He also said the case could be heard in Quebec. "We don't think that Canadian citizens who are injured on Canadian soil are required to go to the United States to sue."
The Court of Appeal will render a decision at a later date.
The class-action request, filed in January 2019, alleges that the government of Canada funded psychiatric treatments by Dr. Ewen Cameron at the Allan Memorial Institute between 1948 and 1964 that were allegedly part of the CIA's MK-ULTRA program of covert mind-control. It has not been authorized yet by a judge.
Julie Tanny, the lead plaintiff in the case, was among several dozen who protested Thursday outside the Court of Appeal building and attended the hearing. She said as many as 300 families could be affected by the class action and many lives were left in disarray due to the experimental treatments.
She said her father had been sent to the Allan in 1957 for facial pain and was put in Cameron's program, spending two 30-day stints of chemically induced sleep in the hospital, allegedly with a tape recorder under his pillow. At the end of this time there, his medical records noted, "this is as far as we can take him,” Tanny said.
“Where they wanted him to go, I don’t exactly know, but I do know when visiting him, he was like a child, in diapers, giggling like a three-year-old,” she said, adding he didn't recognize his own children.
“Most of his life vanished; he was never the same man he started off as," Tanny said. He died in 1992.
She hopes for accountability at the end of the legal process and to shed light on a dark chapter for many families.
“It’s sad to think about what could have been,” Tanny said. “It was a waste of a life for my father, terrible for my mother and a giant loss and a void for the kids.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2023.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press