Manitoba·CBC Investigates

Winnipeg woman brainwashed in Montreal psychiatric hospital hopes new year brings new compensation

Lana Ponting was just 16 when she was given LSD and methamphetamine in a series of brainwashing experiments by a world-renowned psychiatrist in 1958. Ponting, who now lives in Winnipeg, has never been financially compensated for her experience.

Lana Ponting hopes Montreal class action lawsuit will be certified this year

Lana Ponting was 16 when she was sent to the Allen Memorial Institute, where she was given LSD and methamphetamine, medical records say. (Gary Soliak/CBC)

Lana Ponting was just 16 when she was given LSD and methamphetamine in a series of brainwashing experiments by a world-renowned psychiatrist in 1958.

"I didn't even know half the time who I was," Ponting said. "It was almost like a jail. It was horrible."

The 78-year-old Winnipegger spent a month at McGill University's Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal under the care of Dr. Ewen Cameron.

Medical records say Ponting was fed a cocktail of drugs that also included barbiturates and anti-psychotics used to "explore" her. She was tied up and fed the drugs while doctors observed her behaviour and reactions. 

What were called "depatterning experiments" later became an international scandal when it was revealed Cameron was covertly funded by the CIA as part of their MKUltra mind-control program. 

But it wasn't just the CIA who funded Cameron. Canada's federal government provided Cameron with more than $500,000 between 1950 and 1965 — $4 million in today's dollars.

Ponting has never been financially compensated for her experience and 62 years later, she wants an apology from Ottawa.

"And I do want compensation because I think mentally and physically, I suffered a lot," she said.

Class action seeks compensation

Ponting hopes compensation will come if a Montreal-based class-action application is certified this year.

The application was filed in January 2019 in Quebec's Superior Court on behalf of anyone who underwent Cameron's "depatterning treatment" at the institute between 1948 and 1964. 

The lawsuit also would include anyone whose family member or dependant underwent depatterning at the institute. 

Lawyers on the case believe there could be hundreds of potential class members. 

Dr. Ewen Cameron was a respected psychiatrist and the first director of the Allan Memorial Institute, the psychiatric facility at McGill University where brainwashing experiments took place from 1950 to 1965. (CBC)

Cameron believed in using sleep deprivation, electroshock treatments and hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD to "depattern" the mind and wipe out mental illness. 

However, it was later reported that his methods had lasting impacts on patients, sometimes erasing his patient's memories.

Ponting was living in Montreal in 1958, when a judge referred her to the institute after her father took her to juvenile court. 

She had run away a few too many times and he didn't know what to do with her.

Medical records describe her as "stubborn and antagonistic" and said her parents disapproved of her friends.

"I guess I was having a hard time with my parents. A rebellious teenager, or whatever," Ponting said. 

'You can't do this' 

When she arrived at the hospital, she remembers resisting when they tried to feed her the drugs. They used straps on her arms and ankles to hold her on a table while they injected the drugs. 

"I guess I took offense to that for some reason. I was yelling. I was screaming, 'Leave me alone. You can't do this,' and it was horrible. It was just horrible," she said. 

Ponting used Freedom of Information laws to get copies of her medical records. They detail the month she was in the hospital and include notes from Cameron. 

An undated photo shows Lana Ponting as a child, before she went to the Allan Memorial Institute. (Submitted by Lana Ponting)

In a May 10 letter written after her release from the institute, Cameron told her new doctor what happened after she was given LSD and nitrous oxide (laughing gas).

"She had become quite tense and extremely violent when given the nitrous oxide, throwing herself half out of bed and starting to scream," he wrote.

"She came out of her confused state, calling for her father, and continued calling and crying for him sometime afterward."

Ponting can't remember the two years after she left the institute. 

"There are two years of my life, for some reason, I couldn't bring the memories of that back," she said. 

Compensation in the '90s

In 1992, about 77 of Cameron's former patients were given $100,000 by the federal government. Hundreds more who applied for the compensation were rejected, because they needed to have proper medical records to prove they were tortured to a certain extent, and they needed to apply by a specific date.

Ponting said she never applied for the compensation because she wasn't aware it was being offered.

The named defendants in the latest class action application are the attorney general of Canada, the United States attorney general, McGill University Health Centre and the Royal Victoria Hospital. 

A statement from the federal government cited the 1980s inquiry into Cameron, which concluded Canada did not hold any legal liability for the treatments.

The Allan Memorial Institute was the site of CIA-funded brainwashing experiments in the 1950s and 1960s. (Elizabeth Thompson/CBC)

It said the compensation paid out in 1992 was done for "humanitarian reasons." Since then, several other out-of-court settlements have been reached with other patients. 

A spokesperson for the McGill University Health Centre and the Royal Victoria Hospital said the courts already have determined Cameron conducted his research at the institute, but Cameron was not, by law, its employee. 

"It's important to note that Dr. Cameron's research could not be carried out today at our institution. Since the '60s, the ethical and regulatory frameworks have evolved considerably," said the statement from the McGill University Health Centre.

A request for comment from the U.S. attorney general was not returned.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kristin Annable is a member of CBC's investigative unit based in Winnipeg. She can be reached at kristin.annable@cbc.ca

with files from Elizabeth Thompson

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