'She went away, hoping to get better': Family remembers Winnipeg woman put through CIA-funded brainwashing

The family of Velma Orlikow likely won't get compensation from the federal government after she was subject to brainwashing experiments funded by the CIA.

Family says grandmother Velma Orlikow wasn't the same after years spent in Montreal hospital

Velma Orlikow, in an undated photo with her husband, former Winnipeg MP David Orlikow, was subjected to 'de-patterning.' (Submitted by Keir Johnson)

Velma Orlikow spent years under the thumb of a Montreal-based doctor who subjected her to CIA-funded brainwashing experiments, but because she died in 1990, her family is ineligible for federal compensation.

"She went away, hoping to get better, when she was an unknowing participant of CIA-funded experiments that had lifelong effects on her as a person," said Keir Johnson, her grandson.

Orlikow was admitted to Allan Memorial Institute in 1957 to be treated for postpartum depression.

Instead, her family says she was turned into a guinea pig, injected with LSD and forced to participate in "psychic driving" — an experiment in which Dr. Ewen Cameron made patients listen to his voice on tape for hours on repeat.

Velma Orlikow spent years under the thumb of a Montreal-based doctor, where she was subjected to CIA-funded brainwashing experiments, but because she died in 1990 her family is ineligible for federal compensation. 2:15

She spent years fighting for her moment in court, taking on the CIA in a lawsuit that made headlines across the world.

The Central Intelligence Agency paid compensation to her in 1988, but 60 years later, her grandchildren have learned that — unlike others CBC News reported on this year — they'll likely never see any money from the Canadian government, which also helped fund Cameron's work.

CBC News learned in October the federal government quietly reached an out-of-court settlement with Alison Steel. Her now-deceased mother Jean was put in a chemically induced sleep for weeks and subjected to rounds of electroshocks under the care of Cameron at Montreal's Allan Memorial Institute in 1957.

The news renewed hope for the Orlikow family that they might qualify for the $100,000 compensation offered by the federal government in 1992, which their family was initially denied because Velma had died.  

But because Velma (Val) Orlikow died before 1992, they have little legal ground to fight for the money, Montreal lawyer Alan Stein said.

Alison Steel could negotiate a settlement over 20 years later because Jean Steel was still alive when the Conservatives announced the compensation in an order-in-council in 1992, Stein said.

Velma Orlikow died in 1990.

"It's too late," said Stein, who negotiated the deal for Alison Steel. "The conditions were they had to be alive, specifically."

It is a stark reminder for the family of the battle waged by their grandfather and Val's husband, former Winnipeg MP David Orlikow.

Johnson said his grandfather always felt when patients who had already died were left out of the 1992 settlement, it ignored the families' suffering.

"It has never really felt fair to us that the estates or the families of some victims are eligible just because of the date of death," he said. 

"My mom [Leslie, Velma's daughter] and what she went through and the fact that she has to relive that every time this comes up again, because it has never really been settled for our family, it doesn't feel fair."

'Not like other grandmothers'

Orlikow was a different person when she returned from Montreal, said her granddaughter, Sarah Anne Johnson.

A former lover of books, she could no longer focus enough to finish a newspaper article. Writing a letter was nearly impossible, Johnson said.

Keir and Sarah Anne Johnson look at old journal entries and newspaper clippings about the CIA's MK Ultra program.

She was close to her grandmother and spent hours at her home in Winnipeg when she was a teen. She described her as an "amazing grandmother who spoiled me rotten."

But she always knew there was something wrong.

"I knew growing up that my grandmother was not like other grandmothers. She was very jumpy and her nerves were just shot," she said, adding even dropping a fork on her plate would make her jump.

Velma Orlikow spent years under the thumb of a Montreal-based doctor who subjected her to CIA-funded brainwashing experiments, but because she died in 1990, her family is ineligible for federal compensation. 3:05

"She had a lot [of] rage and anger in her and it was always boiling below the surface."

Experiments funded by CIA's MK Ultra Program

It took years for anyone to learn what went on in the 1950s and 1960s under Cameron.

Cameron believed that a combination of electroshock treatments, experimental hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and techniques such as "psychic driving" through the repeated playing of taped messages could "de-pattern" the mind.

By breaking mental pathways and wiping out symptoms of mental illness, doctors could then "repattern" patients.

The experiments were partially funded by grants from the federal government's Health and Welfare Department, although a 1986 report by lawyer George Cooper found government officials were not aware of the full extent of Cameron's work.

Our 1980 report on a secret CIA research project, carried out in Montreal by Dr. Ewen Cameron, in which mental patients felt they were used as CIA Guinea Pigs. The CIA was interested in Dr. Cameron's work on psychic driving because it could give them an idea of where the personality could break, or be stressed? Hosted by Adrienne Clarkson 21:20

Cameron's experiments were also funded by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's MK Ultra program. The CIA, concerned about the brainwashing of U.S. soldiers who had been Korean prisoners of war, funded mind-control experiments across North America.

David and Velma Orlikow first learned of what had happened at Allan Memorial through media reports in the 1970s. They became some of Cameron's most vocal victims and fought for legal compensation from the CIA for a decade.

"They felt like they had the capacity to take it on," said Johnson, noting his grandfather was an MP at the time.

"It is something we are proud of and every time she had to do an interview, she had to relive the worst years of her life. But she was doing it so this couldn't happen again."

Montreal lawyer Alan Stein negotiated compensation for Alison Steel, whose mother was a victim of Dr. Ewan Cameron's brainwashing experiments at Montreal's Allan Memorial Institute. (Elizabeth Thompson/CBC)

Without admitting legal liability, the government said in 1992 it would make $100,000 payments to victims for "compassionate and humanitarian reasons."

More than 70 patients were compensated, but hundreds more who applied were rejected because the government said they hadn't been "de-patterned" enough to warrant compensation.

Stein said one option would be for the current government to pass a new order-in-council allowing families of victims who died before 1992 to apply for compensation.

Johnson said his family is still weighing its legal options. 

"There is a fairer approach to compensation. There is always rules and parameters with these things, but there is also a human lens to put it through," he said.

The federal Justice Department didn't respond to a request for comment.
Velma Orlikow spent years fighting for her moment in court, taking on the CIA in a lawsuit that that made headlines across the world. 0:58

About the Author

Kristin Annable

Reporter

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