Nova Scotia

'Field of Peace' marks burial ground for mental health patients

A special remembrance was observed Friday afternoon at a memorial site for patients of the former Cape Breton Hospital.

Former psychiatric hospital near Sydney was the largest mental health facility in Cape Breton

Derek MacDonald and Jackie Landry of Crossroads plant a red maple with Brad Jacobs of the Cape Breton Regional Hospital Foundation. (Yvonne LeBlanc-Smith/CBC)

A special remembrance ceremony was held Friday afternoon at a memorial site for patients of the former Cape Breton Hospital.

The hospital in Sydney River, N.S., was the largest mental health facility in Cape Breton's history. In the 1950s, more than 400 patients crowded within its walls.

Some were buried without ceremony in unmarked graves on the grounds, with no family members coming to grieve.

"I've been given to understand that about 60 people, primarily patients of the Cape Breton Hospital, were buried at this site between 1906 and 1959," said Linda Courey, senior director of mental health and addictions with the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

A small park with trees, benches and a plaque now marks the burial site.

Dozens of people were buried on the site now called Ach-Na-Sith. (Yvonne LeBlanc-Smith/CBC)

'Full of peace and tranquility' 

The site, named Ach-Na-Sith, Gaelic for Field of Peace, is supported by the Cape Breton Regional Hospital Foundation and maintained by members of Crossroads Cape Breton and Pathways to Employment, two groups that support people with mental illness.

"This arrangement respects the patients buried here, while providing employment opportunities for those living with persistent mental illnesses," said Courey.

Will MacKenzie, 36, is a member of Crossroads who started working at the park two weeks ago. 

"I take care of the grounds around here, raking the leaves," he said.

"I've got to say, working at a place that is full of peace and tranquility, and remembering all the people who passed away here, gives you a heart-warming feeling."​

Colleen Cann Mackenzie, program co-ordinator with Crossroads, said it's important to recognize the strides made in how people view mental illness.

"The significance of this quiet event is not lost on those of us who are living with mental illness or who support people who are recovering their life," she said.