BY RORY ANDREWS
On a gray, wet Sunday afternoon in Sydney, as the first chill of Fall sinks into the ground below, I sit in a graveyard with no headstones. The grass is cut. The flowers are trimmed. A single stone sits in the middle of the garden, in tribute to the forgotten who were buried here.
This is the Field of Peace, or Ach’-na-Sith, located behind what was once called “The Butterscotch Palace”, where at least 60 psychiatric patients were buried without ceremony, without family, and mostly under the cover of darkness. This is the resting place of the ignored, built in the memory of the forgotten. An unmarked graveyard for bodies nobody claimed, for lives deemed not worthy of celebration.
Ach’-na-Sith sits in a small clearing alongside Sydney River, strangely hidden, even though if you sit on one of the many benches meant for quiet contemplation, you can plainly hear the cars stream past on the highway and see the industrial backside of Walmart through the foliage. In a way, it’s a testament to how close past and current tragedies can be, and how easy it is to ignore them. It was used as a burial ground of The Cape Breton Hospital, the local insane asylum, between the years of 1906 and 1959. Nobody really knows the exact number of how many people were buried here; 60 is merely a best guess.
The Cape Breton Hospital opened in 1906, replacing The Riverside Asylum which stood on a site near the present Community Health Center on King’s Road. The Hospital’s foundation was poured with the best of intentions, but this was the early 20th century, and even though these institutions’ changed their names from “asylums” to “hospitals”, little changed in the way of care or objectives. These were places of isolation, of separation, built to keep the less desirable members of the community out of sight and out of mind.
And it was not only the mentally ill that found themselves hidden within the walls of The Cape Breton Hospital. Chronic alcoholism, senility, mental incapacity, or simply being poor were reasons enough to be admitted to this hospital. Many female prisoners were sent there merely because the local jail didn’t have female accommodations. Doctors from across the island used the asylum as a dumping ground for the incurable or misunderstood, and to add to the overcrowding, patients were rarely released or discharged once admitted. If you were lucky enough to get better, or your ailment wasn’t of a permanent nature, you worked the grounds, either cleaning, cooking, or farming, for the rest of your life. One bout of postpartum depression could lead to a life of solitude and servitude within the walls of The Cape Breton Hospital.
These were the years before pharmaceuticals, before sedatives, when the ailments of the mind were mysterious and unmanaged. The field of psychology was less than 40 years old when The Cape Breton Hospital first opened it’s doors in 1906.
Granted, the care patients received at The Cape Breton Hospital was seen as revolutionary at the time, compared to earlier treatments. Within the 18th century Fortress of Louisbourg, the mentally ill were confined to barred cells high in the tower of the fortress hospital, with the only treatment administered being the binding of limbs. The Riverside Asylum kept the “troubled patients” locked within a dark basement, and slept 3 to a bed in the main bedchamber. Padded rooms, by comparison, were the height of humanitarianism, and without knowledge of how to treat or cure these mental ailments, keeping the patients safe and comfortable was the only real comfort The Cape Breton Hospital could give.
But the real cruelty occurred outside the walls of The Cape Breton Hospital. Many patients administered here saw few visitors, or none at all. Uncles, grandmothers, sisters, and children were delivered here, never to be spoken of again, because “we don’t talk about things like that.” For many families in Cape Breton, these patients were easier to forget than to care for.
But this wasn’t true of all of us. Many groups and members of the community donated time and money to The Cape Breton Hospital. A phonograph was donated one year, and the annual budget allowed for the purchase of records. A tennis court was built close to the farm to allow patients physical exercise. One year, the hospital used the funds earned from the farm to buy a meat grinder, on account of most patients living within the walls had no teeth.
But the most clear example of this institutions progress within the field of mental health came when the building burned to the point of being condemned in 1950. During the fire, not one patient of the Cape Breton Hospital perished, which would be unthinkable within the previous institutions of barred windows and isolated cells.
When I was a child, driving into Sydney on the highway, we used to pass the hospital we called “The Butterscotch Palace.” The people of Sydney gave it this name to distance ourselves from the reality of the situation. To cover this shame with humour. We were all victims of this idea. Some more than others.
Over 100 years after the opening of the hospital, and 65 years since the building burned down, I stand by the memorial commemorating the people buried here and notice something strange in the corner of my eye. A teddy bear, wet from the morning rain, sits alone in a small nook of the garden.
Children were buried here, without parents, with no one to claim their bodies.
I have no idea who left the teddy bear, or why, but as I stood by the memorial alone, with nothing but a dew-soaked teddy bear as company, I hope it was left to represent some peace and comfort that the buried never found in life.
Today, Ach’-na-Sith is tended and maintained by Crossroads Cape Breton, a local non-profit dedicated to supporting the mentally ill through hope, opportunity, and work. The very people who would have been confined to The Cape Breton Hospital just 100 years ago, with little hope of relief or release, are now paid a living wage to memorialize those that were forgotten. 100 years after the site was used as an unmarked graveyard, the garden stands as not only a memorial to the tragedies of the past, but also as a sign of the progress of the present.
If you would like to visit The Field of Peace yourself, it is located behind the Walmart in Sydney River. Follow the path down to the river. There is no gate.
If you would like to donate to Crossroads Cape Breton for their hard work and dedication to Ach’-na-Sith and the people of Cape Breton, you can contact them at email@example.com, or learn more at crossroadscapebreton.ca
If you would like to donate to the Breton Ability Centre, the owners of the site, you can at bretonabilitycentre.ca.
Thank you to Terrence D. MacLean who wrote Asylum: a History of the Cape Breton Hospital, 1906-1995, which I read in the Field of Peace with a teddy bear.