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Voices from a buried past: Recovering dis/ability histories through the Woodlands Memorial Garden

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Thesis type
(Thesis) Ph.D.
Date created
In 2007, the Woodlands Memorial Garden (WMG) was installed in New Westminster, British Columbia, on the site of a long-forgotten cemetery, active between 1920 and 1958, for people diagnosed as mentally “unfit” who were institutionalized at the Public Hospital for the Insane and/or at Essondale Hospital for the Mind (later known as Woodlands and Riverview). Unique in Canada, the WMG recognizes 3200 individuals whose burial places were erased by the provincial government’s removal of gravestones from the Woodlands cemetery in 1976 to transform the site into a “park.” The 2007 installation of a public memorial created not just a material, geographic space for collective recognition and remembrance, but a symbolic, discursive space that prompted individuals to enquire about relatives buried at the site and to explore suppressed family histories related to the history of dis/ability and ableism in BC. Interpreting the WMG as a hybrid counter-memorial, I conducted a collaborative ethnographic study with relatives of people buried at the Woodlands cemetery, engaging in and tracking their research of “lost” family members, inviting responses to the WMG, and co-creating stories, while examining the entanglements between personal, familial, and public remembrance and forgetting. Emerging participant stories addressed the affective, ethical, and sociopolitical dimensions of researching a stigmatized and suppressed family past, while presenting a range of creative strategies for reinstating and including institutionalized relatives in family narratives and the public record. Through storytelling, participants extended the meaning of family advocacy by “rewriting kinship” (Rapp & Ginsberg 2001) across generations of the living and the dead: intervening in family silences, addressing historical erasure, and challenging persistent ableist exclusions in contemporary society. This study offers insights into collaborative ethnographic practice and demonstrates how anthropology can contribute valuable knowledge to disability studies. It contributes to an under-explored area of disability studies – the advocacy and caring role of families in the lives of people with dis/abilities, and their social and political potential. It highlights intersections between colonialism and ableism in dis/ability history and expands historical memory work and commemorative studies by drawing attention to ableism and dis/ability as social justice issues.
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This thesis may be printed or downloaded for non-commercial research and scholarly purposes.
Scholarly level
Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Culhane, Dara
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