The conference begins: “Suicides par intoxication médicamenteuse. District de Montréal”

In Conferences, History of medicine, Psychiatry by Steve Palmer0 Comments

I make it, finally, after waiting at an understaffed Congress information booth for a while, almost at the end of Alexandre Pelletier-Audet’s first talk of the day in the panel on “Interdisciplinary Research at the Nursing History Research Unit”.  Looks like I missed most of a good one.  Gritty typewritten coroner’s and police reports of suicides are on the Powerpoint screen, and M. Pelletier-Audet, a doctoral student at the Université d’Ottawa is eloquent and concise in concluding his own report on how Montrealers “ended it on a cloud” (“quitter sur un nuage”) in the barbiturate-fuelled self-inflicted death scene of the 50s and 60s…

And that’s as far as I got in my semi-live blogging venture before the conference completely washed over me.  Now, just after lunch on Day 2, listening to Benoit Majerus’ promising talk on getting out of the asylum in 20th-century Belgium, it’s starting to look like “semi-live” blogging is going to mean doing one blog post at the mid-point of the conference!  In my defence, the molasses wi-fi system at the University of Ottawa Social Science pavilion, where the joint conference is being held, was not allowing me to upload images, so I just gave up.  Today, I’ve switched to my trusty phone hotspot and it seems to be working much better.

To be fair to Congress, the registration area at Montpetit is central, and only a few steps away from the Social Sciences pavilion.  It’s my first time inside the U of O campus and it has a nice urban feel.  SocSci is an airy new building with an atrium foyer, oceans of light and a living wall beside a repose area.  The joint conference has three generous amphitheatrical lecture halls, all within spitting distance of one another, and with good space for inter-panel mingling and post-panel caffeinated conversational overspill.

Yesterday’s first panel seems such a long time ago now, with many many rewarding encounters since, and great talks, and two spectacular keynote lectures, and some revels.  Still, I think I will dedicate the rest of this, my first real conference post, to that first panel because it showcased the research going on under the auspices of the University of Ottawa’s Nursing History Research Unit, with its extraordinary concentration on the history of psychiatric institutions and mental health.

Just as the U of O is host campus for Congress, its NHRU is really the host institution for our societies’ joint conference, and perfect for the task, as its director, Marie-Claude Thifault has institutional and research interests that span what’s left of the divide between history of nursing and history of medicine.  Dr. Thifault, a powerhouse researcher on the history of asylums in the U of O Department of Nursing, organized the conference in conjunction with Isabelle Perreault.  Professor Perreault, a felicitous new hire at the University of Ottawa’s Criminology Department who is also the trusted Treasurer of the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine, is herself overseeing some ambitious work funded by CIHR on the sociology of suicide, and psychiatric de-institutionalization in post-war French Canada.  Aside from bringing the conference to life, they’ve assembled an impressive cast of NHRU research collaborators, including colleagues at the U of O, post-docs, doctoral students and international scholars from Brazil, Belgium, France and beyond.

The Université d’Ottawa/University of Ottawa is the only truly, functionally bilingual post-secondary institution in Canada, and true to that mission the conference is the most anglo-franco CSHM/SCHM//CAHN/ACHN gathering I’ve been to.

The NHRU inaugural panel ends with a heart-breaking look at the fate of Ottawa region francophone psych patients at the Montfort Hospital, from its founding in the early 1980s to the recent past.  Sandra Harrisson, an award-winning doctoral student with the NHRU, showed with great finesse and tendresse how, as re-admissions piled up, exhausted families, with little social institutional support from government, gradually gave up on their mentally ill loved ones, who drifted inexorably (in 90% of cases!) into a desolate dialectic between periodic re-institutionalization and social isolation in the world outside.  Sad, but true.

Between Pelletier-Audet and Harrisson, we are treated to an intriguing preview of Alessandra Iozzo-Duval’s new project, the late Victorian nursing regime at the Ontario Institution for the Education of the Deaf outside Belleville.

If this panel is an indication of the degree of rigour, empathy and imagination the NHRU team are bringing to the historical table, Canada’s troubling past of institutionalized — and de-institutionalized — mental suffering and care is in good hands.

Certainly, now that we’ve crossed the half-way point, it’s safe to say that the CSHM and the CAHN put the organizing of this conference in good hands.

More on that later.


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