Doses of LSD given through an IV; drug-induced comas lasting two months; amnesia brought on by drugs psychological torture. None of these actions seem possible in an accepting, liberal city like Montreal. But there's a dark part of Montreal's history everyone seems to forget, or simply not talk about, and all of these atrocities (and more) occurred in the heart of the city.
During the late 1950s, Dr. Ewan Cameron was the director of the renowned Allen Memorial Institute, the Psychiatry Department of the Royal Victoria Hospital, part of the McGill University Health Centre.
On the surface, Cameron was conducting esteemed academic research on the human mind for the benefit of his psychologically afflicted patients.
Those unlucky enough to be admitted to the Allen, within the Ravenscrag mansion, experienced something far more horrific.
Commissioned by the CIA to create an effective brainwashing technique, with partial funding from the Canadian government, Dr. Ewan Cameron subjected his patients to a new form of psychological torture, which went on to serve as the basis for the Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation Handbook, essentially the CIA's textbook on torture.
And he did it right under the noses of Montrealers.
While older citizens may remember the media frenzy that occurred once the story of Dr. Ewan Cameron's work broke, exactly what happened has largely remained a mystery, and many modern Montrealers have next to no idea what occurred at the Allen all those years ago.
Using a variety of sources, including declassified CIA files, we've pieced together the narrative of what is arguably the darkest moment of Montreal's long history.
The Motive: Creating A Super Soldier
Cold War paranoia pervaded the mindset of CIA officials in the late 1950s, fears that were only bolstered when American prisoners of war returned from captivity praising Communism and admonishing the United States. These soldiers had been reprogrammed, or brainwashed, and the CIA feared the consequences of an enemy with such mind-altering techniques.
Certain brainwashing practices were long-since rumored to be practiced by China and Russia, and the aforementioned cases prompted the CIA to devise their own brand of mental warfare. Knowing that no enemy of the United States had devised a scientific or technological method to brainwash prisoners/soldiers, the CIA didn't discount the possibility, and so took on the task of creating one first.
The CIA's aspirations weren't focused on prisoners; rather, they believed the mind could be militarized to create the perfect soldier. Through brainwashing and conditioning, the CIA envisioned an agent that could be "activated" with certain stimuli, carry out a specific task, then regress into amnesia.
In simpler terms, the CIA wanted double agents, or super soldiers, who had been psychologically altered to fulfill a function, then forget it ever happened, thus making interrogation impossible.
The program would become known as Project MKUltra.
But developing such a method would require unorthodox experimentation, and the CIA feared the backlash they may receive for funding the use of experimental drugs and dangerous forms of therapy on citizens.
So, after some preliminary experimentation, the CIA decided to take the project of brainwashing and reconditioning the human mind beyond the borders of the United States.
And in Montreal the CIA found the the perfect place, and person, for the project.
The Man: Dr. Ewan Cameron
Montreal's entanglement in Project MKUltra is rooted in the work and story of Dr. Ewan Cameron. Professor of Psychiatry at McGill University, president of the American Psychiatric Association, and director of the then-new Allen Memorial Institute, which houses the Psychiatry Department of the Royal Victoria Hospital, Cameron's accolades were many, painting a rather positive portrait of the doctor.
A Scottish-born Psychiatrist, McGill University's archives describe Cameron as a figure of psychiatric proficiency, noting his role in advancing "psychiatric training through undergraduate curricula and teaching hospital programmes." Many of his contemporaries would have said the same, as Cameron was quite famous, renowned, and revered in academic circles.
Ann Collins, author of "In The Sleep Room," notes that Cameron stood as a pillar of psychiatry in North America. Once made the director of the Allen, Cameron had achieved a "god like status" in the psychiatric community, able to make or break a person's career, while having the autonomy to perform research unsupervised and without needing approval.
Institutional review boards did not exist at the time, and Cameron's work played a role in their creation. You'll soon see why.
It was Cameron's already ongoing research at the Allen that drew the CIA's interest. Inherently impatient, Cameron sought to find a cure for schizophrenia, one that would be speedy and effective. To do so, Cameron developed the theory of "differential amnesia," a practice of erasing a person's memories in hopes that, when their memories returned, their schizophrenic behavior wouldn't resurface.
Cameron had almost no evidence to support his theory, but it interested the CIA nonetheless. The agency wanted to see where Cameron's work could go, speculating that if the doctor could effectively erase a person's mind and instill new patterns of behavior (a process called "psychic driving"), as he claimed to be able to, they could apply the method to create sleeper agents.
So, in Cameron, the CIA had found the perfect leader for their project. Equipped with his own research institute and already conducting rather extreme and unusual experiments on his current patients, one could argue that the CIA's prompt to further Cameron's research wouldn't even have been needed.
Nevertheless, the CIA did commission Cameron to advance his methods and so MKUltra Subproject 68 was born.
The Method: MKUltra Subproject 68
Officially sanctioned on March 18th, 1957, MKUltra Subproject 68 lasted for two full years, with Dr. Cameron receiving annual funding of $20, 000.
Declassified CIA documents reveal the purpose of and mechanics of the program, a far cry from how the experiments were actually carried out in many cases.
MKUltra Subproject 68's main objective, and Dr. Cameron's, was to find a chemical agent that would break down patterns of behavior, or a person's personality/memory, while also inserting new behaviors and mindsets. Five drugs were listed to be used, either alone or in combination, including potent hallucinogenic LSD.
"After considerable experimentation" Dr. Cameron managed to create an official procedure to create "lasting changes in a patient's behaviour," that, in what was deemed "successful" cases, caused a patient to act differently for up to two months. Broken into four parts, Cameron's procedure was as follows:
- Use of intensive electroshocks to break down a patient's behavior ("depatterning")
- Forced listening of a repetitive "verbal signal" for 16 hours a day, over 6-7 days ("intensive repetition")
- Covering of the eyes and ears in order to deprive the senses during the intensive repetition ("sensory isolation")
- Putting the patient into a drug-induced coma, with sleep periods lasting 7-10 days ("repression of the driving period")
By April 23rd, 1959, over 100 individuals were subjected to the Subproject 68 procedure, already seems quite extreme.
In practice, the experiments enacted by Cameron onto his unwitting patients, who had no idea they were guinea pigs in a CIA-funded experiment, were far more horrific.
The Treatment: LSD, Comas, & Electroshock Therapy
Back in the late 50s, electroshock therapy was quite common. Generally, a doctor would administer a 110-volt shock for less than a second, around once a day.
Cameron, wanting to speed up the process of depatterning, increased the voltage to 150 volts, shocking patients two or three times a day for 30 days. When patients showed signs of confusion or a bad reaction, a sign you should stop electroshock therapy, Cameron was delighted, seeing the negative effects as a positive sign that the treatment was working.
Cameron's intensive repetition process was equally extreme. First, patients would have their senses dulled physically, through the covering of the eyes and attaching pillows around the ears, and physiologically, by injecting patients with drugs. Using curare, which causes the paralysis of bodily functions, Cameron ensured his patients were entirely subdued and helpless.
The "verbal signals" Cameron forced drugged patients to listen to for a majority of the day were uniquely sadistic. To get rid of unwanted behavior, Cameron subjected his helpless patients to recordings of negative statements. A recovered recording included statements like "you let your mother check you up sexually after every date you had with a boy" and "you don't seem to...keep a good relationship with your husband."
After prolonged exposure to the negative, a positive verbal signal would then follow, with similarly personal statements made. One case deemed a "failure" by Cameron had a woman placed in "prolonged sensory isolation" accompanied by "repeated depatterning" for 35 days, with the positive driving process lasting 101 days. Cameron stated no progress was made.
To ensure the reconditioning stuck, according to Cameron's reasoning, patients were placed into periods of forced sleep. Far longer than originally outlined, patients were forcibly kept in slumber for incredibly long periods of time.
In one case, a patient was forced into a state of sleep for 65 days.
A large majority of these experiments occurred in what was referred to as the "sleep room" by patients. Despite being kept in a childlike state due to the mass amount of drugs they received, patients still knew to fear the sleep room. Their collective terror was so intense, patients would walk with their back to the wall when passing the door to the sleep room, fearing their return.
LSD also played a role in Cameron's work, with shots of the hallucinogenic drug given to patients in isolation. One account tells of how Cameron would give a female patient, referred to as Mrs. Orlikow, a shot of LSD, paired with a stimulant or depressant, then leave her alone in her room with a recording of her past session with the doctor playing.
In total, Mrs. Orlikow received 14 shots of LSD. Terrified by the experience every time, Mrs. Orlikow asked Cameron if the treatment could be stopped. Cameron talked Mrs. Orlikow out of it, with the patient later commenting, "I thought he was God," and she would have done anything her esteemed psychiatrist recommended.
Val Orleco told a similar tale, recounting how she received LSD through an IV, and the intense fear she experienced from the hallucinations and sensations. No one had asked her if she was willing.
Commenting on the state of patients in general, Orleco described herself and her peers as crying, disoriented babies.
One documented "success" of this treatment, as noted by Cameron, describes a patient who had lost all of his schizophrenic behaviours. But, there was a price to pay, as the patient also experienced "complete amnesia for all events in his life."
Many of Cameron's other patients shared a similar fate.
The Victims: Forever Altered
The easiest and most accessible way to learn about the effect Cameron's procedures and MKUltra Subproject 68 had on its many patients is to read this Reddit testimonial. Basically, the author tells the tale of a woman who was seeking other patients of Dr. Cameron, and her apparent paranoia, fear, and mildly delusional state, all evident from a phone call.
Verifying the account isn't really possible. But after comparing the woman's mental state nearly 40 years after her escape from Cameron's treatments with testimonials from other patients, the story rings true.
Of Cameron's many patients, 60% experienced amnesia for a full six months to ten years after leaving the Allen. Some patients never fully recovered, needing the aid of lists to remember to perform even the simplest tasks, like household chores.
Gail Kastner, who received $100,000 in reparations from a law suit against the CIA that was settled out of court, consistently had nightmares of a "tall man" giving her electroshocks. Originally inducted as a patient at the age of 19 for mild depression, Gail's life afterwards was riddled with drug addiction problems, hospital visits, and irreparable brain damage.
Esther Schrier, originally sent to the Allen to deal with the depression she faced after losing her baby, lost her ability to be a mother after leaving Cameron's care. Despite giving birth to a new baby, she was unable to care for the child, and only went on to lead a somewhat normal life thanks to the support of her husband and family.
Bevan Weldon's mother died in his arms, and the trauma effected him so deeply that he went to the Allen to seek psychiatric treatment. Weldon experienced an entire dissociation of his former self afterwards. Kept in a coma for 21 days, Weldon lost the memory of his mother's death, which never returned, even fifty years later.
Cameron essentially took that part of Weldon's life from him, because, as Weldon put it "life is memory."
It's important to note that, at some point, whether originally or after the project had started, the Canadian government became involved with, sanctioned, and funded Subproject 68. The exact level of involvement by the Canadian government is largely unknown, though it is believed they funded similar experimentation even after Subproject 68 "officially" ended.
The nation's government did feel guilty enough to offer $100, 000 in reparations to 77 former patients.
Nine victims of Cameron's work also received an out-of-court settlement of $750,000 from the CIA when they sued the government agency in the 1980s. Many believe the settlement was made to ensure no further details of Project MKUltra would be revealed in the courtroom.
As for Cameron himself, his story ends soon after Subproject 68. In February, 1963 at a meeting of the American Psychopathological Association, Cameron admitted to taking a wrong turn during his research. Abruptly, Cameron then abandoned his work, and soon after, in 1967, the doctor died at the age of 65 in Lake Placid, New York.
But despite the lasting impact Cameron and Subproject 68 had on many Canadians, few Montrealers today even know this CIA-funded brainwashing initiative occurred in the city. In fact, many believe Subproject 68 to be a myth.
Haunted Montreal's Mountain Tours reference Subproject 68, but only focus on a theory that the graves situated behind the wall between the Ravenscrag and the Royal Victoria property are unmarked because they contain the bodies of First Nations children experimented upon by Cameron.
While this theory is chilling, and comments on the continued abuse of First Nations peoples, it is only a theory, whereas the other horrors associated with Cameron's work are based in actual fact.
To borrow terminology, Montreal has seemingly depatterned its collective memory, choosing to not remember the events that took place at the Allen in the late 1950s and early 60s, under the leadership of Dr. Ewan Cameron. And it's not a surprise why.
Montreal, and Canada as a whole, would rather place Subproject 68 in the realm of conspiracies, a mere tale that sounds too horrific to be true. Not all history is happy, however, and it's time Montreal started recognizing what happened within the walls of the city all those years ago.