A new book explores how history, organized labour and community care intersect at a notable Kamloops locale.
Tranquility Lost: The Occupation of Tranquille and Battle for Community Care in BC, tells the story of the three-week occupation of the residential institution at Tranquille that housed hundreds of people with intellectual disabilities.
The story ends with the closure of the facility in 1983, but what the book examines is how and why that happened and what it meant for those in care.
After the provincial government decided to close Tranquille as a cost-cutting measure, a man named Gary Steeves hopped on a flight to Kamloops and prepared to speak to hundreds of workers.
Steeves, an organizer for the BC Government and Services Employees’ Union, asked what the employees at Tranquille wanted to do.
“They said they wanted to fight and we started talking about ways to do that,” he recalled.
That fight, which included a three-week occupation of the institution by employees, was over what would become of the institution’s residents after it closed.
With the government moving away from institutions and toward a community care model, many of the staff were concerned with the absence of a plan by the government to ensure residents would end up in places that would benefit them and cater to their special needs.
“Tranquille stands today as an example of a government that was more interested in saving money and downloading costs than they were in providing service or worrying about people they were supposed to be worrying about,” Steeves told KTW.
To write the book, the 70-year-old author pored over the government archive of cabinet documents from the 1980s that led to the decision, paired with his own experience of how it all happened.
“I had so much material, it was hard not to write the book,” he said.
At the time, Tranquille had approximately 400 staff, 200 auxiliary employees and 325 residents.
During the occupation, staff kept up with their normal jobs without their usual managers hanging around and, as Steeves said, “ran it like a top.”
“Those workers knew how to run the place, especially the guts of the operation — dietary, laundry, the sort of things that keep a residential facility running,” he said.
Tranquille was a unique institution, with a kitchen big enough to feed everyone and surrounded by bountiful farms. Along with providing those kinds of day-to-day needs, it also had occupational therapy programs, lifestyle programs and, “every program that you would need to help with mental challenges, to acquire some life skills and get people back on their feet,” Steeves said.
What struck Steeves most by the sit-in was the commitment he saw among the workers there.
“They would have stayed forever. If you’d asked them to stay, they would have stayed forever. They were tough. They were brave,” he said, recalling how workers even taunted the RCMP to come and arrest them.
Ultimately, the institution closed one year later, but did so with a plan for its residents.
The workers, meanwhile, ended the dispute having made no concessions, with many later transferring to other positions in the province.
“We got everything we could out of the occupation. We got enough publicity and all that. Doing it longer just didn’t make a lot of sense,” Steeves said.
Tranquility Lost was published by Harbour Publishing and is available at local bookstores.
Editor’s note: Gary Steeves died on Tuesday, Dec. 8, of unspecified causes.