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History A proud seven decades of service

The Rich History of the BC Borstal Association

The state of criminal justice in the province of British Columbia during the 1930s remained, as it did in much of the country, very much entrenched in a mode of punishment and penal servitude. A push for the establishment of a Borstal Program in British Columbia began in the late 1930s. In 1938, the Report of the Royal Commission on the Penal System of Canada arrived calling for, among its many recommendations, the formation of a national Borstal Program. This Royal Commission has been accredited with initiating a shift in Canadian correctional perceptions from a punitive to a rehabilitative treatment-based approach. The program's main appeal to reformers was that it proposed the segregation of young or first-time offenders from their more seasoned counterparts

Although their report was primarily concerned with juvenile delinquency, they indicated that it was "most undesirable" for youths to be held at Oakalla Prison Farm or the Dominion Penitentiary among older and hardened criminals. Reverend J.D. Hobden, of the Vancouver John Howard Society, became one of Borstal's staunchest advocates.

Struck by reports of the success of the Borstal System in Britain, Hobden traveled to England in 1935 to study the system firsthand. Impressed with the program there, he returned to Vancouver to begin a campaign to bring Borstal to Canada. Over a period of two years, he made no less than 300 addresses over the radio, visited numerous community organizations, and spoke frequently from the pulpit. As a result of his talks, the John Howard Society was soon handling requests for information on the Borstal System coming in from many parts of Canada.  In addition to the publicity campaign initiated by Rev. Hobden, a second development that played a significant role in paving the way for a Borstal System in B.C. was what E.G.B. Stevens has described as "a most revolutionary experiment with a group of young offenders at Oakalla Prison Farm". At about the same time as Rev. Hobden was working on his Borstal campaign, Angus McLeod, of the staff of Oakalla Prison Farm, approached Warden Owen about setting up an "honour system" for young offenders at Oakalla. McLeod received the enthusiastic support of the Warden, and T.W.S. Parsons, Commissioner of the Provincial Police and Inspector of Gaols, and was soon placed in charge of the experiment.  Advocates of the Borstal System were quick to bring the success of the venture to the attention of Attorney General Gordon S. Wismer. The result was the establishment of Canada's first institution based on the Borstal Program in December, 1937. Initially known as the B.C. Training School, its name would be changed to New Haven following a public naming contest held in August of 1938. Angus McLeod was appointed Superintendent and chose the first twenty youths, aged 18 to 24, to pioneer the program.


They were to participate in a system of "reform and redirection", perhaps most notable for its reliance on the honour system, the careful screening process that would be established to select inmates, a high level of community involvement, and the provision of "aftercare". In May of 1938, a statement prepared for the press described the program as follows:


"There are no bars, no cells, no guards. The inmates, or students as they are called, sleep in dormitories as they would in a Boarding School and are free to go anywhere as long as they remain on the property...The staff has been recruited not as guards but as teachers."


The early New Haven experiment was significant to Borstal development in British Columbia in a number of ways. To begin with, the experiment had demonstrated that an institution could be successfully operated on the honour system that would come to characterize Borstal in B.C. throughout its history. Precedents were also set for the utilization of volunteer support and the provision of aftercare. In addition, attention had been drawn to the need for community support. Perhaps most importantly, the program had worked.  Selecting the right inmates for the program was very important. A system was set up whereby a social worker from the John Howard Society prepared a social history for each potential Borstal candidate. His findings were then examined by a Committee of Admissions made up of Superintendent McLeod, Oakalla's Warden and Deputy Warden, the Guard in charge of first offenders at Oakalla and a member of the Training School's Advisory Board.  The Advisory Board represented on the Committee of Admissions also made recommendations concerning changes or additions to staff, capital expenditure and other matters related to New Haven's operation.  Many of the recommendations put forth by this Board anticipated the responsibilities that would later be taken on by the B.C. Borstal Association. In December of 1939 The Vancouver Province noted that "the Board soon realized that important as the work of the home is, their responsibility towards the students in their charge could not, and must not, end with discharge on the expiration of sentences." One of the additions advocated by the Board was that of a Follow-Up Officer.

In August of 1938, Mr. A.W. Cowley was appointed to the position. He operated independently of the institution, spending time getting to know the youths prior to discharge, taking note of their progress in the training program, and looking into their previous work history and other relevant information in order to work out a post-release plan with them.  As well, his task included helping newly released youths find work and acting as friend and counsellor during the "first critical days" that a youth was "on his own".  Finding employment for youths discharged from New Haven could be a challenging task, but was recognized as essential if the program was to be successful. As one member of the Advisory Board noted: "Without proper co-operation with local businessmen, we won't get to first base." Fortunately, the Vancouver Rotary Club formed a committee to assist the Follow Up Officer and, with their help, all inmates from New Haven were successfully placed in employment following discharge. The community had taken an active role in the aftercare of New Haven graduates.


However, in 1942, with the outbreak of the Second World War, New Haven was closed as a temporary war measure.

Support for the program was such that "there was little difficulty in arousing enthusiasm for a re-opening as soon as the opportunity presented itself." With the conclusion of the war and the re-election of Wismer as Attorney General in 1947, the machinery to get New Haven re-opened was very quickly put into place. The original site on Marine Drive was again secured for the purpose, and a new Superintendent, Selwyn Rocksborough Smith, hailed in the press as an expert and leader in the Borstal field, was chosen to head the program.  As the final link in the Borstal Program of reform, Rocksborough Smith urged the establishment of an aftercare association: "The day a man leaves Borstal to re-enter his community is the most dangerous period. Without aftercare the whole system is futile." In Britain, a Central After Care Association (C.A.C.A.) was responsible for the supervision of discharged Borstal inmates. In British Columbia, a similar organization was to be established.  Part of the Association's role was to solicit the support of the business community, the need for which had been stressed by the New Haven Advisory Board as early as the 1930s. If youths were to be successful after leaving New Haven, they would need to find employers willing to give them a chance to earn an honest living.

On May 14, 1948, a few months after the Borstal Association's formation, the federal government enacted a bill allowing for indeterminate sentencing and extending to B.C. provisions that had previously allowed for a parole board only in Ontario. Amendments were made to Section 147 of the Prisons and Reformatories Act to allow B.C. courts to sentence directly to New Haven any male offender between the ages of 16 and 23 who was also "punishable by imprisonment in the common goal for the term of three months, or for any longer term".  As a result, B.C.'s first provincial Parole Board was established in June of that year to approve the release, on license, of New Haven inmates serving indeterminate sentences.  In addition to acting as a parole supervisor, the BC Borstal Association played an important role in bringing community involvement with Corrections to unprecedented levels. 


The Association's very existence facilitated community participation in a way not possible before. The Association was, and still is, a community organization -- funded entirely by charity until 1966 and made up of volunteers who actively participated in the reformation of young adult offenders.

Borstal’s long history in crime prevention has taught us that trauma is most often the root cause of criminal behaviours. Trauma also underlies many negative behaviours, substance use, addiction, mental health issues and self-blame. In 2016 we implemented our three pillars of care – Prevention, Intervention and Aftercare to address the root causes of trauma. 
To understand and identify traumatic exposure, we rely heavily on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) research. ACE measures ‘indicators’ of a traumatic childhood. The higher those indicators are, the higher the ACE score. Studies have shown that any individual with an ACE score of 4 or more is at a much greater risk of mental health, physical health and emotional challenges.


Prevention of the after effects of trauma requires tailored trauma-informed educational workshops and training, as well as drawing upon our strong partnerships to work for systemic change. Intervention is achieved through Borstal’s trauma centric registered clinical counsellors who provide care to those recently experiencing the impact of trauma. Aftercare is for those coping with the lasting effects of trauma. Our skilled team works closely with clients, their families, and supporting professionals to allow healing and positive transformation.

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British Columbia

Borstal Association

Serving our community since 1948

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