In the next few months, Saskatchewan Hospital will close the doors of its century-old facility – and begin providing care at a new, state-of-the-art hospital – Saskatchewan Hospital North Battleford. We reflect on the hospital’s past and its importance to the province and the surrounding communities.
The majestic main entrance to Saskatchewan Hospital
Saskatchewan Hospital is many things. It’s the individual patients who need its care and treatment and the health care providers who deliver its services. It’s a place where patients and staff speak with each other on a first name basis with kindness and respect. It’s an environment of hope, safety, and acceptance for patients from all across Saskatchewan in need of longer term psychiatric rehabilitation. And, ultimately, it’s Saskatchewan’s only psychiatric rehabilitation hospital and has served the residents of our province for more than a century.
If you spend any time as a patient, staff member, or visitor at the massive 105-year-old red brick complex on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River along the southeast corner of North Battleford, Saskatchewan Hospital becomes your passion: for its people, its atmosphere, its landscape and its history. For some patients, Saskatchewan Hospital is their home. For many staff, it’s their career.
From asylum to state-of-the-art
Saskatchewan Hospital was built between 1911 and 1913 as the North Battleford Insane Asylum. Under the Saskatchewan Insanity Act of 1906, persons were committed to the hospital on the order of a provincial magistrate upon finding an individual to be insane and too dangerous to be at large.
Those days and those descriptions and beliefs are long gone. Most patients are now admitted to Saskatchewan Hospital under the Mental Health Services Act on a voluntary basis by referral through the health system. Saskatchewan Hospital now focuses on rehabilitation to the best of each patient’s potential. Patients are discharged based on each individual’s progress.
The SHNB grounds are a healing environment for patients.
The original Saskatchewan Hospital buildings are being replaced with a modern state-of-the art facility that will provide the up-to-date living and working environment staff and patients deserve, and which most of us have come to expect in our own lives. Care and treatment of patients suffering with mental illness have also advanced since the doors to Saskatchewan Hospital opened to its first patients on February 4, 1914. Heavy work therapy such as stonework and farm work, hydrotherapy and electrotherapy are long past their use. Mental illness is treated as a disease rather than a criminal condition. As advancements were made with pharmacology, psychotropic drugs, psychology, psychiatry and therapeutic rehabilitation, Saskatchewan Hospital moved away from the treatments of the past.
Population falls as care focus shifts
Today’s Saskatchewan Hospital focuses on patients who need longer-term psychiatric rehabilitation and whose needs cannot be met in local acute inpatient mental health environments. The current Saskatchewan Hospital – Sask Hospital or SHNB as it is referred to locally, short for Saskatchewan Hospital North Battleford -- accommodates 156 patients – a far cry from the peak of 2,043 patients who crammed the wards in 1955.
By 1967, patient numbers had fallen to 960, thanks to the advent of modern drug therapy, and the introduction of outpatient, follow-up care, and rural clinics. The population of SHNB continued to decline as treatment modalities and care options improved.
Today’s Saskatchewan Hospital focuses on specialized services in short term and extended psychiatric rehabilitation. Respite, assessment, consultation and outpatient services are provided. SHNB is also home to the province’s Forensic Services program, with a 24-bed Forensic Unit located within the hospital. The forensic program offers psychiatric assessment and treatment to individuals charged with or convicted of a criminal offence. Individuals are admitted to the Forensic Unit by order of the justice system.
MacNeill a modernizing force
Saskatchewan Hospital was once the centre of mental health services in the province. The facility’s first superintendent, Dr. James Walter MacNeill, spent 32 years at the hospital, dedicated to radically changing the way mentally ill patients were treated. He forbid use of the word ”asylum” and insisted on its exchange for the word “hospital.”
The newly completed Saskatchewan Hospital building, circa 1914.
Under his tenure, bars were removed from the windows and use of mechanical restraints was forbidden. He insisted on treating patients as human beings with illnesses and who are in need of help. That forward-thinking, compassionate, respectful philosophy grounds Saskatchewan Hospital to this day. MacNeill retired in 1945 having developed Saskatchewan Hospital into one of the finest institutions of its kind on the North American continent, according to Canadian and American mental health and psychiatric association surveyors of the time.
Saskatchewan Hospital was home over the years to numerous clinical research projects under the establishment of a dedicated Research Department. The research was intended to organize and evaluate treatment programs and test the results of treatment methods.
Psychiatric nurses once trained on site
Saskatchewan Hospital pioneered the training of psychiatric nurses in Saskatchewan. In the early years, psych nurses were formally trained at the hospital, complete with lectures and on-the-job education. The first formal training course for psychiatric nurses in the province was established at Saskatchewan Hospital in 1930. The classes taught and courses offered continued to expand. By 1955, the students were required to take exams conducted by the University of Saskatchewan. Passing the exam allowed the graduates to become members of the Psychiatric Nurses Association of Saskatchewan.
The last graduation of psychiatric nurses at the hospital took place in 1973, as a centralized training program for the profession was implemented in Regina. Saskatchewan Hospital is once again involved in the education of student nurses through Saskatchewan Polytechnic’s Regina Campus.
Self-sufficient community included farm, mattress shop, golf course
Saskatchewan Hospital was not only a fulfilling place to work and learn, for much of its history it was literally its own community. The hospital was self-sufficient and self-sustaining. It produced most of its own food for patients and staff through its award-winning farm, greenhouse, gardens, and orchards – everything from beef, pork and poultry, to fruits and vegetables.
The Saskatchewan Hospital complex was once a community unto itself.
Saskatchewan Hospital generated its own water supply and electricity; had its own garage and ambulance; did its own laundry, sewing, tailoring, and dry cleaning; made its own mattresses and blankets in the mattress shop; and did its own upholstery, carpentry, cabinet making, tin smithing and toy making. Leatherwork and shoe repair were done on site. Saskatchewan Hospital had its own barbershop and beauty parlor, canteen and post office. Staff and patients worked side by side in many of these areas as trainer and trainee, part of the therapy for SHNB patients.
Staff and patients’ social lives at Saskatchewan Hospital were also intertwined through special events including concerts, choirs and drama clubs; picnics and garden parties; and recreational and sporting activities. The complex had its own hockey teams, baseball, softball, and curling clubs. Basketball, lawn bowling and badminton were popular pastimes. Saskatchewan Hospital also had its own bowling alley, curling rink and nine-hole golf course. The golf course closed for the last time in the summer of 2015, when some of its holes were needed as part of the site for the new facility.
An extraordinary stone chapel is a highlight of any visit to the grounds of the existing Saskatchewan Hospital complex. The stonework was done by a remarkable stonemason who was a patient at the hospital. He is also responsible for the low stone walls that line the roadways along the site’s two main entrances.
The Saskatchewan Hospital Chapel remains one of the most cherished structures on site.
Across from the hospital’s impressive main entrance stands a memorial recognizing the sacrifice of patients, staff, and family members who lost their lives in the First World War and the Second World War. Saskatchewan Hospital was home to its own branches of the Royal Canadian Legion and Legion Ladies Auxiliary. Remembrance Day services continue to be held at the memorial to this day.
The Saskatchewan Hospital Memorial Park and Cenotaph commemorate the supreme sacrifice of those from the hospital who fell in the World Wars.
Three cemeteries are also located on the Saskatchewan Hospital property – the final resting place of about 1,500 people.
Hospital intertwined with how The Battlefords sees itself
Saskatchewan Hospital has held a very special place in the fabric and development of The Battlefords since the institution’s inception. Many past and present staff members and their families who built and shaped The Battlefords and area lived, grew up and thrived on the facility grounds. Employees’ children were educated right on site, at the Saskatchewan Hospital school. Many employees’ children grew up and pursued careers at the hospital. Others moved into the communities of Battleford and North Battleford and found employment or established businesses. Still others became leaders in their respective communities. Many residents of The Battlefords today can trace their heritage through the extraordinary evolution of Saskatchewan Hospital.
Employees and their families no longer live and work on the Saskatchewan Hospital site. The last employee moved out of her cottage on the grounds after Saskatchewan Hospital’s 100th anniversary in 2013.
Through the years, hundreds of staff alumni and their families have come back to Saskatchewan Hospital to mark the institution’s milestone anniversaries, including the hospital’s 60th, 75th, 80th, and 100th birthdays. The complex also celebrated the province’s centennial in 2005 with a special hospital reunion.
Construction and completion of the new Saskatchewan Hospital North Battleford will mark yet another cause for celebration, and the advent of the next chapter in the facility’s colourful and cherished history.
The new SHNB is taking shape near the original hospital.