Keep Sweet, Gimps

By Victor Schwartzman and Paul Caune
December 14, 2011

“God bless us, everyone”—Tiny Tim
“Can I have some more, please?”—Oliver Twist
“Go ahead, make my day.”—Dirty Harry

Christmas time is a reminder of the strange situation many Canadian citizens face. Among plenty, people with disabilities have little. People who are abused are forced to be thankful for what little they receive. And the last thing you will do is upset the generous person giving you a gift.

Is it because Canadians believe a person with a disability is lucky to get anything? Is it because Canadians have a colonial past? Or is it simply because Canadians are so very…Canadian?

Either way, or in some combination, the end result is the ‘Keep Sweet, Gimps’ approach to what bureaucrats would term ‘disability management.’ If you are patient it will get better.

But if you are a patient doesn’t that mean you should at least be impatient? What’s up with the smiley face?

One of the terrible realities people with disabilities live with is that they are expected, no matter how much they are abused by the very people claiming to help them, to keep ‘sweet’.

In the polygamous cult in Bountiful, B.C., and its sister-wife colonies in the United States, as reported in Daphne Bramham’s chilling book The Secret Lives of Saints, the women are brainwashed and/or intimidated to always smile and say they are happy. They call this to ‘keep sweet’. No matter how suffocating or cruel or lonely the lives of the women, the male community leaders expect them to ‘keep sweet’.

It is an Orwellian euphemism for lying of a particularly abhorrent kind. Lying about the truth of your own life. And it is a lie which only benefits the people causing harm. In the case of women in Bountiful, the people who benefit are the patriarchs of the community. In the case of citizens who have disabilities in British Columbia, the State, government contractors and the business community reap the rewards.

For example, Tiny Tim, the brave little crippled boy. What an inspirational character! His is one of endless inspirational stories, usually fictional, of people with disabilities who eventually become CEOs. Or at least overcome every obstacle, and always with a cheerful smile.

Optimism is good! Good grief, who would be against optimism but someone, well, unpleasant? But a fake smiley face is not optimism. It is allowing a lie to go unchallenged.

And the lie? That what is provided to people with disabilities is reasonable, or at least adequate, or certainly what they deserve. And that when they see a person with a disability smiling, he or she is not just ‘keeping sweet’.

Over the past two years, Civil Rights Now (, where Paul Caune is Executive Director) has spoken with hundreds of people with disabilities. It heard endless stories of they or their families being bullied, intimidated, neglected, abused, and/other/in general hurt by various agencies of the B,C. Government or its contracted service providers. One can add failures in enforcing reasonable accommodation law already on the books.

Of course, not everyone is expected to ‘keep sweet’.

Government agencies get hysterical at even the slightest criticism. Recently, a service provider denounced a critic as ‘dangerous’. It was as if that critic was a terrorist. Or not a good member of the Bountiful cult which does not tolerate challenges to the divine order of the community.

When Paul Caune was incarcerated in George Pearson Centre, when the staff asked him how things were going, he would reply “It sucks. This place is terrible.” Their reaction would be to physically recoil from a someone stating the obvious. You were expected to ‘keep sweet’.

Where does this mentality come from?

Paul says “Some parts of Canadian society still have a colonial mentality. That is, a vassal deferential to a master, which we inherited from British society. The United States, of course, fought a war of independence.

“What does that mean for citizens who have disabilities? In the U.S. there is still that fight-for- your-rights mentality, In the U.S, accommodating citizens with disabilities was a civil rights issue supported across party lines, which was seen to justify civil disobedience and in your face activism.

“In Canada, hardly ever.”

The ‘keep sweet’ mentality could also come from a combination of classic Canadian politeness with the unstated public belief that citizens with disabilities are lucky to get anything.

One monstrous result of this colonial mentality is the abuse reported for decades at government institutions such as Woodlands went unchecked. With Woodlands gone, everyone is expected to ‘keep sweet’ at this victory. But Woodlands could never have been the home to such abuse for 133 years if resident/inmates and their families had not ‘kept sweet’. They furthered the degradation inflicted upon them by lying, which benefitted only their abusers.
This situation is also obvious in the current CLBC controversy in B.C.

Here, one group of families decided to no longer keep sweet, and that eventually blew things open.

Community Living BC (CLBC) is the government’s agency to supervise resources for people with developmental disabilities who should live independently rather than in large institutions. CLBC stands for Community Living British Columbia. However, over the few years of its existence, the CLBC mutated from possible agent for positive change to an agency which bullied families and citizens with developmental disabilities.

An initial CLBC/Government response is to isolate the critics. They will try to do that by finding families willing to keep sweet publicly. Already there are hints of this developing approach when advocates’ concerns are referred to as the ‘odd story’–that problems are isolated. Yet there have been fifteen months of specific and concrete grievances. It’s not a rotten apple, it’s a blighted orchard.

When Paul Caune was forced to live in an institution, he quickly learned that he was expected to keep sweet about abuse and unethical practices. (There was similar pressure when he lived in a group home.) Every day he had to choose whether to smile or speak up. He chose to speak up. And as a result “I was labeled a trouble maker. It affected relations with aides. There was retaliation in many ways, all of them unpleasant. Repeatedly, I was told I should be grateful for what I have.

“It is our duty as citizens of a free and democratic society not to ‘keep sweet’.

“We have to refuse to be silent. We have to speak up when the Government claims to treat people with disabilities so wonderfully. A few months ago, Harry Bloy, the former minister of social development, said that BC has always taken care of the most vulnerable. That simply is not true. For most of the history of BC, the most vulnerable citizens have been incarcerated in abusive and degrading institutions. That he would make the statement, and not be challenged, is an example of the public accepting a lie.

“If citizens with disabilities and their families are going to get the needed reforms which will support their lives with dignity, they must refuse to keep sweet. They must refuse to allow their government to lie. They must refuse to allow service providers to lie. The road to genuine reform will only open up when we refuse to keep sweet.”