“It felt like digging up his grave,” said Terry Haffner.
A housekeeper at Kingston’s Providence Care, Haffner was disturbed to find a memorial garden to long-serving staff had been cut down and the plaques removed by the hospital without any notice to the families of the deceased or the union who had represented them.
One of those deceased staff members was Terry’s dad Neil, who had worked at the former Kingston Psychiatric hospital from 1961 to his retirement in 1993. Neil passed away in 1996.
When Neil’s tree was planted, his son kept it watered and tended in the early days until it grew hardy enough to withstand the extremes in weather so close to the lake.
It was Terry’s father who told him to apply for a job at the mental health centre in the 1980s. His dad recognized that the heavy construction work his son was doing at the time would be difficult to maintain as he got older. For many years they travelled to work together.
The father of six kids, Neil worked several jobs to support his family.
Neil was well-liked at the hospital and cared deeply for his patients. Terry speaks about having the occasional extra guest for Christmas dinner as Neil would bring home a patient who otherwise had nowhere else to go.
“He treated clients like family,” he said.
Last year an arborist had come to assess all the trees on the hospital grounds, including those planted in memory of staff who had dedicated their careers in the service of others.
The union knew that the memorial stood in the way of a parking lot planned for the new privately developed rehab/psychiatric hospital. The union local had understood that while some trees could not be transplanted, many could.
Instead in late March all the trees in the memorial garden had been simply cut down, the plaques bearing the names of Neil Haffner and other long service workers taken away.
Terry says the garden had been well used – the hospital hosted everything from nursing week events to strawberry socials at that site.
To many long serving staff at the union local it feels like Providence Care is trying to erase the past.
Given the affiliation between the Catholic Archdiocese and the hospital, OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas has written the Archbishop of Kingston asking for help in making it right.
“The insensitive manner in which this has been handled has damaged more than trees and plaques,” writes Thomas. “Many of the staff and family connected to the garden are deeply upset by this unexpected turn of events.”
OPSEU is asking that the hospital and church involve staff and families around planning a new memorial garden on the grounds of the redeveloped hospital. The union is also asking the hospital to investigate and provide both an explanation and an apology to the families involved.
Local 431 President Dan Anderson said had they not taken away the plaques first there might have been some questions asked before the memorial trees had been all cut down.
Terry says had he known the fate of his dad’s tree, he might have transplanted it to his own property. Now only the stumps remain.
The memorial garden began in 1989, but it’s been several years since the last tree was planted. The last tree honored Brian Boyd, a 38-year-old housekeeper who had died in 2005 while still employed at the centre.