A former Riverview Hospital nurse and prison reform advocate who died more than 40 years ago during a hostage taking at the old BC Pen will be remembered at a special event May 6 in Coquitlam on the future of mental health.
Mary Steinhauser was just 32 in 1975 when she died in a hail of bullets as prison guards tried to take out three prisoners who had held 15 classification officers hostage while they negotiated for drugs and an escape plan.
“She was a very loving and compassionate person, and offered herself up as the principal hostage,” said Margaret Franz, Steinhauser’s sister, who is a retired college English teacher and longtime Port Coquitlam resident.
The panel discussion, Mental Health in BC: History and Hope, will feature historian and former psychiatric nurse Anna Tremere and Dr. John Higenbottam, former Riverview and VGH hospital administrator. Franz hopes it will educate people about the importance of mental health and Riverview’s role in ensuring people have the care they need.
To Franz, who remembers her sister as a strong-willed woman with a streak of independence and a passion for social justice causes, Steinhauser was a progressive voice in understanding the link between criminal behaviour and mental health. In 1960, she trained as a nurse for two years at Essondale hospital, or Riverview as it later became known, before continuing her studies and completing her master's degree in social work at UBC.
While working in the B.C. prison, Steinhauser advocated for an end to capital punishment, held group sessions with BC Pen inmates and served on a federal task force for the abolition of solitary confinement.
When the hostage taking took place in June 1975, Steinhauser agreed to be the principal hostage but she was used as a human shield by the leader, and when the other hostages struck one of the prisoners and a commotion ensued, Steinhauser was the only person to die.
The shocking event shook the province: Headlines splashed across front pages of daily newspapers, an inquest and a royal commission were held.
Both ruled her death as accidental and it was never determined exactly who fired the bullet that killed Steinhauser.
Her sister remembers asking one of the prison guards directly if he shot her sister. His reply during the inquest, she recalls, was simply: “I could have.”
Franz is trying to bring closure after 43 years, having amassed a large collection of documents and materials that will be given to SFU, where both sisters went to university.
A bursary has also been established at SFU in Steinhauser’s name; and in recognition of her support of First Nations inmates, annual bursaries are awarded to SFU Aboriginal undergrads studying the humanities.
Franz hopes to get enough funds in the bursary to make it sustainable while also ensuring that the public does not forget her sister’s sacrifice.
“If I can do this and keep Mary’s story alive and introduce a new generation, and celebrate her passions and help university students pursue their dream and their ambitions, I will accomplish my goal,” Franz said.
• Mental Health in BC: History and Hope takes place Sunday, May 6 from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Coquitlam Public Library's City Centre branch, Room 135. Admission is by donation ($10 is the suggested minimum). RSVP to Margaret Franz at firstname.lastname@example.org, call, text or voice mail to 604-644-6607.
• For more information on Mary Steinhauser and the bursary, visit www.marysteinhauser.com