A Transition Time in CMHA Sask – 1962

Irwin Kahan was a social worker who served as an Executive Director of CMHA and then of the Schizophrenia Society in Saskatchewan. This “fragment”  illustrates the complex relationship among politicians, professionals, research, and the Canadian Mental Health Association (Saskatchewan), a community-based organization.  This “fragment” illustrates a transition time in mental health philosophy and practice.

In the 1960’s, the formerly predominant treatment had been psychotherapy in the traditions of Freud, Jung, Adler, William James and Fromm (to name a few schools of thought).  The custodial care of the asylum was the alternative for people whose illness or poverty was too severe to undertake long term analysis.  Medications – anti-psychotics and tranquilizers – were the new “answer” that would “cure” psychosis and neuroses and allow the closing of hospital beds.  Into this mix, Dr. Abram Hoffer introduced the concept of schizophrenia as a physical illness treatable with nutrition including large doses of niacin (Vitamin B-3) and Vitamin C.  

Personal disclosure, I (Jayne) was referred to Dr. Hoffer in October 1967 and we frustrated each other because his regimen did not reduce my depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. I found it almost impossible to follow the sugar-free, dairy-free and gluten-free diet he prescribed although I did swallow the megavitamins.  I was unaware of the personnel and philosophical conflicts at that time.  When I went to the North Battleford asylum in 1975, they immediately took away the vitamins and told me they were useless.  When I went to Dr. Colin Ross for treatment for Dissociative Identity Disorder in 1985, he allowed me to continue the vitamin support.


Irwin Kahan’s memoir

Irwin Kahan in Tending the Tree of Life: My Memoir told about starting with CMHA as director of rehabilitation in 1957 and then he took on the role of Executive Director the next year.  When he began, there were White Cross Centres in Regina and Saskatoon, and he organized centres in North Battleford, Moose Jaw and Yorkton.    He regularly questioned the directors and psychiatrists at Weyburn about the conditions of the large overcrowded hospital and the methods of shock treatment, heavy tranquilizers, and lobotomies.  

The Saskatchewan Plan calling for smaller psychiatric hospitals connected with general hospitals around the province had been introduced in 1955. Mr. Kahan felt Premier Tommy Douglas was genuinely interested in the care of people with mental illness, but felt restricted by lack of funds.  [2, p .68]. CMHA board members, some of whom worked for the Psychiatric Services Branch, actively promoted the Plan [1, p. 138]. As volunteer visitors organized by CMHA began to protest the conditions of the patients in the large asylums, Douglas expressed disappointment that despite increased funding for the psychiatric services, the government was getting complaints rather than appreciation [1, p. 139].

Mr.Irwin Kahan, as executive director of CMHA, also promoted research including the vitamin treatment offered by Dr. Abram Hoffer. Irwin Kahan’s wife, Fannie, was Abram Hoffer’s sister.   As patients were moved out of the Weyburn and Battleford hospitals and into foster homes, CMHA and its Executive Director Kahan called for a holistic approach with “good nutrition, good environment, friends, and good treatment” –  including high doses of vitamins, instead of high doses of tranquilizers. 

Many psychiatrists attacked Dr. Hoffer’s vitamin therapy as a “quack” methodology, and expressed their concerns to CMHA Board members.  Board members, including the provincial president, valued the support of the mainline psychiatrists.  The Thatcher Liberals told the CMHA board that a $50,000 grant to the organization was contingent on removing the current executive director.  Mr. Kahan quotes his statement to the CMHA board, “I believe in this, the holistic approach, and the other way is letting people down, the people we’re supposed to help.” [2, pp. 65-71].

In September 1962, a Board meeting held in Estevan challenged the Executive Director, Irwin J. Kahan who had a degree in Social Work. The minutes record:

  “Mr. Cooper stated that since his return to the Board following the war it had been generally agreed that the office of Executive Director of our association should be held by a man trained in social work, preferably psychiatric social work.  He said he now felt that we were wrong in that premise and that we were sufficiently large that we required a person with business administration and personnel training and experience as well.  As persons with these dual skills command a higher salary than we can pay he believed that we should have as Executive Director a man trained in business and administration.  He expressed regret at the action he was about to take.” 

A Motion near the end of the two day meeting asked Kahan to resign by October 1st with three months severance, warning that if he did not resign, he would be summarily dismissed.  Members questioned why these problems had not been raised it the Personnel Committee report.  The Executive Director indicated that the committee had discussed it prior to the meeting, and the chair had agreed to resign but “had not announced it earlier in order to preserve harmony throughout the Board meeting.” 

Irwin Kahan was excused during the vote on the motion.  Kahan’s removal was defeated, yes (8), no (12), abstained (1).   The Right Rev. P.S. Kinlin resigned from the Chair and the Board.  Mr. Alf Cooper, Mrs. M. Yaholnitsky, Mrs. T. E. Clarke, Mrs, J. Young, and Mrs. C. Schawilie  resigned from the  Board   When Mrs. E (Marian) Vickar asked to be relieved of her responsibilities as Chair of the Nominating Committee, Rev. M. Thompson was asked to chair the committee.  Mr. T. H. Cowburn, Vice President accepted the role of President. 

Irwin Kahan

When I. J. Kahan returned to the meeting, the new President informed him of the decision and assured him of the Board’s full support.  Mr. Kahan expressed regret and a sincere to desire to carry on.  The meeting ended with a vote of confidence in Mr. Kahan [3]. Nevertheless, Irwin felt he had lost the confidence of the Board and soon resigned. [2, p.71].


[1]  Dickinson, Harley D.  The Two Psychiatries:  The Transformation of Psychiatric Work in Saskatchewan 1905- 1984.  University of Regina, Canadian Plains Research Centre (1989)

[2] Kahan, Irwin, Tending the Tree of Life, My Memoir.  Regina, Wild Sage Press (2015)  www.wildsagepress.biz.  Irwin Kahan’s daughter, Barbara, editor and publisher with Wild Sage Press, lives in Regina.

[3] Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan (PAS) 1265-V.C. 71  1962 business. Minutes, September 28-29, 1962,