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He spent 730 days in solitary confinement as a child. Now he’s fighting for change

Jack Whalen spent two years of his childhood locked in a box barely bigger than the back of a pickup truck. He’s spent countless more nights reliving those memories in his head.

His dreams are violent. He once broke his nose on his bedside table while thrashing against the guards in his sleep.

Tired of feeling helpless, Whalen came home from Ontario last week and built a replica of a solitary confinement cell at the Whitbourne Boys’ Home — complete with the chalk marks he made to count the days he spent inside.

On Monday morning, in the frigid cold and rain, he positioned it outside Confederation Building in St. John’s in hopes the province’s justice minister would see where he spent his formative years.

“I dream of it every night. I’m just looking for some closure,” he said.

The province settled a lawsuit last year with former residents of youth detention centres in Whitbourne and St. John’s. They shelled out $12.5 million to a group of about 110 people.

A box in the back of a pickup truck. It's about six feet high and as long as the bed of the truck. There's writing on the outside.
Whalen re-created the cell in the back of his pickup truck, and wrote on the outside walls. Inside, he put 730 tallies, marking the approximate number of days he spent inside. (Dan Arsenault/CBC, Ryan Cooke/CBC)

Jack Whalen was not one of those people. The difference? Whalen was subjected to physical and psychological abuse, whereas the others were victims of sexual abuse.

The province has no statute of limitations on cases of childhood sexual abuse. The same exemptions do not apply to victims of childhood physical abuse. Whalen would have had until his 21st birthday to come forward with a claim, or his 29th birthday if the abuse had been discovered later in life.

WATCH | Jack Whalen has built a replica of the solitary confinement cell he spent nearly two years in as a child:

he spent 730 days in solitary confinement as a child now hes fighting for change 1

Prison box protest

21 hours ago

Duration 3:26

Jack Whalen spent nearly two years of his childhood locked in a box barely bigger than the back of a pickup truck. Now he’s built a replica and is using it to push the government for change.

Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick are the only provinces to have statutes of limitation for childhood physical abuse.

“I really don’t understand why we don’t follow the rest of Canada,” Whalen said. “The other eight provinces have already changed it but Newfoundland and New Brunswick are lagging behind. I really don’t understand why.”

Daughter becomes lawyer

While Jack Whalen is asking the provincial government to change the rules, his daughter has been asking the courts to find them unconstitutional.

Brittany Whalen was 16 when she asked her mother why her father doesn’t help with her homework. That conversation ended with a promise.

“My wife figured it was time to tell her, and told her I grew up at Whitbourne Boys Home and wasn’t allowed to attend school,” Whalen explained.

“I went in with Grade 6 and came out with Grade 6. My daughter was horrified by that and vowed to become a lawyer and take this case to court. She’s done exactly what she said she was going to do, and I’m very proud of her for that.”

A man with grey hair wearing a sherpa-lined jean jacket.
Whalen came home after getting some bad news from his doctor. He’s now trying to accelerate change in his home province. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

She’s now representing her father and intervening on another case before the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador in which the Limitations Act is being challenged.

Whalen said he appreciates the work being done by his daughter but “the wheels of justice turn slowly.” 

After getting some news about his health in Ontario, Whalen decided to come home and find ways to speed up the timeline. He plans to take his solitary confinement cell around the city this week, raising awareness for what he and other children suffered through in Whitbourne.

After that, he said he might drive it all the way to Ottawa. 

“We’re going to have to make more noise,” he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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