On March 31 2009, people across Ontario celebrated the closure of all institutions that excluded people labelled with developmental disabilities. The largest and oldest of these was Huronia, which established a pattern of systemic abuse and neglect that spread across Canada. Later a class action was settled and survivors were compensated for horrendous abuses. Premier Wynne apologized, saying “we will protect the memory of all those who have suffered, help tell their stories and ensure that the lessons of this time are not lost.”
Eight years later, as it tries to determine the future of the Orillia institution property, the same government is repeating its mistreatment, neglect, exclusion and dismissal of the very people who suffered within it.
At the Orillia City Hall yesterday, developers and planners pitched proposals about how they would capitalize on the land and buildings at Huronia Regional Centre. Now those who stayed away from HRC and shunned those who suffered there are clamouring to claim its valuable waterfront property and repurpose the buildings. Toronto artist Charles Pachter did not appear, but former Liberal candidate Fred Larsen spoke of his vision of creating the “Huronia Cultural Campus”. As far as survivors know, this group has never revealed a business plan. Orillia City Council faulted them for that a year ago, but still provided funding. Would an arts centre pay local taxes? A few years ago, the government sold nearby Edgar Adult Occupational Centre for a mere $2500! We want to know if they expect the government to give them the whole site – assessed by MPAC at 19.5 million dollars.
Who does the government listen to, and care about now? The Ministry of Infrastructure has already re-named the Huronia Regional Centre as the Huronia Regional “Campus”. They established a flawed on-line survey, inaccessible to most survivors. The government is actively working to dismiss the shameful legacy of this stigmatized institution. As they work to reframe it as a public asset, they also attempt to sanitize the history of disability policy in Ontario. But survivors won’t let us forget. They spoke eloquently and courageously at yesterday’s meetings.They do not want is a memorial designed by others.
Ontario must listen to survivors and address the main issue – the buildings themselves. Decaying institution buildings will soon be torn down at Muskoka Centre in Gravenhurst. If survivors want Huronia torn down, that’s what should happen. Their need for closure and healing is more important than anyone else’s financial gain. Neither the architecture nor the purpose of these buildings is admirable. To leave them standing would be a constant reminder of 120 years of violence abuse – evidence of past local and provincial complicity, perpetuated into the future.
There are much better ways to remember. The government should start by respecting those buried on the Huronia grounds. Remember Every Name is a group working to honour the hundreds of people buried there in unmarked graves or identified only by a number, without funerals.
Survivors are planning a second annual HRC Survivors Memorial- Lost But Not Forgotten. We invite others to join us at the HRC Cemetery on Sunday May 14th from 2 pm.- 4pm.
Debbie Vernon, member of Remember Every Name