Graves Defiled by Sewage System: Who Cares?

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It has always been the case, and remains today, that people who experience a disability- intellectual or physical, fight to be recognized as human beings of equal value. This statement could not be more clearly articulated than through the example provided by the ongoing treatment of survivors- some living and many dead, of Huronia Regional Centre. The government run institution warehoused thousands of people who had intellectual disabilities and perceived physical disabilities. Huronia survivors suffered inhumane conditions and were subjected to physical, sexual and mental abuse every day and every night. And when death came, surely as a rescue for many, a way to escape the living nightmare, they were laid in numbered, nameless graves and forgotten in the government owned cemetery- Huronia Regional Centre Cemetery.

And have no doubt that in death the indignity and devaluing of these souls continues.

Tombstones were removed from countless graves and flipped over to create patios and walkways on the Huronia grounds, committees were formed to fight the installation of an OPP helipad, and most recently discovered, a septic system was laid out through a section of the cemetery –likely plowing through 100 or more graves.

December 9th, 2015 marked the two year anniversary of Premier Kathleen Wynne’s, apology to the survivors of Huronia Regional Centre. “As a society, we seek to learn from the mistakes of the past. And that process continues. I know that we have more work to do,” delivered Premier Wynne to Huronia survivors attending legislature. “And so 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.”

For those who witnessed the expression of contrition it sounded pretty good at the time but today the beautifully crafted–though somewhat filtered, apology rings hollow. Not surprising given the apology was Court ordered as part of a $35 million settlement approved in a class-action suit against the province for its treatment of people ‘held’ at Huronia Regional Centre.

An additional condition of the settlement, was an obligation for the provincial government to restore the cemetery and create a memorial site for those that died in the institution. Undertaking a memorial requires the government to identify the names of all residents who died there- a challenge that has proven to be an onerous, perhaps impossible task. A second requirement of the agreement involved the replacement of a fence in the cemetery that had fallen into disrepair. To ensure that the fence was properly designated throughout the cemetery, the Ministry of Community and Social Services and Infrastructure Ontario commissioned an investigation that included: total station mapping to overlay old sketch maps; ground penetrating radar to find unmarked graves; and physical stripping of topsoil to establish the perimeter of the cemetery. It was during this procedure that three areas in the cemetery were identified and indicated on a map simply as ‘utilities’.

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A group of survivors, relatives of survivors and concerned citizens collectively known as Remember Every Name found the utility sites and to their horror discovered that ‘utilities’ referred to a sophisticated sewage infrastructure buried four feet in the ground- well within the depth of all known burials in the cemetery. Even more appalling was the finding of bones and cedar planks near the area of disturbance during the investigation. This desecration appears to have happened in the early 1950’s as evidenced by a manhole cover inscribed with a ‘1952’ date.

Upset that upwards of 100 plus graves had been disturbed, Remember Every Name contacted the Premier’s office to address the horrifying situation. The Premier referred the matter to the minister and ministry in charge of cemeteries –David Orazietti, Ministry of Government and Consumer Services.

It would seem to make sense that if a septic system was found to be laid in a cemetery disrupting your Grandma’s final resting place –delivering tons of human excrement and filth past her head or maybe even displacing her remains to some unknown location, one would deal with the Ministry in charge of cemeteries –the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, wouldn’t it? At the very least wouldn’t the Ministry in charge of cemeteries –the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, provide oversight for an investigation?

It would seem in the matter of the government owned Huronia Regional Cemetery – the cemetery where thousands of people with intellectual disabilities were buried, the answer to both of these questions is ‘no’.

Instead Remember Every Name’s members have been shuffled from one government body to another: the Ministry of Community and Social Services; Minister of Economic, Development, Employment and Infrastructure; and Infrastructure Ontario, and picking up a lot of lip service in the meantime. Repeated attempts nearly begging the Premier to reassign the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services to the investigation of disturbed graves have proven futile.

Remember Every Name has the support of Dr. Jerry Melbye –one of Canada’s most prominent Forensic Anthropologists and Forensic Expert for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, who has offered his pro bono services to the investigation of bone shards in the area of concern. All Ministries and the Premier’s office have chosen to not acknowledge this offer.

Jim and Marilyn Dolmage supported the primary litigants in the class action lawsuit against Huronia and are also a members of Remember Every Name. “We had asked to be informed and to make sure that this was a transparent process. We would have people attend when work was being done. Of course they haven’t told us who is doing the work, what work they are doing or when the work is being done. So it certainly is not being done in an open and transparent way,” remarked Jim.

Remember Every Name received a ‘partial’ report conducted by a third party hired by the government. The report contained information obtained from a ground penetrating radar investigation of the cemetery which would identify where any utilities –such as septic, lay. Of the report Marilyn commented, “We think it seems too accidental that the strip of the cemetery where they didn’t’ do ground penetrating radar on was that particular strip where the septic was found- or if they did, they didn’t show results. Ground penetrating radar isn’t all that great for showing bodies but it’s really clear for showing pipes.”

Debbie Vernon is also a member of Remember Every Name and has been actively communicating with the Premier’s office and all the ministries mentioned here. After being batted around from one ministry to the next and having received no reply or inadequate replies from various ministries Vernon has become entirely dubious of the process to restore dignity to the survivors who died at Huronia. “You would think that the Ministry that handles cemeteries would be responsible for this. We want to memorialize the people that died here and we’re trying to do it in a truthful and respectful manner. This entire issue of the septic system- it’s like the government is trying to hide it or disguise it as something else. And we want the truth to be told,” expressed Vernon.

Vernon’s greatest fears are what may have happened to the remains that lay in the area of the septic system. “We would like to know what happened to the bodies. I would suspect that an uncaring, careless crew of men that would dig a trench through burial sites to install a septic system with little or no documentation, couldn’t care less with the materials they dug up. I think they just threw it over an embankment at the end of the cemetery. There has been word of mouth for years about people finding bone fragments on the embankment.”

An email received by Vernon from the Minister of Economic, Development, Employment and Infrastructure, Brad Duguid, points out that it is Infrastructure Ontario and the Ministry of Community and Social Services that will “address concerns that were raised about utilities within the Huronia Regional Centre cemetery boundaries”.

But that really isn’t at the heart of these concerns, is it?

The concern is not of utilities. The concern is of the desecration- created by the installation of a sewage system, of graves belonging to deceased survivors of Huronia Regional Centre. The concern is that the government that promised to –oh what was it that they promised? Oh yes- to “protect the memory of all those who have suffered, help tell their stories and ensure that the lessons of this time are not lost” is not being upheld.

The concern is also not that the provincial government and the appropriate Ministries care about the survivors of Huronia- living or dead. We’ve already witnessed the insincerity of a forced apology. Nobody is interested in the discomfort created by any government ‘pretending’ to care about a certain population of people.

The concern is simply that the Ontario government and appropriate Ministries do their job as ordered by the Court.

“Right now we need those reports so that we can share them with our expert- Dr. Melbye,” remarked Vernon. “And we need the government to start including us in any meetings and any future actions they decide to take with the cemetery. We’re not interested in talking about a cemetery registry until we know what happened to the bodies buried where the septic was installed. We want a cemetery registry that tells the whole truth. We’re done with cover ups.”

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