Investing in Justice: Survivors Hope to Document the Truth

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On December 9, 2013, Premier Kathleen Wynne issued an apology to everyone harmed by Huronia Regional Centre, stating, “We take responsibility for the suffering of these people and their families. I offer an apology to the men, women and children of Ontario who were failed by a model of institutional care for people with developmental disabilities.on behalf of all the people of Ontario, I am sorry for your pain, for your losses, and for the impact that these experiences must have had on your faith in this province, and in your government… As a society, we seek to learn from the mistakes of the past. And that process continues. I know, Mr. Speaker, that we have more work to do. 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.”

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We cannot forget what we do not know. In telling our stories we hope never to be forgotten and that by preserving our history it will not be repeated. We hope that the life we lived is valued, that it mattered.

Survivors of Huronia Regional Centre, first called Orillia Asylum for Idiots at its opening in 1876, and of other institutions like Rideau Centre and Southwestern Regional Centre, have been fighting for their voices to be heard, to tell their own courageous stories and to speak out for the dead so that they may also secure their place in the halls of time.

A class action settlement brought forward by Huronia survivors, Marie Slark and Patricia Seth, with the support of Huronia litigation guardians, Jim and Marilyn Dolmage, led to a 35 million dollar settlement by the province. Survivors of Rideau Centre and Southwestern Regional Centre would experience similar outcomes with the province. However, 7.4 million dollars is remaining from a combination of these settlements. This money will be spent on projects, and invitations are now being invited for proposals. Marilyn Dolmage emphasized repeatedly in a conversation with the Northern Hoot that this money is earmarked to help survivors of Huronia, Rideau and Southwestern.

Marie, Pat, Jim and Marilyn have been disheartened that the wording of the invitation to submit proposals does little to encourage projects that will benefit survivors. The amount is being called a “Strategic Program Investment Fund”. Proposals are directed to the Ministry of Community and Social Services for projects that “enhance the ability of individuals with a developmental disability to guide and influence decisions affecting them from a system and personal point of view.”

The Huronia team says that this is not money that should have broad application for all people with a developmental disability as the invitation seems to imply.

“We insist that this is class action survivors’ money,” remarked Marilyn. “This money exists because there was a cap imposed, to limit compensation, no matter how much harm claimants documented. We believe that everyone was harmed, but some people couldn’t even make claims. People with the greatest disabilities had the most trouble making claims, although they were very vulnerable to harm in institution. Because it was difficult to get compensation for individuals, there was money left over to go into this fund.”

According to Marilyn, the lawyers appointed to serve the class – Koskie Minsky, first told the judge this class action money must go on projects that benefit them. But they let the government write the blurb inviting proposals and did not object to it. The Huronia class action plaintiffs and litigation guardians had to speak against it in court, on their own.

“The judge confirmed that we can make submissions about how this money will be used and decided we needed the help of a new lawyer,” remarked, Marilyn. Hence, the Huronia litigants and plaintiffs turned to attorney Jasminka Kalajdzic, the associate dean of the Law at the Faculty of Windsor, whose writing on this very issue had inspired them to speak up.

Related: A Courageous Man: Leo Gattie’s Undiminished Spirit

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Graves Defiled by Sewage System: Who Cares?

Survivors of Horrific Gov’t Sanctioned Institution Fight to be Included in Their Own Healing Process

So now three entities will determine what proposals will get funding –the government, Koskie Minsky and the Huronia class action plaintiffs and guardians. The irony that the very government that carries the legacy of horrifying systemic abuse now can influence how class action settlement money is spent is not lost on the Huronia team.

“That money is there because the government failed people. The Premier apologized to those people. Paying this money is supposed to change the government’s behaviour. These funds aren’t supposed to help people that did the wrong. This is the survivor’s money,” commented Marilyn.

The Huronia class action team members refer to this pot of money as an “Investing In Justice” fund. They are excited that ideas for proposals have already begun rolling in. Marilyn explained that the plaintiffs, litigants and supporters feel that this money would be a powerful way to enter these crimes against humanity into history books.

“Politicians and government ministries might prefer to silence these stories and make this look like money that they are providing out of the goodness of their hearts to the people of Ontario. But this large amount of money can do things that were never before possible. Survivors want to tell the real history of what happened. We are concerned that the government doesn’t want their stories told. Telling stories contributes to healing. For someone to tell their story is so powerful for society but it is also powerful for that person. We think this is really about the truth and the reconciliation together.”

Marie, Pat, Jim and Marilyn are resolved, prepared to make a stand as they have been doing since 2009. They want to encourage helpful proposals.

Applications must be submitted by January 6, 2017 and work could begin by Spring 2017. Those interested in submitting a proposal can click here for more information.

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Background: In 2010, Marie Slark and Patricia Seth, former residents of Huronia Regional Centre, with the support of litigation guardians- Jim and Marilyn Dolmage, brought forward a class-action lawsuit against the Province of Ontario for a breach of its “fiduciary, statutory and common law duties to the class through the establishment, operation, and supervision of Huronia”. The application for the lawsuit also alleged that the Province’s “failure to care for and protect class members resulted in loss or injury suffered by them, including psychological trauma, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and exacerbation of existing mental disabilities”. This action was certified as a class proceeding on July 30th, 2010 and the settlement action was approved by the Superior Court of Justice on December 3, 2013.

Huronia survivors suffered inhumane conditions, 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.

On December 9, 2013, Premier Kathleen Wynne issued an apology to everyone harmed by Huronia.

The settlement includes a small remuneration to residents who were obligated to reopen old wounds to prove abuse in order to receive the pittance. Also, as part of the settlement, was a commitment by the provincial government to restore the cemetery and create a memorial site for those that died in the institution.

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