“Every survivor has a right to know about the graveyard. People all around the world need to listen to our stories: all us, the survivors. Listen to us. We know what we are talking about. We survived.” ~Cindy Scott, Survivor of Huronia Regional Centre
After enduring years, often decades, of physical, sexual and psychological abuse over 2,000 ‘residents’ of the Huronia Regional Centre died there and were buried on site in ignoble graves. Most of these graves are unmarked or numbered. Only a few graves carry names. In life these people were deprived of the basic dignities associated with being human and in death their dignity is still withheld.
In 1876 Ontario opened its first institution for people with developmental disabilities on the outskirts of Orillia. The institution was then named Orillia Asylum for Idiots. Later it was called the Ontario Hospital School of Orillia and at the time of its closure in 2009, the facility was known as the Huronia Regional Centre.
In the 1970’s Huronia staff removed grave markers to build walkways and patios. In 1985, a chaplain made the horrifying discovery and collected as many tombstones that he could. Not knowing where they belonged the markers were eventually laid out as a cement pad in the cemetery (feature image above). But- if that wasn’t horrific enough, this past July a discovery was made that indicates during the 1950’s tombstones were removed and a sewage trench was laid through a section of the cemetery, carrying human waste and excrement past the final resting place of what could be up to 150 departed.
In 2010, Marie Slark and Patricia Seth, former residents of Huronia, 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.
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. 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. The Ministry of Community and Social Services (MCSS) and Infrastructure Ontario (IO) commissioned Timmins Martelle Heritage Consulting (TMHC) to conduct 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’. Even more appalling was the discovery of bones and cedar planks near the area of disturbance.
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. This desecration appears to have happened in the early 1950’s as evidenced by a manhole cover inscribed with a ‘1952’ date.
Remember Every Name sent an open letter (attached below) to Premier Kathleen Wynne’s office requesting an investigation into the matter. Paola DePaoli, a member of Remember Every Name, prepared an open letter to the Premier, stating, “It is curious that the ground penetrating radar survey has excluded the area where the pipes would be buried.”
DePaoli also states that Dr. Jerry Melbye –one of Canada’s most prominent Forensic Anthropologists and Forensic Expert for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, is willing to offer his pro bono services to the investigation of bone shards in the area of concern. DePaoli writes:
[Dr. Melbye] has advocated for the nameless for over 30 years, mostly in crime scenes involving human skeletal remains. He has worked on hundreds of cases in Canada and the U.S. Dr. Melbye has joined the efforts of the Remember Every Name group after learning that there are no government plans in place to determine the location of a great number of the victims buried in the HRC cemetery. Melbye has made an appeal to Garfield Dunlop, his local MPP for Simcoe North, and Premier Kathleen Wynne to allow his crew to investigate the two septic tanks and pipe system located in the middle of the HRC cemetery for burial disturbances and human remains. In order for these tanks to have been installed, burials must have been disinterred in the process. What happened to these burials? Where are the remains? These are questions that Melbye feels must be answered before the settlement between the government and the remaining survivors of the Huronia Regional Centre and government is finalized. “I feel I have been called upon to help in any way I can. These victims deserve respect. It’s my job, it’s just the right thing to do”, says Melbye.
On July 25th, 2015 Cindy Scott, a member of Remember Every Name and a Survivor of Huronia Regional Centre, sent an open letter (attached below) to Premier Wynne. She writes:
We have been trying to work with the government and we thought everyone was trying to do something right for these people who died. I really want to find a way to get this graveyard done properly: names and the bodies should be where they belong. I want names…so we can bring flowers and so everybody can know we have not forgotten about these people… Jerry is an expert and we need someone who really knows what they are doing to help us. He is a good expert. Remember Every Name need’s Jerry and the help of experts who knows exactly where to look through.
On July 27th, 2015 Premier Wynne replied to DePaoli via email (attached below) with a promise that the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services (MGCS) would investigate the matter.
In speaking with Jim and Marilyn Dolmage, who both supported the primary litigants in the class action lawsuit against Huronia and also members of Remember Every Name, they explained that after growing impatient waiting for a reply from MGCS and receiving none, and hoping to be included or at least kept apprised of the investigation, on August 10th, 2015 Remember Every Name issued a letter (attached below) to the MGCS’s Minister, David Orazietti. Leah Dolmage, member of Remember Every name writes:
We are depending on your Ministry to take a fresh look – to ensure that the previous efforts are reviewed transparently, and our questions are answered now.
We appreciate that your Ministry relates to both the Archives of Ontario and the proper maintenance of cemeteries.
We asked the Premier to ensure:
- An independent and professional assessment of the septic tanks and septic pipes in HRC cemetery.
- An independent and professional assessment of the state of the graves that were disturbed by the installation of the above mentioned pipes.
- An independent and professional assessment of what would be involved in decommissioning the septic system and removing the pipe that lies across graves.
We also requested that Remember Every Name and its supporters be able to select the independent contractor assigned the above tasks.
Dr Jerry Melbye will volunteer his considerable expertise, and work in full collaboration with that independent contractor.
On August 21st, 2015 Dr. Jerry Melbye sent a letter (attached below) to Minister David Orazietti, MGCS, reiterating his pro bono services to the investigation. Dr. Melbye writes:
I strongly believe that we all deserve basic human rights in life and in death, and if I can contribute my expertise to bring some peace to these victims as well as the survivors, then it’s something I must do. I’ve been an advocate for over 30 years for those individuals who cannot speak for themselves.
The cemetery can then to be reconstructed to show respect for the individuals that are laid to rest there. If disturbed burials are discovered during the excavation we may never be able to positively identify these individuals, but we will at least be able to right this terrible wrong and let them rest in peace. They suffered horribly throughout their lives and now because of the condition of their resting place, continue to suffer through death.
When the Northern Hoot spoke with the Dolmages last Wednesday, well over two months had passed since Premier Wynne directed the matter to MGCS. MGCS -or any other Ministry, did not contact Remember Every Name to follow up Wynne’s referral and as of last Wednesday neither did MGCS –or any other Ministry, reply to any letters/emails sent by Remember Every Name members. In speaking with MGCS last Wednesday it was confirmed that the letters/emails were received. However, Minister Orazietti’s office claimed that they were not the Ministry responsible for the investigation into the septic system installed in the Huronia cemetery.
MGCS is responsible for myriad consumer interests including the regulations of cemeteries as well as serving as the provinces guardian of archival records. These two points, as well as the promise from Wynne that MGCS would lead an investigation, have members of Remember Every Name confused and frustrated.
By the end of Thursday last week, MGCS had passed the inquiry from the Northern Hoot to the Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure (MEDEI). (MEDEI provides oversight to IO. IO is currently investigating cemetery perimeters and a death registry in collaboration with MCSS). When asked by the Northern Hoot how the task of investigating the septic installment in Huronia cemetery was delegated to MEDEI when Premier Wynne stated the responsibility would lie with MGCS, a MEDEI spokesperson replied via email stating, “It was always our plan that this important issue be handled jointly by MEDEI and MCSS. The letter that was sent back [to DiPaoli] incorrectly identified MGCS as the Ministry responsible. This was an administrative error and we are sorry it occurred.”
By Friday of last week, Remember Every Name finally received a reply (attached below) from MEDEI Minister, Brad Duguid, to their letter first sent in July to MGCS. In speaking with MEDEI, a spokesperson stated that Dr. Melbye would also receive a reply before the end of the day, however as of today Dr. Melbye confirmed that he has not received a reply regarding his offer of services from any Ministry. It is not clear if these letters were forwarded by MGCS to MEDEI last week or if MEDEI had only just found some time to reply last Friday.
Given that IO -overseen by MEDEI, has already been involved with TMHC’s investigation which did not consider the sewage tanks and septic pipes, “perhaps even intentionally,” commented Marilyn, the Premier’s decision to involve MGCS seemed appropriate.
“We appreciated that the Premier asked a different Ministry to do further investigation,” stated Marilyn to the Northern Hoot. “Now that you caught Orazietti up, and his office had no answers it’s all going back to IO and MCSS. We think this new investigation is improper. They should not be involved in either the investigation or determining next steps.”
MEDEI assured the Northern Hoot last Friday that the investigation into the issue of septic infrastructure through the cemetery is underway. However it was confusing when the reply (attached below) from the Minister of MEDEI received by Remember Every Name last Friday indicated that MEDEI is still in the early stages of securing a contractor.
In an email (attached below) from Minister Duguid dated October 9th, 2015, to Remember Every Name he writes:
In addition to researching records, a utility locate company is being openly procured to further investigate and verify the presence or absence of underground utilities.
“He says sewage ‘is being openly procured’ which seems to contradict what MEDEI indicated about an investigation underway. How can an investigation be already ‘current’ or ‘ongoing’ if they have not even found a contractor?” Writes Marilyn in a follow up email to the Northern Hoot this Tuesday.
To add further to the confusion, a request from the Northern Hoot for clarification on the matter as to whether or not an investigation on the matter of septic infrastructure through the cemetery has been launched and if so, by who, resulted in the following response today from MEDEI:
In August 2015, MCSS requested that IO procure the services of a legal survey company, which was done through a competitive process using our Vendor of Record list. The contract was awarded to the successful consultant (Deardon & Stanton Limited) on September 9, 2015, and they hired a utility locate company (Terra Discovery) as a sub-contractor. The field work has already been completed and it’s anticipated the survey company will provide a final report soon. IO will review the report, share with MCSS and recommend next steps.
MEDEI also assures that MCSS is making an effort to work with interested parties like Remember Every Name to further preserve and maintain the cemetery at Huronia.
However, Jim Dolmage states otherwise. “This is true that MCSS had been working with us. In particular they were working harder when it seemed apparent that money in the Huronia settlement would be reverting back to the government- several hundred thousand it appeared. We forced a review this summer of 800 downgraded claims that resulted in more money being awarded to survivors.”
Jim has lost confidence with TMHC’s work thus far. Of the company’s ground penetrating radar study he remarked, “They looked in the ground at most of the cemetery to determine where graves were located but omitted the section where we believe the pipes are buried. The omission is very clear on the document they produced that shows what they surveyed and what they intentionally did not survey.”
Jim was among the group members that discovered the utilities in the cemetery were cement tanks for a septic system. THMC and the government would have known this but did not reveal the information.
“This is why we requested to be allowed to watch the physical investigation of the property,” shared Jim. “The lack of willingness to be open and honest in their efforts bothers us more than anything.”
Regarding the discovery of bone shards and cedar planks near the site, THMC concludes in their report that after investigation by their expert it was established that the bones were determined to be from a cow. However, Dr. Melbye, who was also involved in solving the “human mysteries in the Lac Megantic explosion”, questions the findings.
In an email to members of Remember Every Name Dr. Melbye writes:
There must be an expert in human identification on the scene. I’m not referring to an individual who has taken a course in human osteology or an archaeologist, they are not experts in human skeletal identification. Usually when bones are found at a dig site the construction is halted until an expert can be called in to determine if it is human or animal. In this case, it sounds as though they had an expert look over the bones to determine if they were indeed human or animal. In this particular report it was determined that the bone/bones were animal bones therefore the construction resumed as usual. In this case we have no recourse because we don’t know who their expert was and I’m sure they didn’t save the bones. It would be interesting to know who actually did the inspection and determination and see if there was an actual report written up. There is no protocol in a case like this. It is not written anywhere to say that when bones are found they are to be shipped somewhere for analysis, usually what happens is an expert will be called in and can make the determination on the spot. If at that time they are determined to be human remains, they are immediately sent to the Office of the Chief Coroner in Toronto for further evaluation. If the dig site is a construction site and human remains are found, construction is halted for an unknown period of time until given the OK to resume. By the way, only an expert can cast their eye on a bone and determine if it is human or non-human. For example, if it were presented in a court of law that the determination was made by a non-expert -it would not be accepted as evidence.
MEDEI shared with the Northern Hoot that MCSS “has reviewed approximately 100,000 historical documents to date related to the Huronia Regional Cemetery. The review of these documents has found no evidence that graves have been disturbed.”
Jim takes issue with the comment. “The lawyers for the survivors received those documents as the results of requests to prepare for trial. The cemetery played absolutely no role in the preparation for trial so there were no requests for documents about funerals, burials, et cetera. The focus was entirely on neglect and abuse of those who would still be living to make claims. Of the tens of thousands of documents received by the lawyers, Marilyn found only three that even mentioned the cemetery. The one relevant document she did find was a letter from the institutions to cease the use of the septic system serving several houses beside the cemetery and hook up with the City sewage system. This was in the early 70’s. The cemetery only came into discussion when the lawyers decided not to proceed to trial and was inserted as a settlement term at the request of the survivors.
“Particularly annoying to me is the statement that no evidence was found about graves being disturbed. They have also not been able –so they tell us, to find any evidence to determine when, how, why and by whom several hundred gravestones were removed during the period of time that the lawsuit covers. Or any evidence that would indicate who, when, why a small percentage of these gravestones were found and put back in the cemetery several decades later, but not over the appropriate graves –simply all cemented into one place with no explanation but looking like a mass burial spot. I suspect all of those gravestones were dug up when the sewage line was installed.”
In an email to the Northern Hoot late last night, Leah – Remember Every Name, expressed the group’s discouragement with being referred back to MEDEI and feel that the Ministry blew their opportunity to set things right when they glossed over the finding of a septic system in the cemetery while overseeing IO’s joint investigation with MCSS.
“[MEDEI], to us, is not a neutral 3rd party, independent, nor does it directly involve our group throughout the investigation as we asked -saying only that MEDEI will share its findings with us and MCSS, nor does it take up the offer of our voluntary/chosen expert, Dr. Melbye, to be involved in any investigation,” writes Leah. “We also expected to be apprised along the way of all steps being taken and it is not clear at all what has been done and what they are still planning to do.”
What must not be lost in this tangle of bureaucratic prattle is the very principle that underpins this entire effort- the equal value, dignity and inclusion of all people of diverse abilities.
“Survivors need to be included in the investigation -not just the future memorialization, and apprised of every step taken,” writes Leah. “They have asked for help from Dr. Jerry Melbye, and for some clear oversight from outside the government bodies that have been handling things so far. If there is work that has been or is being done to look into any of our concerns, we have neither heard about it nor been given the opportunity to have our appointed expert present.”
Identifying the precise number of graves that have been disrupted by the installation of a sewage system could be as challenging as identifying the number and names of all who died while held at the Huronia Regional Centre. At one time MCSS agreed that the number of Huronia’s dead was over 2000. However, following the class-action lawsuit settlement, and the order to restore the cemetery and identify all the dead by name, MCSS has recanted -on their website, the number of residents who lived out their life of misery at Huronia until their end of days. Today MCSS claims that only 1,379 people died at Huronia. The MCSS website states, “In 2014, as part of the Huronia Settlement Agreement, the ministry created a cemetery registry, which lists by name each of the 1,379 individuals buried at the cemetery.”
The more truthful statement is that the number ‘1,379’ is reflective of the dead that MCSS was able to identify by name. The unnamed dead are not indicated in the final death count as portrayed by MCSS today.
On December 9th, 2013 Ontario’s Premiere, Kathleen Wynne issued an apology, as set out by the settlement terms in the class-action lawsuit, to the survivors of regional centres that warehoused people with disabilities. In Wynne’s final remarks she said, “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.”
“The real crux of it is that the government wants to be definite and say they know exactly how many people were buried there and they know who they were,” vented Jim. “And we know from investigations otherwise that they cannot say that. But they want to leave it with certainty and we want to really reflect the history that they cannot be certain who was buried there or even where they were buried.”
Self-advocates and advocates involved in the Huronia class-action lawsuit and members of Remember Every Name are firm that before any future memorial is established the issue of: unmarked burial areas; unaccounted burials; lost names of the dead; the use of the dead’s headstones to create walkways and places of leisure; and the installation of an elaborate sewage system that flushes human filth past the feet and head of the final resting places of many dead –should their bones still lay there, must be reckoned with for time immemorial.
“If we hope to learn anything from our history -and there are indignities which have been omitted from the official picture, then people deserve to know,” writes Leah. “We are planning to follow up with the Premier.”