There is only one appropriate comparison when we observe the suffering of certain populations -the imprisonment of the Jewish in Nazi concentration camps or the sanctioned abductions of Indigenous children into the residential school system or the warehousing of people with intellectual disabilities in government operated institutions like Huronia Regional Centre. These atrocities have a shared origin, rooted in the values imposed by the powerful, that some people are less equal than others.
When the Orillia Asylum for Idiots opened in 1876 there were 100 ‘patients’ admitted. By 1890 the population tripled with 309 residents on site. In 1902 there were 652 residents, 1945 – 2,241 residents, 1968 reached peak population at 2,948 residents and 1975 -1,566 residents. By March 2009 there would be zero residents when the doors to the facility, now known as Huronia Regional Centre, would close for good.
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.
For those who experience an intellectual disability, ‘inclusion’ is not only a fundamental right that they continue to fight for but also a buzz word that is often dropped by those in power because it is convenient and it is politically correct.
In June 2015, as plans were underway to restore the cemetery and create a memorial, there was a discovery made that a septic field had been laid through the cemetery and that upwards of 150 graves or more may have been affected by this. A group of Huronia survivors and supporters, called Remember Every Name as a reminder that many who died at Huronia lie in numbered graves, contacted various Ministries to investigate the matter.
The group has been shuffled from one government body to another -the Ministry of Community and Social Services, Infrastructure Ontario, the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, the Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure and the Premiere of Ontario herself, Kathleen Wynne, and receiving an unhealthy dose of lip service throughout the process.
On December 9th, 2013 Wynne issued an apology, as set out by the settlement terms in the class-action lawsuit, to the survivors of Huronia. 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.”
At the time the apology was delivered it may have seemed like progress but to survivors the court ordered act of contrition rings hollow today.
MPP Cheri DiNovo has been approached by members of Remember Every Name to put the gears to the province who have been shutting out Huronia survivors from the cemetery investigation as well as plans to potentially repurpose the Huronia site.
“There’s a sewer going through a cemetery. It’s very problematic,” stated DiNovo. “I’ve asked the infrastructure minister, Brad Duguid, for information but he never got back to me.”
DiNovo planned to address the matter during question period this past Thursday but the clock ran out of time. She is hoping to raise her points during question period this Monday.
“I have spoken with the Premiere and she assured me that the survivors will be included in the process but we haven’t seen any real action. We haven’t seen any reaching out. We haven’t seen anything to back up what I keep hearing which is ‘oh yes, we’ll involve them’. Assurances are one thing but if they are not borne out with action they mean nothing,” remarked DiNovo.
By chance, DiNovo bumped into Charles Pachter recently. Pachter is a Canadian artist perhaps best known for his colourful steel and granite moose sculptures displayed across the nation. Having had an opportunity to tour the Huronia Regional Centre Pachter envisioned repurposing the former institution into a place of creativity and a centre for the arts.
On speaking with Pachter about Huronia survivors participation with the redevelopment of the site DiNovo remarked, “He said the same thing ‘oh yes, we’ll involve them’. But that has not been the case.”
Speaking with the Northern Hoot on Friday afternoon, Pachter commented of the redevelopment plan, “It would be inclusive. So much of it would be about redemption, how to take this sorrow and misery and change it into something more creative and dynamic.”
Hoping to acquire the site from the province the Huronia Cultural Campus Foundation has been formed. Pachter stated that the Foundation has had several meetings with the province to determine what may possibly be up for grabs.
“The property is nearly 300 acres with rolling hills and meadows. There’s 5,000 feet of lakefront on Lake Simcoe and about 25 buildings –half of which should be torn down but the others are heritage property, beautiful old stone buildings from the late 19th century,” gushed Pachter.
Elaborating about the possibilities Pachter added, “If and when this ever happened there would probably be an internationally sculpture competition to create a monument in memory of people that died there. There would probably be an education centre about how people with mental disabilities were treated in those years. Among the other things that we would like to see there are an international sculpture symposium, maybe a culinary institute- the kitchen there use to serve 3,000 meals a day, rehearsal studio’s for writers and musicians, potentially a new summer music pavilion…The creativity that would emerge on this site would be a redemption from what happened in the past.”
But Pachter acknowledges that realizing his vision will not be without obstacles.
“Here’s the issue, it’s been a huge, huge challenge. The biggest challenge being, and I’m not mincing my words here, being that the former patients are filled with anger and resentment over the fact that the place has been such a nightmare for over 80 years. And they have a hard time envisioning it being repurposed as a place of creativity and a centre for the arts. There’s still a lot of anger. It does have a sordid past, the things survivors talk about we don’t really want to go into, but our group has really tried to raise awareness of the potential of the site. It’s in the heart of Orillia which is a historic Canadian city with notable figures- Stephen Leacock, Gordon Lightfoot, Franklin Carmichael – it’s the quintessential small Canadian city and it’s only an hour north of Toronto. It’s easy to get to.”
As Pachter has observed, many Huronia survivors aren’t interested in repurposing the site where daily sexual assaults, physical abuse, premature deaths and even murder have occurred. Cindy Scott is a Huronia survivor. Scott has candidly disclosed that she suffered rape on a regular basis as a resident at Huronia Regional Centre. Scott is frustrated with the lack of outreach from the province. On the matter of redeveloping the Huronia site Scott knows exactly what she would like to see.
“Tear it down. I don’t want it to be a public library…I don’t want apartments. I don’t want it sitting up there. It gets me creeps, it gets me nightmares. I get flashbacks. Can’t the government do something about it? So please, I’m asking you, tear it down. The survivors, they want to tear it down. That’s what they want,” states Scott in a moving video message to the world.
At present a handful of buildings on the Huronia site are occupied by civilian courts, an OPP offices, dormitories and utility sheds.
Pachter has met with “two or three” Huronia survivors. “These people are the walking wounded, they had miserable experiences there. They’re in their 50’s and 60’s now.”
Pachter elaborated, “Here’s my point, let me be philosophical. In twenty years many of those people won’t be around. Yet here we are dealing with a major piece of property in the heart of a historic Canadian city and that’s an hour from 6 million people. Could it be another Stratford? Could we do what Stratford did for theatre? And we have several VIP’s -Margaret Atwood, Don Tapscott, Bonnie Brooks, who believe so strongly that this could change Orillia forever.”
This Sunday, May 8th, Remember Every Name has organized a ceremony led by survivors, to honour and remember the 2,000 plus people who died at the Huronia Regional Centre Institution between 1877 and 2009. A procession from Memorial Avenue and Progress Drive begins at 1:30 and participants will walk to the Huronia Cemetery. The ceremony concludes at 4 p.m.
Pachter intends to be there. “I am going to the march on Sunday just to show my solidarity with people. But the profound thing to say about this is that in order to move on we have to let go of a lot of this hurt and anger.”
(feature image: Residents of Huronia were put to use in the fields, kitchens and day to day operations. These boys are pictured working in one of the Huronia operated workshops.)