A group of people composed of survivors who endured decades of physical, sexual and psychological abuse and their supporters continue to press the provincial government to satisfy the conditions of a 35-million dollar class action settlement.
On December 9th, 2013 Premier Kathleen Wynne’s apologized 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.”
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.
After enduring years, often decades, of appalling 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 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.
A 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 conducted by Timmins Martelle Heritage Consultants (TMHC) 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 TMHC identified three areas in the cemetery simply as ‘utilities’.
Survivors and supporters, collectively known as Remember Every Name (REM) found the utility site and to their horror discovered that these ‘utilities’ are in fact sewage infrastructure buried four feet in the ground –well within the depth of all known burials in the cemetery. Concerned that as many as 150 graves could be disturbed, litigation guardians and plaintiffs of the class-action lawsuit asked the government for an independent review on the matter.
Despite a pro bono offer from Dr. Jerry Melbye, renowned forensic anthropologist considered the North American expert in his field, the government first ignored his offer and then declined it. Further confounding everyone was that the government did not tender out the independent review but instead re-hired TMHC to conduct not only a second report on the matter of a septic system running through the cemetery but also for a third report on the same issue.
TMHC’s findings concluded that graves had not been disturbed but REM questions the quality of their work noting a number of errors in the report including a major schematic contradiction that demonstrated the sewer pipe protruding from the wrong end of the septic tank. A technique known as Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) was also employed to form the determination that graves had not been disturbed. In an interview with the Northern Hoot Dr. Melbye expressed that TMHC’s finding was not surprising given that GPR is not always an effective way to decipher the presence of bones.
Having conducted original research on the technique and working with GPR for decades, Dr. Melbye is qualified when he remarked, “I’ve seen the output on GPR and I know it very well. I’ve seen TMHC’s output and there’s just rocks all over the place. It’s almost impossible to detect any burials there, it can’t detect any bone.”
Dr. Melbye explained GPR might be effective where the soil is sandy and uniform which is not the case at the Huronia cemetery.
Dr. Melbye further added of the septic system, “TMHC clearly and precisely know it went down a row between the burials. What we’re dealing with is a mouthpiece for the government.” With a note of irony he added, “We questioned it, they hired the same company to confirm it and what a surprise. When you have ‘your boys’ working for you on contract they’ll tell you everything you want to hear.”
Dr. Melbye and others question why the Ministry designated to this issue –the Ministry of Infrastructure, is so unwilling to satisfy the concerns of the survivors by allowing an independent review of the cemetery. Remarked Dr. Melbye, “I ask myself what is the big issue here? Nobody is alive of this government that did this deed, this insult to the cemetery. That’s long past. We can’t dig up the people that did the deed. We’re not interested in that. We just want to show what happened to these young kids and to show how they were treated even in death.”
Marilyn and Jim Dolmage are the litigant guardians of this class action lawsuit and have been tireless in their support of Huronia survivors. Of the Ministry’s unwillingness to permit Dr. Melbye to examine the area of concern in the cemetery Marilyn commented, “It just seems like a massive cover-up over something that should be quite simple. And it’s not the current government’s responsibility, it’s not even the Ministry’s responsibility.”
So why the secrecy everyone wonders? Does the government just want to be done of this unpleasant matter? And if ‘yes’, why?
Marilyn shared one school of thought on the matter.
“Remember Every Name is extremely frustrated with the way they’ve been treated by the government and the misrepresentations in the report. We will not proceed with any memorial until the information is corrected and a proper investigation is done,” remarked Marilyn. “We’ve got forever on this. It’s been waiting for over 100 years already. We don’t want to do anything to the cemetery that will compound the problem and add to the cover-up. And at the moment, this is a cover-up. We think that the cover-up at the cemetery has something to do with the political interest to stifle the stories of the survivors and turn this property into some developer’s dream without having to be accountable to the survivors.”
Charles Pachter is a Canadian artist perhaps best known for his colourful steel and granite moose sculptures displayed across the nation. Pachter is also a developer and known for his generous support of the Liberal party. Pachter visited the grounds of the Huronia Regional Centre and immediately fell in love.
“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,” Pachter gushed to the Northern Hoot in May 2016.
Pachter led the establishment of the Huronia Cultural Campus Foundation in the hopes that the foundation could acquire the site from the province. The website explains:
Beginning with renowned visual artist Charles Pachter in 2014, the Huronia Cultural Campus Foundation (HCCF) imagined a total repurposing of the facilities of the former Huronia Regional Centre. Pachter saw the opportunity to turn the former treatment centre into a hub of art and culture for Orillia and Ontario.
This is not necessarily something that REM would disagree with but their issue is the lack of inclusion at the planning table. Pachter has repeatedly asserted that “two or three” survivors have been involved. But as Pachter has observed and as REM has expressed, survivors aren’t really interested in repurposing the site where daily sexual assaults, physical abuse, premature deaths and murder have occurred. The debacle of the cemetery may complicate or at least delay Pachter’s vision.
Pachter articulated his frustration with the ongoing controversy around the Huronia site stating, “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.”
The comment was upsetting to many. Remarked Marilyn, “As if there isn’t something important about the whole story that outlives these people. And this is their greatest fear, that they’ll die just like all the people in the cemetery died and there will be nothing left but a cover-up.”
In the meantime, the province has posted the Huronia Regional Campus survey to give the public an opportunity to express what they feel would be the best use of the site. Marilyn articulated numerous concerns with the survey.
“The government has called this the Huronia Regional Campus survey. The only people that use this language are people that follow Pachter. We refuse to refer to this as anything other than ‘Pachter’s Plan’,” commented Marilyn.
Marilyn also expressed concern that an online survey might not be very accessible to Huronia survivors and questions in the survey are designed to meet a specific outcome. “There are trick questions –there are no options about tearing down buildings. And they lump cultural and recreational activities together. So if you wanted a park on the site that would be a vote for the artist.”
As far as survivors and supporters are concerned truth and reconciliation are a long way off yet but their stamina for justice is robust. Remarked Marilyn, “We are pretty bothered by the way this has unfolded and we feel this should not be rushed. This needs a bigger political influence than we’ve got right now. But this isn’t going away and we’re not going to let anybody just close the file on this. We need some help right now.”
Dr. Melbye is also contemplating his next move but with a chuckle admitted that if he had one he wasn’t giving it away. He did share that his solidarity with survivors and Remember Every Name is steadfast. As a final comment on the potential that burials were disturbed by a septic system Dr. Melbye stated, “These are nice people and they’ve been screwed around in the past. I think the current government has made some lovely efforts and I’m not criticizing them. I’m not saying they are absolutely wrong about all of this. I’m saying they don’t really know.”
Concerned members of the public have until October 31st to complete the Huronia Regional Campus survey.