Surviving Huronia

In my last post I mentioned that from 1876 to 2009 thousands of children and adults with developmental disabilities/learning disabled people lived in the Huronia Regional Centre institution at Orillia. I also stated that the abuse and neglect they were subjected to was utterly dehumanising, life altering and in some cases life ending.

In 2008 Marilyn and Jim Dolmage invited a lawyer to meet two of their friends, Marie and Pat, who had survived years of abuse in Huronia. A decision was made to proceed with a class action law suit which began in 2009, was certified to proceed the following year and due to goto court in September 2013. Much to the annoyance of survivors and allies, the case was adjourned days before survivors were due to testify in court and a settlement was announced. While this wasn’t the outcome that people hoped for, the class action on Huronia stands as an example of how some accountability can eventually be secured, in the face of utter adversity.

The Ontario Premier at the time, Kathleen Wynne issued an apology in the legislature on 9 December 2013. It includes:

One of a government’s foremost responsibilities is to care for its people, to make sure they are protected and safe. And therein lies a basic trust between the state and the people. It is on that foundation of trust that everything else is built: our sense of self, our sense of community, our sense of purpose. And when that trust is broken with any one of us, we all lose something — we are all diminished.

… 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. We must look in the eyes of those who have been affected, and those they leave behind, and say: “We are sorry.” As Premier, and 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. I am sorry for what you and your loved ones experienced, and for the pain you carry to this day.

… In the case of Huronia, some residents suffered neglect and abuse within the very system that was meant to provide them care. We broke faith with them – with you – and by doing so, we diminished ourselves. Over a period of generations, and under various governments, too many of these men, women, children and their families were deeply harmed and continue to bear the scars and the consequences of this time. Their humanity was undermined; they were separated from their families and robbed of their potential, their comfort, safety and their dignity.

At Huronia, some of these residents were forcibly restrained, left in unbearable seclusion, exploited for their labour and crowded into unsanitary dormitories. While the model of care carried out by this institution is now acknowledged to have been deeply flawed, there were also cases of unchecked physical and emotional abuse by some staff and residents.

One of the consequences of the class action is that there is an online repository of records relating to Huronia. I’ve spent some time looking at the online records held relating to deaths at the centre, you can find over 400 records by using ‘death’ to search the database here. A large number of these records relate to policies and procedures, evidence that all the paper policies in the world don’t keep people safe. There are also documents relating to deaths of residents, inquests and internal discussions around investigations (all heavily redacted of course).

I’ve been able to piece together a few stories. Like the female resident who choked on her own vomit in 1986 while being held in restraints who was so obviously dead when staff checked on her they didn’t attempt resuscitation (which begs the questions of why the hell was she restrained, why was she left, not to mention why wasn’t she in hospital?).

Or the 1981 death of a male resident who aspirated (choked) on food after his lunch and was found in the washroom some time later, just casually chalked down to ‘accidental death’ by the staff, nothing to see here, no learning, no responsibility. Three females died from asphyxiation in the year 1963 to 1964, no further explanation was offered.

One of the cases reflected in the archives but heavily redacted was the case of a young boy called Albert Morrison, attacked by a staff member in the mid 50s. No action was taken against the staff member until the Ontario Provincial Police eventually charged him with second degree murder in March 1991. Unfortunately the staff member died before standing trial, but the resident who witnessed it, Harold Johnston, is clear on what he saw.

A particularly galling record is an interview by an Ombudsman’s investigator investigating a death, which was held with a doctor who worked at the centre. You can read the full thing here, this one isn’t heavily redacted for some reason, but some of the highlights (or should that be lowlights) of his responses are below:

I have been employed for the past 15 years as a physician at the Huronia Regional Centre. For 20 years previous to that I was a physician in private practice in Ontario… I have had no special training in regard to mental retardation, apart from what the Ministry has provided.

…I have not intubated anyone since 1968 and then I did one in the emergency department one night. I never had any specialised training in intubation. This is a recent skill that is provided during medical training and I am an old timer and I did not have the benefit of that training.

…Since the time of XXX’s death I have taken no special training regarding emergency situations.

How anyone can be so relaxed about their own inadequacies, in an interview where the person is questioning how your own actions may have contributed to someone’s death is beyond me. There are many more stories buried within the records, if you can fight past how non user friendly the search function is, and the ridiculous levels of redaction.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to visit the Huronia site and cemetery and meet with some survivors and campaigners. I think what they had to say is so important and while the abuse they were subjected to happened decades ago, it is as relevant today as it was then.

This is Cindy. She spent two separate periods of time in Huronia as a young woman and lives with the impact of what she experienced and witnessed to this day. Cindy had a powerful message to governments, those in Canada and the UK, and pretty much anywhere, ‘the government should listen to us and help people with disability and tell the truth‘. It’s really not that difficult or complicated, just tell the truth. I can’t tell you how many times bereaved families have told me that they just wished those they are communicating with would tell the truth. It only gets difficult when people are not honest.

Cindy explained how support staff ‘don’t watch people, they talk to each other not the people that they’re meant to help‘. How many times have you seen support workers on their phones, or drinking coffee chatting while the person they are meant to be supporting is left staring into the middle distance? Cindy also shared how the staff would lock people in the boiler room if they misbehaved and worse still ‘They told us if we didn’t behave they’d put us in the furnace’.

On a more positive note Cindy was quick to praise the work that Marilyn and Jim had done to support survivors to get accountability ‘Marilyn and Jim did a fantastic job and I love them’, a sentiment the others agreed with wholeheartedly.

This is Carrieanne, she spent much of her early life in Huronia. She thought that governments should come face to face, connect together and settle the matter of institutions, ‘there shouldn’t be any more locked doors’. 

Carrieanne talked about the tricks and tactics used by Children’s Aid to remove children from their parents, she felt very strongly that everyone should be given support to parent their children ‘work with families and show us how to do the right thing’. Carrieanne shared stories of people who had been bribed to give up their children with such promises as ‘you give us your baby and we’ll give you a TV’. Carrieanne’s children had been taken from her, as she had been taken from her own mother.

Carrieanne was also crystal clear on the need for survivors voices to be heard ‘the government should sit and listen to the facts, to us, we are the survivors’. 

This is Harold. He was just 11 years old when he was first admitted to Huronia in 1960. Harold explained how he wrote to the former Premier, Kathleen Wynne, after she gave her apology in parliament and she didn’t reply, ‘it’s all just words, she’s a phony’. Harold was also clear that some staff just did not care.

He wanted to see an end to institutions, ‘close down all institutions, large and small, keep people at home‘. Harold was not particularly keen on group homes either, a sentiment expressed by others I’ve met since. Just because an institution is smaller, it doesn’t stop it being an institution. Harold also wanted people to listen to survivors and he felt that survivors could work with people’s parents to show them what a good life is for someone with a developmental disability.

Harold also shared about how he’d met a former staff member in town who’d abused him when he was in Huronia. This staff member apologised, shook his hand and said ‘I’m sorry Harold I don’t know why I did those things to you‘ which Harold in turn described as ‘its a load off my mind, he’d learned his lesson‘.

This is Mitchell. He didn’t live at Huronia but came to be connected with the group of survivors through his interest in researching immigrant history and eugenics in Toronto. He first visited the cemetery at Huronia in 2015 and has been involved ever since. Mitchell also has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history and the grounds of the institution.

Spending time with Cindy, Carrieanne, Harold and Mitchell reinforced for me how their stories of surviving Huronia, and remembering those who did not survive, are as important for us to hear now in 2018, as they ever were.

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