Huronia: Settled, but not forgotten
TheStar.com – news/GTA – The province of Ontario reached a $35-million settlement with former Huronia Regional Centre residents, preventing the case from seeing an open court. Now residents and family members share their stories of the institution.
Sep 30 2013. By: Tim Alamenciak
Marie Slark remembers the creative punishments she says were inflicted on her at Huronia Regional Centre.
She was admitted to Huronia in 1961 at 7 years old.
“If you were caught talking, a couple of the staff, one staff (member) in particular, would make you get up and pull your pants down and make you walk around the play room,” she said. “My time at Huronia was horrific.”
Slark said one favourite punishment was to make people “dig for worms.” The staff would force patients to lie face-down in the dirt with their hands behind their backs for as long as 30 minutes at a time. Their crimes? Anything from complaining to swearing to taking cookies from the cafeteria, she says.
She says staff constantly told her that her life would amount to nothing.
“I’ve been told that I’d always be eating peanut butter sandwiches, that I’d never be able to drive, but I proved people wrong. I proved them wrong,” said Slark, who now works part-time at Winners. The 57-year-old was one of the main plaintiffs in the class action suit against the province over the treatment of residents at Huronia.
She knows people died while she was there, but no funerals were held. Those who died were simply “buried behind the barn,” she says.
“It’s important to show them respect. Maybe we might want to go up and put flowers on their graves. There may be some people there that we know — who were there when we were there,” said Slark.
You wouldn’t know where the Huronia dead lay unless somebody pointed it out to you.
The cemetery where 2,000 who died at Huronia Regional Centre were buried has no sign on the small road leading up to it. It’s a small square of land tucked under the shadow of the OPP headquarters in Orillia, surrounded by a waist-high chain draped between wood pillars.
Most of the people buried there have no names on their tombstones; just a number indicating the order in which they died.
In the face of a class-action lawsuit that could have resulted in airing the stories of decades of abuse, the provincial government settled, offering $35 million and a promise that the graveyard would be maintained.
The court settlement was heralded as a major victory — all those who suffered at the centre will receive as much as $42,000 in compensation and an official apology. Significantly, the settlement also includes the disclosure of 65,000 documents including police reports, eyewitness accounts, internal government documents and letters from concerned parents. If the settlement passes, those documents will be placed under freedom-of-information legislation and subject to censoring.
In its statement of defence, the Ontario government denied that abuse, mistreatment or assault occurred at the facility.
Today the graveyard sits in disrepair. The grass is freshly mowed, but has grown over many of the flat stones set into the ground. Some of the stones are worn away, making the numbers impossible to discern.
Over the years the graveyard fell victim to vandalism and mismanagement. At one point, somebody removed the markers from the grave and used them as patio stones leading to one of the nearby homes.
“When the authorities found out what had happened, they removed the markers from the path to put back to the cemetery, but they didn’t know where the markers were to go,” said Debbie Vernon, who worked at Huronia in the ’90s. They were arranged into a square; more of a memorial than grave marker.
The settlement reached earlier this month promises, among other things, that the cemetery will be properly maintained, but it’s unclear exactly what that will entail. The settlement will not be official until mid-December, when a judge will review it and decide whether to approve the terms.
British Columbia honoured those who died in its Woodlands Institution with a memorial garden in New Westminster, B.C. Opened in 2007, the garden contains memorial walls inscribed with the names of more than 3,300 buried in the institution’s cemetery.
In Ontario, the province refused to release the institution’s death registry without a freedom-of-information request, despite acknowledging that there were no privacy concerns with releasing the document.
The Star obtained the list in an effort to discover who lay beneath marker 1751, but thanks to shoddy record-keeping there are two possibilities. It could belong to either 8-year-old Maurice Middlestadt or 15-year-old Lena Potts. Both of them died in 1921 and, while Lena was the institution’s 1,751st death, the number 1751 is scrawled on Middlestadt’s personal file.
The graves that have markers tell sad stories. “Walk softly — an angel sleeps here” reads one elaborate stone for Ronald Kemp Lucas, a five-year-old boy who died in 1954. Others simply say the name and dates. Michelle Ladd, 1961-1964. Margaret Swann, 1924-1960. David R. Saunders, 1961-1961.
Dennis Aman, a San Francisco composer who has ancestors buried in the cemetery, has tried to honour their memory after receiving information from a freedom-of-information request to the Archives of Ontario.
“I’ve done my best to mark them how I can, which, from 3,000 miles away, is to put up a virtual memorial to these folks,” he said. “That’s my way of remembering them or honouring them”
Aman’s great-great-grandmother had 11 children, four of whom were committed to the institution and later died there. The longest-lived, Leah Groff, spent 71 of her 90 years in Huronia Regional Centre.
Elmer Garrow is also buried somewhere in the Huronia Regional Centre cemetery as the 1,493rd person to die within the institution’s walls.
Allyson Handley, a 35-year-old from Missouri, was able to find out Garrow’s history because she filed a freedom-of-information request with the Archives of Ontario.
Garrow was admitted to Huronia Regional Centre, then called the Orillia Hospital for the Feeble Minded, in 1913 at the age of 24, according to documents Handley received from the government.
Handley received letters from his mother, Margaret, as part of the disclosure. All of the responses, which say Garrow is doing well, were written by the superintendent on his behalf, as he was illiterate.
“The letters are very striking because they bring Margaret to life and the pain and mixed feelings that she had,” said Handley.
Garrow died of pneumonia five years after he entered the institution, in 1918.
“We’d like to protect these people who once were subjected to these things by a nameless faceless government,” said Handley. “There is something in me that says Elmer, and his neighbours at the institution, they do deserve to be heard, they should have voices because they mattered.”
The documents that the Archives released to Handley consist of internal records about Garrow, including correspondence and medical records. The 65,000 documents that will be released by the class-action lawsuit is expected to contain objective documentation of alleged abuses that happened at Huronia from police, witnesses and staff at the institution.
But the documents will be held by the Archives of Ontario and only available by filing a freedom-of-information request. Material deemed to infringe on privacy or fall under one of the other numerous exceptions will be censored.
Had the case gone forward, some of the documents would have been presented unaltered in open court.
Gary Keefe remembers the other inmates, whose violence he alleges was often encouraged and rewarded by the workers at Huronia.
“He sent me through a human tunnel — no farther apart than four and a half feet apart, 15 or 20 guys on each side — and they were punching, scratching, spitting on me,” said Keefe. “He just said do whatever they want. The staff had their own elite force when it came to residents. Whether or not they got special favours, I believe they did.”
Keefe went into the institution in the early 1960s at the age of 6. He spent nearly 10 years of his childhood in there, leaving in 1972. Now, at 59 years old, he’s just beginning to confront what happened during his years inside. Much of it was at the hands of other residents, but Keefe said the staff looked on.
“They authorized it. They authorized that all,” said Keefe.
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