Ontario allowed decades of child abuse
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Class action lawsuit pitting survivors of an inhumane psychiatric institution against their tormentors finally goes to court.
Sep 09 2013. By: Carol Goar
There can be no turning back. The trial date is set. Courtroom 5 in the old Canada Life building is booked for two months. The two sides have agreed in writing to be there. The witnesses are ready to testify.
“We’re going ahead no matter what,” said Kirk Baert, the lead lawyer in a historic class action suit against the government of Ontario.
He never doubted this moment would come. His clients were less sure. For three years, the province used every tactic in the book — withheld documents, missed meetings, deadline extensions — to delay the case. Baert’s greatest concern was that hundreds would die waiting.
Approximately 3,900 former residents of the Huronia Centre, a provincial facility for developmentally disabled children, are still alive. There were 4,500 when Baert launched the $1-billion lawsuit in 2010.
He intends to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Ontario government knew about the physical, sexual and emotional abuse of these vulnerable youngsters and did nothing to stop it. “Even convicted murderers got better treatment,” he maintains, rehearsing one of the lines he will use in court.
The trial begins on Sept. 16. Baert will deliver a three-hour opening statement chronicling the tragic history of the Huronia Regional Centre, once known as the Orillia Asylum for Idiots. He will then call on the two lead plaintiffs, Patricia Seth and Marie Slark, to recount what happened to them at Huronia, what they saw, how they survived and how they are scarred by the discipline meted out by sadistic provincial employees. Both women are in their late 50s
Seth, diagnosed as “mildly retarded,” was surrendered by her family at the age of 7. She spent 14 years in Huronia. She remembers being hit with a radiator brush for misbehaving and held upside down by her heels in ice-cube-filled water for refusing to eat.
Slark, similarly labelled, was committed to Huronia at 6 years of age. She spent nine miserable years there, then was sent to an “approved home” under Huronia’s supervision, where she was drugged and sexually molested.
Others were more savagely beaten but they have lost their memories, they can’t communicate or they are among the 2,000 children buried in Huronia’s cemetery.
One of those victims was Richard, an 8-year-old boy with Down syndrome. His sister, Marilyn Dolmage, was so upset by his death that she trained to be social worker and got a job at Huronia. She will describe children locked in caged cots, being punished for bodily functions they could not control, cowering from the staff.
Compelling as his witnesses’ testimony will be — and Baert expects to call 10 more former residents, 10 former employees of Huronia, doctors, child development specialists, historians, demographers and managers of similar institutions o the stand — he regards the government’s own paper trail the most incriminating piece of evidence.
“I don’t need to win this case with witnesses. It will prove itself on the documents. They (provincial officials) kept recording that there was a problem, but they never did anything to fix it.”
Huronia closed in 2009. The abused children became its “forgotten victims.”
The legal team has amassed 65,000 records — letters from distraught parents, bureaucratic memos, ministerial directives, police reports, eyewitness accounts, coroners’ reports, inspectors’ reports, newspaper exposés and the findings of three provincial commissions of inquiry. They tell the story in graphic detail.
Baert, a partner at Koskie Minsky, specializes in David-vs.-Goliath class-action suits. In 2007, he won a $4-billion judgment on behalf of aboriginal students sent to government-approved residential schools. In 2010, he won $36 million in damages for homeowners in Port Colborne whose properties were contaminated by Vale Inco’s nickel operations.
He is confident he will win this case. “They underfunded this institution because they could. They knew the people held there couldn’t fight back.”
Every so often Baert’s professional mien slips. He detests bullies. He is disgusted by public officials who refuse to accept responsibility for mistreating vulnerable children.
“Huronia has no excuse for doing a crappy job” He catches himself. “I won’t say crappy in court.” Then Baert pauses. “Maybe I will. What they did stank.”
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