The hidden heroes of Huronia
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – A remarkable couple from Gravenhurst, Marilyn and Jim Dolmage, drove the long fight to expose atrocities at the Huronia Regional Centre.
Sep 29 2013. By: Carol Goar
What motivates ordinary citizens to fight for justice when the odds are impossibly long, the obstacles seem insuperable and the quest drags on for years?
Two of the best examples are Marilyn and Jim Dolmage, who set out seven years ago to expose the atrocities that occurred at the Huronia Regional Centre for developmentally disabled children and get restitution for the residents who were still alive.
The couple shuns the spotlight, always deflecting attention to the survivors of the hellish provincial institution. But without their advocacy, skill and staying power, last month’s historic $35-million settlement would never have happened.
It was Jim’s idea to launch the class-action lawsuit. It was Marilyn’s network of contacts, inside knowledge and ability to earn the trust of the vulnerable that made it possible.
She is a social worker who spent the first five years of her career working at Huronia. But her connection with the former Ontario Hospital School (previously called the Orillia Asylum for Idiots ) went deeper than that. When she was 4 years old, eagerly awaiting a new brother, her mother came home from the hospital empty-armed. “He was born wrong,” she was told.
Whenever she asked where he was, her mother broke down. So she stopped asking. But she grew up with a piece of her life missing. At 13, she learned the truth when his tiny, gaunt body was sent home for burial.
But the catalyst for the class-action suit was her friendship with two residents she had met in Huronia as a social worker. Their names wereMarie Slark and Patricia Seth.
One evening over dinner at the Dolmages’ home, they related their stories so clearly and in such explicit detail that it struck Jim, a high school teacher, that Huronia was not much different from the Indian residential schools that Canada had legally and politically repudiated.
He made a videotape and took it to a lawyer in London who was familiar with disability litigation. She saw the potential for a class-action suit and introduced the couple to Kirk Baert in Toronto, one of the top class-action lawyers in the country.
The Dolmages invited him to their home in Gravenhurst because Pat and Marie were mistrustful of outsiders. When he heard their stories — and saw how articulate they were — he agreed to take the case.
That was 2008. The lawsuit began in 2009, was certified to proceed in 2010 and was expected to go to court for a protracted trial on Sept. 16.
But the proceedings were mysteriously adjourned. The next morning a $35-million settlement was announced. Each of the surviving 3,700 residents will get a share, depending on how much they were harmed.
Marie, for instance, will probably be eligible for the maximum payment of up to $42,000 because she was sexually and physically abused. Pat, who was slammed against walls, dunked in ice cold water and called everything from a bitch to a friggin’ imbecile, will get less. “It doesn’t make sense to me,” she says.
“But I don’t have to worry about going to court. Testifying was a 9-out-of-10 on the fear scale for me.”
The hearing to apportion damages is scheduled for Dec. 3. Retired Supreme Court Ian Binnie will determine who gets how much (including Baert and his four-member legal team).
Between now and then, Jim and Marilyn will work to contact survivors, tell them what the settlement means and explain how to file a claim for damages. He is speaking at conferences for people with disabilities to get the word out. She is making direct contact with former Huronia employees and residents, their families, their friends, local groups that might know of survivors, researchers, activists and storytellers, as well as keeping media interest in the story alive.
Their kids are helping, too. Their son Jay , a professor at the University of Waterloo, is editor of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies . Their daughter Leah, works at Family Service Toronto , has her own extensive network.
If there is still money in the fund when all of the claims have been met, they would like to see it used to set up a centre for institutional behaviour at an Ontario university. It would house all the Huronia documents and the personal stories that are still coming out for families to see and researchers to use.
Looking back at what kept her going, Marilyn says it was her empathy for mothers who lost their children, her conviction that people with disabilities should never be walled off from society, her friendship with Marie and Pat and the circle of support she built.
What sustained Jim was his belief that the law — slow-moving as it might be — would bring out the truth and provide a measure of fairness.
It proved to be an unstoppable combination.
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