Ugly secret of Ontario psychiatric hospitals won’t stay hidden

Posted on June 7, 2013 in Inclusion History – opinion/commentary – Former residents of government-run insane asylum in Orillia demand justice.
Jun 07 2013.   By: Carol Goar

Fifty-three years ago the Toronto Star published an exposé that shocked readers and sparked a province-wide debate about the way the Ontario government treated “retarded” children.

The author was Pierre Berton.

The headline was “What’s wrong at Orillia: Out of sight, out of mind.”

The final, chilling paragraph said: “Remember this: After Hitler fell and the horrors of the slave camps were exposed, many Germans excused themselves because they did not know what went on behind those walls; no one had told them. Well, you have been told about Orillia.”

Leslie Frost was premier of Ontario at the time. Eight of his successors — John Robarts, Bill Davis, Frank Miller, David Peterson, Bob Rae, Mike Harris, Ernie Eves and Dalton McGuinty — have come and gone. A government inquiry was held. An entire generation of journalists, including Berton, has passed on.

But the story still has no ending.

This week, two former residents of the psychiatric facility that Berton wrote about in 1960 sent a personal appeal to Premier Kathleen Wynne. They told her how they had been beaten, sexually abused, held upside down in ice-cold water and medicated against their will at the Huronia Regional Centre (originally known as the Orillia Asylum for Idiots). They pleaded for justice, an apology and an assurance that “what happened there can never happen again.”

Their names are Patricia Seth and Marie Slark. They are the lead plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit representing 5,000 former residents of Huronia. Their lawyer, Kirk Baert of Koskie Minsky LLP, is seeking $2 billion from the Ontario government for “failing to properly care for and protect those in its care.”

The suit was launched three years ago. In a precedent-setting move, the Ontario Superior Court certified it, making this the first collective legal action against a government-operated psychiatric facility. But it has yet to be heard. Every time a trial looked imminent, the Attorney General of Ontario delayed the proceedings, claiming more documents were needed, more plaintiffs had to prove their damages, more time was required to prepare the province’s defence. “Many of us will pass away before we see justice,” Stark said. “But we won’t give up. What they did to us was wrong.”

The two women — now in their late 50s — believed Wynne would end the foot-dragging. They met her a year ago at an event in Toronto (when she was minister of municipal affairs) and described their childhood ordeal. “Kathleen looked us right in the eye and said she would help us,” Seth recalled. “But she hasn’t. Nothing has happened and we never heard from her again. Justice seems so far away.”

Hoping to cut short the legal manoeuvring, Koskie Minsky proposed mediation last month. But the province refused to agree to its terms of mediation or admit any responsibility for the children placed in its care in Huronia.

“We would have preferred a settlement because of the timing — it is much quicker, which is important here because of the advanced ages of the class members,” explained Celeste Poltak, a member of the legal team. But if the province wants to fight it out in court, she added, “we’re confident we will win.”

The trial is currently scheduled to begin on Sept. 30. Poltak estimates it will take at least four months to hear the testimony and a further six to 12 months for the court to reach a verdict. If it is appealed, that could add another three years.

Two similar class-action suits are in the pipeline behind this one; one by former residents of the Rideau Regional Centre in Smith Falls, the other by former residents of the Southwest Regional Centre in Chatham.

Ontario once ran 16 of these institutions. All are closed now.

But shutting the doors doesn’t undo the damage provincial employees did to thousands of cognitively disabled youngsters. The province has silenced them for half a century. But their day of reckoning will come — no matter how many legal roadblocks the government erects.

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2 Responses to “Ugly secret of Ontario psychiatric hospitals won’t stay hidden”

  1. The narrative described in this article ring an all-too familiar bell for most Canadians. The attempts to keep the widespread abuse of an already marginalized population a secret is something that has already been experienced in our society, in the form of residential schools. It seems evident that the persistent delaying of the proceedings is the government’s way of attempting to avoid the charges, and the spending that will follow, should the settlement be successful. This is typical of conservative governments like the one in this article (prior to Wynne’s election), who avoid spendings at all costs. However, what is ironic is that perhaps putting a little more money into preventative social policies would most likely save the government from a $2 billion lawsuit. As with most cases such as the one described in this article, and in past historical examples such as the residential school system, saying sorry is not simply enough. Justice should be served if Canada wants to keep its reputation of being an equitable nation.

  2. We exposed the horrors of residential schools, and now it’s time to expose the horrors of the psychiatric institutions that once held persons with disabilities. This article provides a great example of capitalism at work; the use of power to maintain the “lesser” people’s feeling of no control in order to prevent uproar so the past can be buried away and the imbalance of power remains. Personally, delaying the proceedings so the province can “prepare their defence” is a great way to test a person’s determination to continue on with a trial. Furthermore, the province refusing to agree to mediation, I felt was an attempt to avoid admitting to the responsibilities they had to the residents that were under the care of their provincial employees.
    These women deserve justice for their suffering, and I agree that shutting the doors of these asylums does not heal the pain. Many children passed away in these facilities and were buried with out care and marked by numbers or nothing at all; thrown away like trash. The families left without closure or answers to their child’s death deserve to know at their discretion the truth. Moreover, how could a person of parliament listen and look into someone’s eyes and promise to help, but never do so. Was this to gain favour of their vote to stay in parliament? Overall, I cannot believe my home province had 16 running institutions, yet many people I speak to have heard nothing about them and the stories of peoples who have been victims behind their stone walls. Society as a whole deserves to learn about the past so it’s not to be repeated in the future.


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