Earlier today, on behalf of the Province of Ontario, Premier Wynne offered an apology to survivors of abuse at the Huronia Regional Centre, one of Ontario’s three mass institutions for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to close in 2009.
Along with the Rideau Regional Centre in Smiths Falls and the Southwestern Regional Centre in Chatham-Kent, the population at Huronia started to decline in the 1970s until its closure in 2009.
The decline of Ontario’s mass institutions owed to many factors, including the growth of the movement for community living, the role of the media in exposing horrific conditions, academic research, and government policy development that pointed to the benefits of a community-based approach.
Remember this: After Hitler fell, and the horrors of the slave camps were exposed, many Germans excused themselves because they said they did not know what went on behind those walls: no one had told them. Well, you have been told about Orillia [Huronia Institution]. ~ Pierre Berton, Toronto Star, 1960
These institutions were both products and producers of marginalization, isolation and stigmatization of people with disabilities.
Today’s apology comes after a judge approved a $35-million settlement last week in a class-action suit against the province over treatment at Huronia. The deal was reached in September just hours before the case was scheduled to go to trial.
The suit covers those institutionalized at the centre between 1945 and 2009. The settlement, originally announced in September, also includes the release of 65,000 documents, many of which would have been used as evidence of daily abuse and humiliation at the institution. The documents are being given to the Archives of Ontario where they will be available through access to information laws and will no doubt be of great interest to advocates and scholars for decades to come.
Although abuse in these institutions did at times take the form of extreme physical and emotional violence, not every resident had those experiences, and it must be noted that many of the employees of those institutions were dedicated and cared deeply for residents.
What most residents did suffer in common was an ongoing dehumanizing state of neglect, as evidenced by those who lived and died in the institutions without so much as a basic funeral ceremony or even a name on a grave.
It is difficult to process the nature of institutional abuse for those who have not survived it, but perhaps it is these thousands of numbered grave markers, carelessly placed and poorly registered, that best illustrates for us the harms that become normalized when people are segregated in this way.
They died, and nobody noticed.
While some may consider that today’s apology brings this institutional era to a close (notwithstanding that settlements with survivors of Rideau and Southwestern have yet to be determined) the medical model of disability continues to have profound influence on developmental services in Ontario.
We have group homes, sheltered workshops, day programs, and other congregated and segregated service delivery models that continue to separate individuals with intellectual disabilities from their communities. These programmatic approaches create both subtle and overt barriers to the enjoyment of a full life; a home of one’s own, reciprocal relationships with friends and other unpaid persons, and involvement and engagement in the community as employees, volunteers, classmates teammates, and citizens.
The Government of Ontario’s Services and Supports to Promote the Social Inclusion of Persons with Developmental Disabilities Act of 2008 (the “Social Inclusion Act”) and its accompanying Quality Assurance Measures requires developmental services agencies to “support people [with intellectual disabilities] so that they can be a part of the community through activities such as volunteering, working, and participating in local sports teams. Agencies must provide support to make sure people with developmental disabilities can be a part of the community where they live.”
Developmental services in Ontario comprises a complex provincial system that involves annual expenditures approaching $2 billion. Change on such a large scale is difficult. It begins with understanding the problem and putting names to the numbers. How much do we know about citizens with intellectual disabilities in our communities – where they live, how they spend their days, and the relationships in their lives?
We need to know more about their lives so we can effectively measure our collective progress towards the ultimate goal of social inclusion. What percentage of our resources are actually being directed to community-based supports and services, and how effectively are they delivering inclusive outcomes?
We have certainly come a long way from the darkest days of mass institutional living conditions at Huronia, Rideau, and Southwestern. But we also have a long way to go if we are to fulfill the mandate of Social Inclusion Act and ultimately arrive at a province and a society where all people with intellectual disabilities live, work, and play as included and valued citizens.
Ontario Apologizes to Former Residents of Regional Centres for People with Developmental Disabilities
Office of the Premier
Premier Kathleen Wynne made the following statement to the Legislative Assembly today:
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 stand to address a matter of trust before this house and my assembled colleagues, but I am truly speaking to a group of people who have joined us this afternoon and to the many others who could not make it here today.
I am humbled to welcome to the legislature today former residents of the Huronia Regional Centre and Rideau Regional Centre in Smiths Falls and to also address former residents of the Southwestern Regional Centre near Chatham, along with all their families and supporters.
I want to honour them for their determination and their courage and to thank them for being here to bear witness to this occasion.
Today, Mr. Speaker, we take responsibility for the suffering of these people and their families.
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.
And 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.
Huronia was closed in 2009 when Ontario closed the doors to its last remaining provincial institutions for people with developmental disabilities.
Today, Mr. Speaker, we no longer see people with developmental disabilities as something “other.” They are boys and girls, men and women, with hopes and dreams like all of us.
In Ontario, all individuals deserve our support, our respect and our care. We must look out for one another, take care of one another, challenge ourselves to be led by our sense of moral purpose before all else.
Today, we strive to support people with developmental disabilities so they can live as independently as possible and be more fully included in all aspects of their community.
As a society, we seek to learn from the mistakes of the past. And that process continues.
I know, Mr. Speaker, that we have more work to do.
And so we will protect the memory of all those who have suffered, help tell their stories and ensure that the lessons of this time are not lost.”