Friday, 4 October 2013

Ontario Government Settles with Former Residents of Huronia RegionalCentre

In Ontario, former residents of the Huronia Regional Centre have been vindicated...or have they?

The class-action lawsuit against the Ontario government, launched by lead plaintiffs Marie Slark and Patricia Seth, was settled recently before it even saw open court. The government offered $35 million and a formal apology to intellectually disabled people who resided at Huronia Regional Centre between 1945 and 2009. There was much for which the government needed to apologize about how it managed the facility, although it claimed in its court defense that "there were incidents of abuse, but insists these were isolated and did not stem from neglect." Read more here

Life at Huronia Regional Centre

I wrote here about Huronia Regional Centre and about the atrocities committed on its grounds that have given it such notoriety. In "The Gristle in the Stew", a documentary about Huronia Regional Centre that aired on CBC radio, the lawsuit's lead plaintiffs talked about the following:

  • Being dropped off by my family at a strange place and being told by them that I'd be there until I died (Patricia Seth).

  • Being locked in cupboards

  • Having my head held under hot water (Patricia Seth)

  • Being made to lie facedown on the ground for punishment and having people step on my head if I turned my face. (Marie Slark)

  • Being turned upside down and held by my legs while water was run over my face (Patricia Seth, who says that this felt like she was drowning).

  • Being overmedicated

  • Having teeth removed for "safety" reasons

  • Being made to walk around the playroom with pants pulled down as a punishment for misbehaving.

  • Being told that if they tried to report any of this, they'd be punished, and that staff would get the other kids to abuse them.

Listen to "The Gristle in the Stew" here.

The Toronto Star published an essay by Canadian author Pierre Berton, written in 1950, that gives an idea of what the physical environment at Huronia Regional Centre was like. In it he talks about seeing beds everywhere, sleeping the residents head-to-head and sometimes less than a foot apart, the lack of fire-proofing and the general disrepair of the buildings, the "appalling" smell, and the  floor where one bathtub served 144 people. He tells a story about a resident who died in the infirmary while the nurse was called away to help with a fire evacuation in another building. Read more here

The government said that when abuse happened at Huronia Regional Centre, it was dealt with promptly and properly, and that residents were treated the best way in which staff knew how at the time. Read more here However, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs Kirk Biert said that the government's own documentation would win the case.  The 65 000 records that his legal team collected, the "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" told the story. Read more here

Is The Settlement a Victory?

These records will go to the Ontario Archives, but will be difficult to view because of privacy information laws. And because the suit didn't go to full trial, they weren't heard.  The stories weren't told. Read more here

While the concern about privacy is valid in that some of the records contain names of residents who are still alive, this doesn't apply to all of the records. And, as evidence in a trial, they should legally be public documents, not something that someone who, say, is doing research on the facility needs to file a request to see only to be told that they can't or to be given only some of it.

It all smacks of there being something in those documents that the government doesn't the public to be able to easily see.

And while $35 million seems like a lot, it only works out to $42000 per person. That's really not very much, granted that the suit was originally filed for $1 billion and many people were in Huronia Regional Centre their for most of their lives.

It's "Get them out of our hair" money. It's, as  Doug Turner, twin brother of former Huronia Regional Centre resident Tracey Turner says, "hush money". Read more here

Forgotten Children: Huronia Regional Centre's Legacy

"They stole our  childhood," said Marie Slark. Patty Seth said that being in Huronia Regional Centre was like being imprisoned, with the added terror of not knowing when you were going to get out. Read more here

Parents were encouraged to send their disabled children to Huronia Regional Centre and places like it and to forget that they existed. These forgotten children grew up in an environment where they had no rights and no one to go to when the people that were supposed to be taking care of them put them in danger.  Those that died at Huronia Regional Centre (over 2000) were buried on site grounds - 1440 of them are in graves marked only by numbers. For a number of reasons, we'll never know who is buried in many of those unmarked graves. Read more here

It's a dark, dark mark on Canada's history, but one that most Canadians have never heard about. We're not taught about in school. I'm astounded by how many people work with intellectually disabled people in Ontario without knowing about Huronia Regional Centre's history, given that many people who used to live in the facility are now living in communities and supported by agencies. The government eventually started to moved people out of the facility, discovering that it was actually cheaper to have people supported in community settings. By the time that the institution was officially closed down in 2009, all but the most severely disabled of the residents had been moved out.

I've never supported anyone who lived at Huronia Regional Centre in those mid-twentieth century years who talked very much about it. I often wonder how the former residents do as well as they do given what they've most likely lived through.

The image of the numbered gravestones on the Huronia Regional Centre grounds sticks with me. In these times of vital supports being cut (particularly in England, with the ongoing austerity measures), stories of blatant discrimination such as the hiring policies at Goodwill, and disability hate crime, it sometimes feels like we haven't moved far, on a social level, from a time when society saw disabled people as faceless entities who don't need or deserve to be anything more than a number on their tombstone. Perhaps this why Marie Slark was insistent that she wanted an apology from the government for what they did as well as the money. Read more here

And why not? She deserves one. Everyone who was in Huronia Regional Centre deserves one.

Skeptical Me

I'm not convinced about the sincerity of any apology that's made because a court mandates it. I guess it's a start.

But I just can't make myself feel as happy about the outcome of this lawsuit as I feel like should be. If the government actually cared, it would not have let the abuse that went on in Huronia Regional Centre go on for over half a decade. It would not have let the residents live in conditions of disrepair and squalor. It would not have denied for so long that what was going on was actually going on. It would acknowledge that a sum of $42000 per person is not compensation for decades of state-sanctioned torture.

It all seems like such a deviation from what a government's priorities should be - to ensure that the most vulnerable among us are kept safe - that I just can't wrap my head around it.

I like to think that things are getting better for disabled people, but some days it seems like there are still so many reasons to fear.

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