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 Stark. 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.