'I felt forgotten': Huronia institute survivors share their stories
The government admitted widespread abuse at Huronia, as well as other facilities for people with developmental disabilities in the province.
|Report an Error|
Share via Email
More than two years after the lawsuit launched by Patricia Seth and Marie Slark ended with a $35-million settlement for survivors of the infamous Huronia institute, the former residents have joined a new speakers’ series to try to ensure no one forgets — and people understand — the horrors they endured there.
Marie Slark: Hopes speaking about the residents’ experiences will ensure they’re not forgotten
The premier apologized. The government forked over $35 million. But Marie Slark says nothing can fully right the wrongs committed against her and thousands of others at the Huronia centre for people with developmental disabilities.
“No amount of money could pay for what the government did,” she said.
“We need to have justice for people with disabilities.”
Slark, 62, was institutionalized at the Huronia facility in the late 1950s, at age 7. She doesn’t remember much from those early years, but knows doctors told her family she was different from other kids and should be put away at the institution in Orillia. She stayed there until adulthood, age 20 or 21, she said.
She remembers being roughly woken up, sometimes actually dragged out of bed, at 6 a.m. each morning, and made to stand in rigid lines for meals and medicine.
The government later admitted widespread abuse at Huronia, as well as other facilities for people with developmental disabilities in the province. At Huronia some people were forcibly restrained, secluded, and had to sleep in crowded, unsanitary dormitories. Some — including Slark — have also claimed they were physically and sexually abused.
In an effort to keep the horrors of the experience from fading from public memory, Slark is part of the new touring seminar called the Huronia Speakers Bureau. Slark said her goal is to not only share her story but make people understand how poorly she and others were treated in such facilities in Ontario.
“It’s complicated,” Slark said, when asked about her feelings regarding the government apology and payout to Huronia survivors. She was one of two women who acted as representative plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit that resulted in a $35-million settlement in 2013, which encompassed about 1,700 eligible former Huronia residents who had come forward.
But more than two years later, after learning that many former residents — roughly 400 — would receive no more than $2,000 from the settlement, Slark said she felt the situation wasn’t as fair as she’d hoped.
“We just want to bring justice to it all,” she said, explaining why she joined the speakers’ series.
“It was horrible,” Slark recalled of her time at Huronia. “I felt forgotten.”
And so she’ll tell her story, she said, to do her best to make sure that’s not true.
Patricia Seth: Admitted to the centre at age six and lived there for almost 15 years
It’s 1964. A confused little girl is dropped off by her parents at the Ontario Hospital School in Orillia, a now-notorious institution that housed people with developmental disabilities.
The girl walks hand-in-hand with her mother. “Mum,” she says. “Aren’t you staying with me? Aren’t you and dad and my sister and brother going to live with me, too?”
Her mother says no.
“Then she turned around and she walked away. I sat in the corner of the playroom and I cried my eyes out.”
That’s how Patricia Seth remembers arriving at the institution later known as the Huronia Regional Centre, founded in Victorian times as an “Asylum for Idiots” and now known for the historic abuse and mistreatment of thousands of residents. Some were physically and sexually assaulted and buried on the facility grounds in unmarked graves.
Seth was admitted at the age of 6 and lived there for almost 15 years.
“My parents were told to put me away and forget about me and have other children,” Seth said, relating how doctors determined she had a developmental disability and should be institutionalized.
“That’s the way it was back then. So that’s what (my parents) did.”
Along with her friend, Marie Slark, Seth was one of the representative plaintiffs in a huge class-action lawsuit against the province, after Ontario’s network of developmental disabilities centres shut down in 2009. Huronia was the oldest and biggest of the bunch: founded in 1876, it housed about 2,600 people at its peak in 1968.
The government reached a $35-million settlement with the claimants’ lawyers in September 2013, and Premier Kathleen Wynne apologized to residents of Huronia and other institutions from the floor of the legislature that December.
Now, concerned that their stories and those of hundreds of others were never aired in court, Seth and Slark have joined the Huronia Speakers Bureau, a series of travelling seminars put on by university researchers and advocates that will feature survivors of Ontario’s institution system. Beginning Thursday at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Seth plans to tell her story again and again.
“If you don’t keep talking about it, people are going to forget,” said Seth, now 57. “We don’t want any more institutions. Those are like prisons.”
Seth remembers overcrowded dormitories and “military” discipline.
“They would pull you out by the hair of your head, and you’d have to stand in the corner,” she said. Sometimes you’d be forced to scrub the floors with a toothbrush or be struck with a fly-swatter.
Despite the settlement payment she received for her time at Huronia, which she didn’t want to disclose, Seth said she’s concerned too many people received far less. Last summer, for instance, the Star learned that about one-quarter of the roughly 1,700 complainants in the class-action suit would receive the minimum payout — $2,000.
“It just makes me so angry,” Seth said. “We didn’t know it would turn out like this.”
Through speaking about Huronia, she hopes to prevent something similar from happening again.
As for her parents, Seth said she hated them for the longest time. But she reconnected with them before they died, in the early 2000s.
“I don’t blame them,” she said. “I’m just glad those places don’t exist now.”