The last visit to Huronia Regional Centre

This post was written by current student Kim Collins.

The sky was threatening and overcast as we drove to the Huronia Regional Centre. Behind us ominous dark clouds rolled in, made even darker by the brilliant reds and oranges of the trees along the highway. It was the quintessential fall day.

We had applied as ‘researchers and scholars’ to view artifacts that were bring stored at Huronia. I had naively thought I would know what to expect as I had been on a tour with survivors in July. I would walk in and a bubbly headset wearing purple shirted staff would greet me and offer muffins. This did not happen. There was an air of authoritarianism to the visit. We were promptly checked in and were about to be escorted to the artifacts room, when a survivor asked they could join our group. A brisk young woman with a purple shirt flatly refused as the survivor had not submitted the proper forms in the proper manner at the proper time. There was no budging. Later I learned how truly revolting that refusal was. During her period of incarceration, the survivor had been forced to sew straight jackets and had wanted to see the remnants of the paper patterns.

A metal shelf hold paper patterns for straight jackets.
Patterns for making all sizes of straight jackets.

Even the idea of having ‘researchers’ or ‘scholars’ access material instead of, or including, survivors is repugnant. Nothing has changed. Survivor knowledge and rights are still being denied. Why shouldn’t everyone who was forcibly incarcerated at Huronia be able to access artifacts? What is most disgusting, is the number of artifacts that belong to survivors; pieces of clothing with names on them, awards, artwork and photographs. These were surrounded by the items survivors would never have had access to during the imprisonment; beautiful silver cutlery, educational materials featuring happy families, ornate furniture and ceramic dishes. Interspersed were items that survivors would have been all to familiar with; hard, wooden examination tables, pill bottles, needles, sewing machines, child sized straight jackets, cage cribs, and farm implements for forced labour.

A child sized straight jacket with a Ministry of Community and Social Services stamp on the bottom.
A child sized straight jacket with a Ministry of Community and Social Services stamp on the bottom.
The image shows two booklets. One has the title "moods and emotions" on the cover. The second features a smiling, white, non-disabled boy putting on a seatbelt while his mother smiles at him from outside of the car window.
Educational material for teaching about moods and emotions featuring happy, non-disabled families.
A metal cage crib with a doll in the back corner.
A cage crib.

Our group struck up a conversation with the purple shirted man supervising our visit. He had worked at Huronia. Someone asked what he thought of the closure. He told us a story about meeting some survivors in a store in Orillia. The survivors all came to him and asked when Huronia would be open again so they could go home. It is understandable how during years of incarceration a person could begin to equate their prison with a home. What else would anyone expect children to do? To use that story, however, to justify years of employment at, what literally was a unlawful prison for people who were disabled, indicates a sadly common mindset that despite the closing of Huronia has not changed: people labelled with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities need care and control, their opinions are not valuable, their rights are subordinate to those of non disabled people.

During the visit, a survivor said that Huronia stole her past. Until she came to pride, there was no way to answer ‘where do you come from’ or ‘what’s your family history’? It was through telling her story that this transformation occurred. This weekend visit marks the last of the visitations stipulated under the class action law suit. The doors once again close on Huronia, but we need to support survivors to keep the history alive by continuing to tell their stories.

Huronia is closed, but we must not forget.

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