A Visit To Huronia Regional Centre, 1995

By Thelma Wheatley

Published in: THE BEACON, the Elementary School Teachers’ Newspaper, Peel District Board of Education, Ontario, Volume 9, Number 1, October 1995.

The author Thelma Wheatley outside the front entrance of the Orillia institution.

This summer I visited the infamous Huronia Regional Centre (formerly Ontario Hospital School for the “Mentally Retarded”) in Orillia. It took me back fourteen years . . . . to a certain moment in my life when my husband and I were told by a famous paediatrician who diagnosed our four year-old son: “He’s retarded and autistic. Put him away in an institution because he’ll never amount to anything.”

This could have been the institution, given a decade. A grim sort of place, more like a jail than a home despite its proximity to Lake Simcoe. Dark red brick blocks of buildings euphemistically labelled “cottages” (Cottage “A”, Cottage “D”, etc.) stand in their own grounds on a large flat expanse of grass with its own roads, street-signs, its own ugly walls. Many lower windows are grilled and barred (why?) The “workshop”, a frightening place, if ever there was one – a low ominous looking building, with more barred windows, smoke-stacks . . . what would young people with mental handicaps have been learning in there?

This place, Huronia Regional Centre, once housed nearly 3,000 patients or “residents” in the early nineteen sixties. Not so long ago. The lengths of the corridors, the number of beds on the “wards” eerie and desolate.  The staff ratio: 2 to at least 65 young boys on a ward. This might be worse or better depending on the area your child was in. Children’s personal clothes were removed and put away until such time their parents might visit, if ever, and replaced with “government issue”. (T-shirt, pants, brown boots, overall; house-dresses for females.)

Schooling was negligible.

The more “difficult” children were heavily sedated sometimes beyond visiting parents’ recognition. Though not prevented, parental visits were not actively encouraged. This was not a place of growth or love. (One punishment was for eighty or so children on a ward to have to lie under the beds without moving. A staff worker walked the aisle with a broom handle. . .)

My husband and I entered a low building that we thought might be a “cottage”, a low dark building eerie in its stillness on such a hot bright day.  No one was around, though the sign in the entrance hall said “Everyone Welcome.” We called out with the intention of asking for a tour of the institution but there was no response. We looked around the visitors’ waiting area. There was a sofa, chairs, a TV blaring away and two glass doors presumably leading to the residents’ quarters. The office was deserted, though the phone was on hold. Suddenly we heard whimpering behind one of the doors. Peering through the window in the door we saw a mentally handicapped man of about thirty rolled up on the floor in the corner, trembling, fists to his eyes. The eyes stared through us. A long sterile corridor stretched away.

Through the other door on the opposite side, two more handicapped men stumbled about, shambling against the walls. One had Down’s syndrome, and looked about twenty – or forty. He was zipped up in a strange pyjama-type outfit, the zip down the back, his hands muffled. He moaned . . . his companion yelled and beat his head against an office partition, also deserted. They paced up and down the corridor where they were locked in.

Shaking, we left. We thought of our son, now nearly nineteen, loved, happy, with parents, grandparents, sister, friends, attending Port Credit Secondary School in the congregated Developmentally Challenged class.

Of course we refused to have him “put away” all those years ago. We were lucky in the ‘seventies to have that choice, that there was the option for our son to live at home with a supportive education system in place where our son would be allowed to attend a regular school. Instead of being “warehoused” through the institution he went to a small caring segregated class for the “trainable mentally retarded” as it was then called, in the Peel Board.  The education, love, and attention – despite many ups and downs – have certainly been incomparable to the institutionalization of Huronia and other centres. Our son reads and writes at a primary level, skis, skates, plays soccer, baseball, with Special Olympics, swims, bowls and mini-golfs, cooks some meals viz pancakes! And is highly verbal. He loves people, including his teachers and his special friend, the school caretaker. He has been given so many opportunities and we are grateful.

And yet . . . I can not let go the image of those unfortunate ones I saw that fine summer day in our oldest provincial “regional centre” in Canada. Were they, too, “never to amount to anything”?