Life in the Huronia Institution

On this page:
Confinement and Curtailment of Freedom
Segregation of the Severely Retarded
Segregation of the Sexes
Fire Hazard
Passes and ground privileges
Overcrowding and underfunding



Door sign. Photo: Thelma Whealtey.

Confinement and Curtailment of Freedom

Foremost was the knowledge and sense of being “locked in”, confined, one’s freedom curtailed day and night.  Sleeping, working, playing, menstruating, masturbating, undressing, showering, toileting, was all under the ever watchful eyes of attendants.  Every move was recorded, and one’s daily behaviour and progress recorded in ward reports.

Doors were kept locked at all times to prevent patients from wandering off or escaping.
Staff carried bunches of keys. At night, the doors to the dorms were locked. This was often the case even in the day-time, especially if no attendants were available to be on duty.  

The inspectors recorded instances of patients locked in without supervision, leaving them open to abuse and harm from other predatory patients:

“Dormitories crowded with beds. I found in one ward six cases of scabies locked  in with no attendant. In another, I found fourteen unfortunates locked in with no  attendant – no ventilation and little attempt at cleanliness.”              Cottage “K” (males). 

Dr Fletcher also noted that night duty on the wards was being done by older patients, which he condemned as “a dangerous practice.”

“Cottage “B” (low grade adults, male), 206 patients, 12attendants.
 This building is in bad repair.  The guarded side rooms for two patients
 each are bad . . . patients take exercise walking about the day room, do
 not go out except occasionally in fine weather . . . Four patients were in
straight jackets.  Some patients had no beds.”  - Dr Fletcher’s inspection report, 1932.

Segregation of the Severely Retarded

Mr Downey and staff, 1915. Photo courtesy Archives of Ontario.

Under Mr Downey’s superintendency, 1910-1926, Mr Downey kept the severely retarded patients in a separate building. Only a few attendants were allowed in to look after them. They were seldom let out.

Segregation of the Sexes

Boys and girls, men and women were strictly segregated in the institution in separate cottages.  However there were dances organized by the staff in the recreation hall which were strictly chaperoned.  Patients were segregated even at Sunday morning church service in the gym, boys one side of a central aisle and girls the other.

At Sunday church service in the gym. Note the short “pudding basin” institutional haircuts on the girls. Photo courtesy Archives of Ontario.

Boys at Sunday Services. Photo courtesy Archives of Ontario.


Fire Hazard

Outbreak of fire was always a fear. In another desperate report to the Ontario government, which administered the facility, Dr Horne pointed out the need for rewiring since there were “defective circuits in all the Cottages.”  There were two fires under his superintendency during the 1930s, one in the hoggery, which burned down, and another in the attic of the recreation hall.  Dr Fletcher noted in 1932 that only the stair-cases were fire-proofed, which Pierre Berton again noted twenty-five years later after visiting the older cottages “B” and “L” at Ontario Hospital School.


Passes and ground privileges

Confinement and curtailment of freedom was implicit in other ways. Even moving around the grounds was curtailed, especially for the girls. One was not allowed to ever leave the institution unsupervised, or without permission. There was a system of passes, or “ground privileges”, which older “high grade” patients had to earn. Once they proved themselves trustworthy, (ie. they would not run away), they could leave the grounds with their passes, which were revoked if the patient returned late.



Patients who ran away, called “eloping”, were sought out, brought back and severely punished. As noted by Dr John Fotheringham above, even after escaping for three years, a former patient could be recaptured and brought back against her will. The institution officials had contacts with the railway station in Orillia and Toronto, and once a patient absconded, the railway police were notified at Union Station, Toronto.


Overcrowding and Underfunding

Two issues were constantly stressed by both inspectors and the superintendents from the inception of the asylum in 1876:  overcrowding and underfunding.

Cots in a crowded ward. Photo courtesy Archives of Ontario.

Boys preparing for bed. Photo courtesy Archives of Ontario.

As early as 1905, Dr Beaton, the first superintendent of the main Orillia Asylum, complained bitterly that children were sleeping two to a bed. The same complaints were made thirty years later by Dr Horne, superintendent, in the 1930s.  He reported that the situation was “urgent”, that it was dangerous to admit any more patients and that more accommodation was needed in Cottage “K” due to “the increase in applications for the number of infants.”  One section of Children’s Dorm had been taken over by infants.


“What’s Wrong At Orillia: Out of Sight, Out of Mind”
Pierre Berton’s Exposé, Toronto Daily Star, January 6, 1960

Cots in Children’s Dormitory 1960. Photo courtesy Archives of Ontario.

In 1960, Toronto Daily Star columnist Pierre Berton, visiting the institution, noted the overcrowding.  In his article “What’s Wrong At Orillia: Out of Sight, Out of Mind”, he reported that nearly three thousand people were “jammed together” in facilities that would barely provide proper accommodation for 1,000 patients.

“Beds are crammed together, head to head, sometimes less than a foot apart . .  the stench here is appalling.”

He concluded: “Do not say you have not been warned.”

Dr Matthew Dymond, Ontario Minister of Health 1960

After Berton’s article was published, Jan. 6, 1960,  Dr M.R. Dymond, Minister of Health, admitted the following day, January 7, 1960, as reported in the Toronto Star, that “Orillia charges true”:

“Reports on the overcrowding in the school for retarded children at the Ontario Hospital at Orillia are perfectly true.. . . It is true the paint is curling off the ceilings in Cottages “B” and “L”.  These buildings are 80 years old and the bathrooms haven’t got built-in ventilation systems.”

Donald MacDonald, leader of the CCF, (later NDP), also visited the institution on Jan. 7th, 1960, and referred to the accommodation as “buildings for human storage.”  

Dr Morton Schulman, Ontario coroner, visited in 1971 and complained to the Ontario Legislature about the “cage-cots” in use.

Cage-cot. Photo: Thelma Whealtey.