Ms. “X”: Residential Counselor, 1980s.
Like many former workers in institutions, “Ms. X” insisted on anonymity to protect her identity for fear of reprisal. Many of her recollections of working at Orillia coincide with survivors’ stories.
Ms. X's Story
I was only in my early twenties when I became an employee as a residential counselor, in the 1980s at Huronia Regional Centre, the institution for the “mentally retarded” in Orillia. I was shocked by the experience. I was officially a “residential counselor.”
I worked at first on the wards. There would be a whole floor with the same type of clientele, viz, all males with the same level of functioning, or all blind, or all mobile. All ages were mixed together by level of functioning, such as ‘ aggressive behaviour’.
The ward was separated by offices in the middle and a medical room and staff washroom. One side was the sleeping area, the beds close together in rows. The other side were living quarters with a TV high up, a lounge area and dining. There was an elevator in the middle of the cottage. One ward was on one side of the elevator and one ward on the other side. Each floor had two wards. It was a hell-hole. There was shock treatment going on in the institution. There was abuse by the workers. You dare not say anything. I remember writing home to my mother in 1985, “You can’t say anything because everybody does it (abuse the patients).”
I especially hated and was horrified by the bathing routine. There was a bathroom for the patients and rows of toilets without doors and four showers. You had to strip everyone down and make them line up naked like an assembly line. We washed them four at a time (older men and I was just a young woman). The workers used a toilet brush and a bucket of soapy water and they dipped the toilet brush in the bucket and scrubbed the men down and then made them turn around and brush their behinds and then genitals. “OK you’re done,” they’d say. “Next.” Women attendants were doing this to men. They hit them (the patients) with leather straps or the toilet brush if they made a fuss or were too slow or something. They used to whip them with wet towels. I was shocked. When I suggested we teach the men to shower and clean themselves, I was ridiculed. It would take too long, they said, and who did I think I was, Joan of Arc?
It was like an animal farm, the way they were treated and allowed to behave because the attendants couldn’t be bothered to put in effort. The patients would steal from each other in the dining room and attendants wouldn’t stop it. There were about three attendants to twenty clients. It was “survival of the fittest”. They used the same one facecloth for everyone after breakfast to wipe faces and hands, going one to another.
Some younger boys were sexually abused by male attendants down in the tunnels (tram-ways) underground. They were pedophiles. There was a spot in the tunnels near the boiler room. There were little rooms in the walls. I remember the ceiling was low. Girls were also sexually abused at cook-outs down at the beach. There were rumours girls were impregnated by other residents but in reality it must have been by attendants. After all, the patients were strictly segregated. In 1988-89 a handful of male attendants were criminally charged with abuse. Some were retired.
In the Infirmary, the patients in wheel chairs would have their diapers changed after lunch, and then the staff would watch their soap-operas all afternoon. The residents’ diapers wouldn’t be changed again until after supper. “Oh they can wait,” the staff workers would say. The patients had rashes on their buttocks. A lot of them were low-functioning and couldn’t complain. As to medications: each patient was on enough drugs to put a normal person asleep for a week. In the late 1980s I worked with a client in a wheel-chair who had had a lobotomy and looked like Frankenstein. I saw the scar on his head all around his scalp. I read his file. He’d been aggressive and on medication. The lobotomy was to keep his aggression down. He was about sixty and looked about twenty-four. Before the lobotomy he could talk, feed himself and dress himself and was mobile. After the lobotomy he was still aggressive. He lost his mobility and his speech, and could no longer dress himself.
When the pill came out, many of the girls were put on it, but for 100% of the time. They never menstruated. The reason was to prevent pregnancy should they be accidentally raped by other clients or have sex with other patients. But I couldn’t help wondering if male attendants took advantage of them since there would be no pregnancies and therefore no proof and no accountability.
I hated the work, I tried to toilet train a patient. It took me six months but I persisted. The other staff said to me “What do you think you’re doing? You trying to change the world?”
I was so upset all the time by the treatment of the patients. Some older counsellors were kind to me on account of my youth. They said “You should have been here in the 1950s and 1960s if you think this is bad!”
I couldn’t take it any more, working on the wards. I asked to be transferred to another department.