Punishment and Cruel Treatment at Huronia

On this page:
Testimony of mother volunteers
Rubber punishment
Psychological Suffering:
“Side” Room or “Punishment” Room
Wet-Packs, Cold Baths, Straight Jackets (Restraints) and Sheet Restraints

At the Orillia institution there seemed to be no cohesive standard of discipline, and punishment was meted out at will by attendants, (later called ‘workers’), warders, nurses and nursing assistants, generally referred to as ‘Staff’. Beatings were endemic, also patients being punched, cuffed, kicked, having their heads bashed against a wall, or shoved down a toilet bowl.

Survivor Michael Callahan recalls children beaten with a wooden club if their hands were dirty at inspection.  Marie Slark had her head dunked in a bucket of cold water for not eating. Danger and injury often came from other patients, either not noticed due to the overcrowding and understaffing, or ignored. Michael C. was once stabbed in the back by another patient wielding a home-made knife.

Government inspector Dr Snedden, examining the hospital in 1956, found three padlocks under a patient’s mattress and metal knives.

In 1960, Pierre Berton, news reporter for the Toronto Daily Star, reported a patient who suffocated to death after another patient let off a piston of steam after a fire.

The Willard Report of 1976, commissioned by the government of Ontario, which examined conditions in the Huronia institution, cited a murder committed by a former patient, and a horrific rape and murder of a patient in the 1970s.

Charges were rarely made against staff.  Children were threatened by staff that they would face worse punishment if they reported abuses or complained to other staff, administration, or parents, though in the 1970s, two male staff were charged with physical abuse of patients.

Group punishments were often accompanied by humiliation, such as the infamous “rubber punishment” that most patients interviewed recalled.


Testimony of mother volunteers

In the Girls Cottage “O”, a visiting volunteer mother, Adele Gibbard, recalls in the 1960s a ward of girls cowering in terror underneath their beds as an irate attendant stomped up and down the centre aisle brandishing a broom handle to whack any finger or toe sticking out.


Rubber Punishment

Patients had to line up down the hallway and individually go down on their hands and knees and push a hard rectangular rubber along the floor with their noses.  Attendants called it “eating dirt” or “eating worms”.  Barry Thachuk, who lived for 29 years in the institution from the 1940s, recalls another dimension to this punishment: boys often were forced to do it wearing only short night-shirts that came to their knees.



Bench. Photo: Thelma Wheatley.

Being confined to benches for up to an hour at a time, to provide a break for overworked staff, was another hated form of single and communal punishment. Boys had to sit still and not move or receive a whack from the staff.



Psychological Suffering

It’s important to understand that though many patients might have never experienced actual ill-treatment themselves at the hands of staff, they experienced continuous terror and anxiety from seeing other patients being abused.

These punishments, of course, were never recorded in the patient’s records or ward reports by the staff. Thus the oral testimony of institutional survivors is so vital in order to have a record of ill-treatment suffered.  It is important that we regard such testimony with respect and not be dismissive because the witnesses are intellectually challenged. They are our witness to the truth of institutionalization as it pertains to the Orillia institution and other institutions in Canada, which robbed so many of their lives, their childhoods, and innocence.


“Side” Room or “Punishment” Room

Side or Punishment room with grille window. Photo: Thelma Wheatley.

These were small window-less rooms often off the ward (Cottage “O” for Girls had 2 side-rooms off the central aisle on each floor), but also off the underground tunnels, or “tram-ways” in the basement. A small grilled observation window allowed the staff worker to observe the patient.  

Sometimes a patient was locked in naked. This was a form of isolation and seclusion as punishment and also to get a patient ‘acting out’ under control. The rooms were often called by the patients “the rubber room”, or “the bubble room” because they were lined with a rubbery material or foam.

Sometimes patients were left isolated and forgotten about for extended lengths of time. In 1956, Dr Snedden, government inspector from the Department of Health, was shocked to discover 3 old women patients in seclusion in Cottage “L”, two of them since 1954 and 1955, written in as PRN orders “with no indication of a time limit.”

“I do not consider this is a good procedure . . a  definite time limit should be put on their seclusion order as signed by the physician.”



These were iron-barred cots forming a cage, much like a large dog-cage, that stood on four legs. The door would be locked so that the child could not escape. Hyperactive children were often caged in this manner all day and night to free up the overworked staff.  The child was brought out for twenty minutes from time to time to be fed and toileted.  Children developed curvature of the spine from being confined to cage-cots, others were unable to walk upright ever again.

Cage-cot. Photo: Thelma Wheatley.

Eleanor West, retired teacher from the Peel District Board of Education, recalls taking a Mental Retardation Certificate Course at the Huronia institution, then called Ontario Hospital School, in summer of 1968, combining practical and academic training. It began with a class of 80. She remembered seeing a child in a cage-cot. The attendants laughingly called him “The Hopper” because he hopped about on all fours when taken out of his cage-cot and was unable to stand.  Ms. West was horrified but the attendants were amused, “Watch him hop.” (See: ‘Survivors’ Stories’)

In 1960, Donald MacDonald, leader of the CCF, visited the Ontario Hospital School and saw the cage-cots for himself.  He brought up the issue in the Ontario Legislature.  In 1971 Dr Morton Schulman also visited the institution and again brought up the use of cage-cots, in the Legislature.  Abuse was denied by the Frost government.


Wet-Packs, Cold Baths, Straight Jackets (Restraints) and Sheet Restraints

Straight jacket. Photo: Don Heald.

The words on the tag attached to the straight jacket in the Huronia Archives says : “Straight jacket made at HRC.” (Huronia Regional Centre).  Photo: Don Heald.

Straight jackets (restraints) to punish and control ‘difficult’, hyperactive or rebellious patients were used extensively in the wards of the institution, including on children.  Again, the reports of the government Inspectors of Prisons, Asylums, and Public Charities themselves give a very clear picture of this discipline throughout the century.  Inspections were done three times a year and reveal the state of conditions at the institution as well as endemic neglect amounting to abuse of patients.  Of significance is that complaints made by inspectors in the 1930s, for instance, were echoed in reports thirty years later.

“. . . there were children in restraints.  These children were up and around, but their arms were restrained to their bodies.  This is a practice which, in my opinion, if once begun increases rapidly.”  - Dr R. C. Montgomery, inspection of Cottage “A” with a population of 248 patients, 70 on the third floor, March 28 – April 19, 1938.  

Twenty-five years later, in 1956, Dr Snedden, inspector from the provincial Department of Health, was distressed to find two deteriorated patients in seclusion in Cottage A, second floor, both boys suffering from “severe degree of prolapsed rectum” which they picked at constantly.  

Use of restraining sheets on patients was also used, as also wet sheets (“wet pack”). In 1940, Dr Lionel Penrose, inspecting the institution on June 4, complained of the “excessive use of restraints” after observing two paralytic patients in restraints in bed.

“I do not believe it is necessary to wind the bed-clothes around these patients the way it is done here.”  

He reported seeing two cases of fractured femur due to “injudicious” lifting of delicate patients from their beds.  

Restraining suits continued in use well into the 1990s, justified to prevent certain patients from self-mutilation or masturbation.  See Thelma Wheatley’s article about her visit to the Orillia institution in 1995, published in The Beacon, the teachers’ newspaper for the Peel District Board of Education: “A Visit to Huronia Regional Centre, Orillia, August 1995