PART THREE: The Role of the Parents / Huronia

On this page:   
Voluntary Institutionalization
Children with disabilities: “Put Away”
Author Thelma Wheatley’s experience
Custodial care  -  ‘for life’
Psychological Pressure Put On Parents by Medical Professionals
Stigma and shame
Institutional Parents versus Community Parents
“Gray VS Ontario”

Attitudes had developed from the eugenicists of the early 1900s that influenced many doctors, psychiatrists, and politicians based in Toronto, as well as parents and care-givers themselves, to entrust disabled children to the care of the state. In many instances, mere infants and toddlers were handed over to administrators and staff in the Orillia institution for “custodial care”, (a euphemism which meant “for life”) for “the good of the child and the community.”

There were two methods of committing one’s child:

  1. Lieutenant-Governor’s Warrant. This was free, and many poorer parents unwittingly chose this method for that reason. The child, however, became a Ward of the Crown, which meant it was not easy for a parent to later try to remove their child, since they did not have the same power of attorney as a parent who had paid a fee to place their child.
  2. Certificate of Incompetence signed by 2 physicians. The parents had to pay for the journey to the institution.

It was almost impossible for a superintendent to release a patient committed under warrant because the child was a ward not of the parents but of the Crown. In particular, the government was reluctant to release women and girls due to the danger of pregnancy.

Some parents paid fees in the early 1900s to ensure their child was not put in the general wards. Cost was $7 per month.


Voluntary Institutionalization

“It’s a political racket and everybody knows it. First, I get a letter from the parents. Then I get one from the local MPP. Then I get one from the Minister’s have beds. In one case, I was told by the parent he would bring in a bed himself. The pressure never ends.” - Dr Foster Hamilton, Superintendent of Ontario Hospital School, Orillia, 1960.

The choice for parents to put their children in an institution was always voluntary in Canada, from the beginning, unlike in the United States where it was compulsory.  

Parents put their children’s names on waiting lists; some put pressure on their local MPPs to get their child admitted ahead of others in the queue, others used whatever influence they could, such as personally knowing the superintendent or holding a high office themselves in the community, to get their child into the institution.

There were often one thousand names on the Waiting List for Orillia and in 1960 Toronto Star columnist and Canadian icon Pierre Berton cited a permanent waiting list of four thousand in his article on the institution in 1960.


Children with disabilities: “Put Away”  

Committing one’s child to an institution, often for life, because of intellectual and developmental disability was in itself an abuse of a child’s human rights that few people recognised or questioned from 1876 up until the 1970s when United Nations issued a Declaration of Human Rights of the Mentally Retarded in 1971 and another in 1975.

The Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons drew attention internationally to the right, for instance, of a disabled person to have some autonomy over where they should live. In 1983, the Canadian Human Rights Act was amended to include protection against discrimination to persons with mental/intellectual disabilities.

Being put away involved physical and psychological humiliation for the child, particularly girls, who also had to undergo an intrusive vaginal examination at admission as part of the physical examination. This took place in the Infirmary during the first week.

Being put in an institution to live away from one’s family or caregiver, for whatever reason, was deeply painful emotionally for the children, something that is often overlooked as we focus on the pain of the parents.  No one asked them if they wanted to be put into Orillia to live or if they preferred to live in an institution or with their families.

One common assumption is that because the children were “mentally retarded” they do not feel as deeply as children of normal intelligence because they did not have the capacity to understand what was happening to them.


Custodial Care:  ‘For Life’

While some parents faithfully visited their child and took them home for weekends and vacations and sometimes even removed him, many never visited or got in touch with their child again. Such children grew to adults in the institution and lived and died in Orillia, as the many graves in the Huronia graveyard attest.

Numbered Grave Stones at Orillia. Photo: Thelma Wheatley.

Graves of Orillia. Photo: Thelma Wheatley.

The graves in the Huronia cemetery behind the old farm (today the OPP) were not inscribed with the name of the person to protect the identity of the families who may have felt shame and stigma. They bore only the inmate’s case number.


Psychological Pressure Put On Parents by Medical Professionals

Parents were pressurized to put their child in an institution from the beginning in the early 1900s. While it is not strictly true that the “government” forced parents to institutionalize, since the decision was voluntary, it supported the attitudes and recommendations of the medical professionals and the pressure put by doctors on the parents, as well as the views and propaganda of the eugenicists in the early 1900s to institutionalize.


Author Thelma Wheatley’s Experience

In 1981, Thelma Wheatley was urged by a developmental paediatrician in Toronto to “put her four year-old handicapped child away” because she and her husband would be incapable of raising an autistic retarded child. The reason given was that professionally trained people in the Regional Centre were more capable of raising, teaching and training a handicapped child.
“We would want what was best for him, surely. And what was best was residential placement for life.”

However, Thelma and her husband refused to comply.
See: Chapter One, My Sad Is All Gone by Thelma Wheatley. 2004.
Wheatley realises that this attitude went back directly to Dr Helen MacMurchy and the views of the early eugenicists of 1900s.


Stigma and Shame

Parents were regarded as a “taint upon the nation” by the eugenicists, thus creating a sense of shame and need to hide one’s child. Many parents as late as the 1960s were hiding their mentally disabled children in attics or basements and bringing them out at night to walk. Mothers who gave birth to “Mongoloids” (today called Down’s syndrome) in particular were urged to give over the child at birth; if the child was born ill, he was left to die: “Do not resuscitate”.


Institutional Parents versus Community Parents

Parents were not united in their desire to close down the institution. By the 1950s the parents had formed their own association: “The Association for Mentally Retarded Children”. The Aims of the Community Parents were to make the government close down institutions, provide services at home for their children so that they would not have to be sent away, and to provide schooling in public schools for intellectually disabled children.

The Institution Parents wanted the institutions to remain open as a fall-back for parents in case of need. They wanted the government to improve the institution – smaller population, increase in the number of staff, small wards, more individual attention and vocational training.


“Gray VS Ontario”

In 2005, one group of Institution parents whose severely retarded children were still in Huronia Regional Centre Orillia and Rideau Regional Centre, Smiths Falls, some after forty and fifty years’ residence, took the government of Ontario to court to protest and prevent the closure of the institutions, slated for 2009, claiming that the two institutions were places that provided excellent care and were” home” to the residents. The parents lost the case.