Excerpt from And Neither Have I Wings To Fly
“YOU KNOWS WHAT TO WRITE, Thelma, you knows legal.” That is what Daisy Potts said to me in 2006, the day she sought me out. She was in her early sixties at the time. Daisy gripped my arm. “You c’n get my file from Orillia, please and thank you kindly.” She said she had been in Cottage O.
And at once Cottage ‘O’ came to mind from my research: a dull, red-brick, three-storey building with rows of windows, next to Entrance B. It had held thousands of girls in its time, the long wards locked at night.Daisy Potts had been institutionalized in Orillia as a child, and now that institution was slated to be permanently closed by the government of Ontario in 2009. Daisy wanted my help to get her records, before it was too late. She had never been allowed to see them and she wanted finally to know what was in them.
The institution - which most people simply called ‘Orillia’ - had originally been the Asylum For Idiots and Feebleminded (branch of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto), the oldest in Canada for “mentally retarded” people, dating back to 1876. Heralded as innovative and humane, a “fine place” for idiots and epileptics, the asylum had provided custodial care and protection for the thirty or so inmates at its opening. Before that time, “mental defectives”, as they were often called, whose families could no longer care for them, often ended up in the county lunatic asylum, or worse, the workhouse or local goal, or were left roaming the countryside at will. The new asylum was meant to mitigate such horrors, and provide not just custodial care but vocational training for the more “educable” ones, with the intent of eventually returning them to their families…
By the early 1900s, however, attitudes towards mental defectives had begun to change as the effects of the Industrial Revolution took its toll on the cities: slums, unemployment, crime and disease gave rise to fears of a new underclass. Orillia became a big custodial institution, a useful place to put the unwanted in society, the so-called “feeble-minded”, that included a mix of indigents invariably found on its wards: paupers, incurables, alcoholics, syphilitics, the old and infirm, and unmarried girls and their babies who had nowhere else to go.
Renamed “Ontario Hospital School” (OHS) in 1936, it had a population of nearly three thousand when Daisy was housed there in the 1950s. A grim sort of place for a child I always thought on my visits, with its vast grounds, with its vast grounds and towering Administration Building much praised for its fine front. There were double-glassed doors at the top of a flight of steps, through which all new Admissions passed.
“But Daisy, you’re not retarded!”
At once I regretted the word, so outmoded, anachronistic in definition. A look of bewilderment crossed her face.
“Yeah, well, that’s what Children’s Aid in T’ronto said, Thelma. They promised I wouldn’t be with the retarded ones, I’d be kept sep’rate on the ward.”
I was silent. This sounded much like the placating of parents so familiar to me as a former teacher. There was obviously much here unsaid, perhaps lost in the understanding of a small child.
She went on: “I wuz taken first, ’cause I wuz the oldest. Then Lizzie and my baby brother Pips. But they was kept together in a foster home in Richmond Hill.”
Daisy sounded aggrieved. It was what she most wanted to know. Why had she been the only one singled out for Orillia, and why had her mother signed her over? Why she hadn’t she been placed with the Wilsons, too? The records would explain, the records would tell, said Daisy.
She wanted to know about her mother, especially - a no-good, low-down sort, according to Daisy. All she’d wanted was a good time while their dad was out working all hours, Daisy added. “One cock wasn’ big enough for ’er.” She wanted her mother’s records from Orillia as well; she knew she had also been there, along with other members of her family.
Daisy wanted the truth. She wanted to know whether they had written about the rapes and the tortures that took place on the ward, if they had put them in. . .