If most residents of Orillia have their way, the grounds of the former Huronia Regional Centre will be used for conservation or turned into an arts and culture hub that serves as an economic and tourism driver for the city and surrounding area.
A consultant has been hired by the government to identify what Orillia residents and others want done with 175 acres deemed as surplus. A portion of the land continues to be used for government programs and services that include Ontario Provincial Police training facilities, a courthouse and an office for the Ontario Disability Support Program.
While conservation and development were the main suggestions brought forward at yesterday’s (March 30th) public consultation, three of the 17 presentations that were made during the afternoon session emphasized the need for survivors of Huronia Regional Centre to have a vested interest in what’s done with the property.
“Whatever is done with the site, we believe it should never again be a place where people are congregated, segregated and thereby devalued as human beings,” said Beesley, noting that the public consultation on the future of Huronia was the only opportunity for survivors of Ontario’s 16 provincially-run institutions to have their voices heard.
“[Huronia] is a lightning rod and a symbol of how we in Ontario devalued people who have intellectual disabilities,” added Beesley. He also reminded the consultant and those in attendance that many of the survivors of Huronia were sexually, physically and psychological abused, and he stressed that their input should be valued the most.
“In having these consultations and listening to various people and groups, we feel that some should be given stronger consideration than others. And with all due respect, how could we possibly think that the voice, for instance, of the local Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club or other civic organizations and groups should have any equal say in this process as compared to those who lived at the former Centre? In this case, not all voices should be treated equally.”
He also suggested that profits generated from the use of the surplus land, [such as ticket sales], should somehow benefit former residents.
“The Premier has already apologized for Ontario’s shameful institutional past. Let’s make sure we do the right thing here, so that she doesn’t have to apologize again. And to that end and to, more importantly, safeguard their voice, we recommend a panel of survivors be struck to vet a shortlist of perhaps two or three suggested uses that the government would provide to the panel based on this consultation process. The panel’s decision would be binding. This would both ensure the legitimacy of the consultation process and the primacy of survivors’ voices.”
Yvonne Spicer, Past Chair of the Council of Community Living Ontario, a 13-member elected body representing all regions of the province, also spoke out on behalf of people who have an intellectual disability.
“Many of you know [Huronia Regional Centre] was once called the Hospital for Idiots. What a terrible and disgusting name. It was a name that showed total disrespect and hatred of all people with intellectual disabilities. As terrible as the name was, the place itself was even worse.”
Spicer also shared that she and Community Living Ontario Director Theresa Somerton had taken a tour of the shuttered institution and were told of the treatment endured by the former residents.
“People should not have been locked up as prisoners…the people at Huronia were not seen as people who had dreams and desires.”
Spicer asked those in attendance not to repeat the mistakes made at Huronia and to ask survivors in the community about what needs to be done with the property.
Somerton recounted some of the conversations she had had with survivors of the province’s institutions and how they were treated. She noted that many residents would like to see the buildings destroyed.
Colin MacDonald, a former resident of Huronia Regional Centre, also spoke to attendees.
“I didn’t like how I got treated…I found out after I got out that they were giving me 10 different kinds of pills to make me forget what went on there.”
If given the choice, MacDonald would like to see the buildings torn down or used for something else, such as low-income housing. Click here to view their presentation.
Maxine Johnson, Programs and Services Director with Simcoe Community Services, stated that proposals had been submitted on behalf of the organization’s Self-Advocacy Council and management.
The proposals were similar in that they called for a place for the community to come together, but also to remind people of what took place at Huronia Regional Centre.
“We don’t want to forget what happened, so if we can do that through art or some kind of plaques as you walk through the pathways that remind people; so that we don’t forget what happened, so that it doesn’t happen again,” stated Johnson.
A third proposal was submitted by the Simcoe Community Services Foundation, which recommended an affordable and accessible vacation or respite area to be created for parents who have children of all abilities.
The public consultation was part of a broader effort to obtain feedback, including a website and an online survey. The consulting firm will be collecting feedback until April 20th.
A report and summary will be available to the public later this spring, once the government has had an opportunity to review the information that was received.
For more information, visit ontario.ca/huroniaconsultation.
Ron Laroche, Community Living Ontario