Governmental setbacks continue to shock members of the Remember Every Name committee, the group of concerned citizens, survivors, and relatives of survivors of the shuttered Huronia Regional Centre. They are attempting to put names to every grave in the Centre’s severely under-documented cemetery. It was already known that many graves are marked only by the individual’s institution number, and a large number are completely unmarked. Adding further insult to injury, last month the group says it discovered a septic tank pipeline running right through where a large group of people were supposedly buried.
When Huronia and Ontario’s other two major institutions were closed down in 2009, survivors instituted a class-action lawsuit against the government, which settled in 2013. In addition to a promised $35 million for victims and their families—payouts for which still haven’t been received—the agreement called for a public apology for the tortures and deaths suffered there, and for government assistance to document names, years of birth, and years of death for approximately 2,000 people buried at the cemetery. Remember Every Name has found the discovery of the septic tanks during this investigation offensive.
“These poor people were not even treated like human beings in life, and they’re not treated like humans in a graveyard,” said Dr. Jerry Melbye, a Forensic Anthropologist specializing in the identification of human remains. He says he joined Remember Every Name after learning that the government had no plans to locate the bodies of certain people buried at the cemetery. “They’re just nameless numbers, and it’s god-awful.”
“The septic tanks themselves were not mentioned in the survey,” he continued, referring to the archaeological survey commissioned by the government to find the boundaries of the cemetery. “There’s these things labelled on the map, just known as ‘Utilities.’” Wondering just what these utilities were, the group unearthed and opened the septic tanks, which were installed in the 1950s and remained in use until the 1970s. They found that the pipes, which go uphill toward a former residential area, go right through the plot where Huronia occupants who died in the 1930s were buried.
For the deceased, this does not just mean suffering the indignity of having human waste travelling right by one’s grave. The pipeline is four feet deep. Most of the burial sites are between 1 foot and four feet underground, meaning up to 150 graves could have been disturbed when the pipes were laid. “If they disturbed the burials that means they intersected bones,” Melbye said. “Human bones. And what did they do with them? We don’t know. Did they throw them back in the trench when they buried the pipe? We don’t know.”
Melbye and Remember Every Name find it suspicious that the archaeological company, Timmins Martel Heritage Consultant Inc., which surveyed the area, did not point out that anything may be amiss in that area. Its maps had rectangles representing the areas it charted with ground-penetrating radar. The area containing the pipes and graves in question had no rectangle. “That part of the cemetery wasn’t surveyed where those pipelines would have shown up,” Melbye pointed out.
The septic tanks aren’t the only recently-uncovered issue with the cemetery. Melbye is concerned that certain people’s bones may not have been recognized as such. “They found some supposed animal bones. They had cut marks on them, and so they deemed them to be cow bones, or domestic animal bones. And they’re lying on a cedar plank, they never even entertained the idea for an instant that those cedar planks might be the remains of a coffin.” These bones were disposed of, even though Melbye believes there’s a high chance that the planks were part of a coffin, and that the bones were human.
Melbye, who taught Anthropology at the University of Toronto for over 30 years and regularly helps police identify bodies, can tell if a bone is human or animal by looking at a small fragment. However, these bones were discarded without being studied by a certified expert in Osteology, the study of bones.
Decidedly displeased with these bureaucratic disruptions, Melbye told a representative from the ministry previously handling this case that he no longer trusts the archaeological company, and that certain things should be re-examined. “Basically,” Melbye related, “he said it’s a done deal and he’s going to get some sewer experts in there, and that’s it. He wasn’t going to go back to the archaeology company at all.” A lawyer for the same ministry advised Melbye not to write to the Premier about these struggles, and to deal with him directly. “How can we do that when we don’t trust him?”
Remember Every Name ignored this man’s advice and wrote to Premier Wynne anyway. In an open letter sent July 23, member Paola di Paolo requested, on behalf of the group and Dr. Melbye, “An independent and professional assessment of the septic tanks and septic pipes in HRC cemetery[,] an independent and professional assessment of the state of the graves that were disturbed by the installation of the above mentioned pipes[, and] an independent and professional assessment of what would be involved in decommissioning the septic system and removing the pipe that lies across graves.” She also requested that Remember Every Name be allowed to select the party that would perform such tasks.
Survivor Cindy Scott expressed her heartfelt feelings to the Premier in a followup letter. Some gravestones had been removed, at one point, to build the patio of a nearby house, and while they’ve since been returned, they are a gigantic cement block placed in an arbitrary location. Hundreds more are simply missing. In response to the five to six hundred gravestones that are unaccounted for, Scott questioned, “Why has nobody talked about it or told us what really happened to the missing gravestones. I think people don’t want the truth, they just want to make excuses. Why would it be allowed to put pipes through a graveyard? Just because it happened a long time ago doesn’t make it ok.”
At this point, the response from the Premier’s office has been to move the Huronia case from its previous home at the Ministry of Community and Social Services to the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, which is the standard department for graveyard issues. With this change, “Hopefully, something is going to get done,” Melbye said. “The sewer system just shocked everyone, and I must say that the survivors are just up in arms. There are many survivors that have held back telling their stories, and they’re about ready to spill the beans, they’re so angry.”
Scott is livid, saying that the issue of the missing graves, among the other problems, “makes me mad, sad, upset, shaking my head.”
“Sewage pipes?” she asked. “The water from 65 years [ago] could have washed through the dirt and moved where people are supposed to be. We want to figure out how they got the pipes in the ground.”
More succinctly, she stated “I have a right to know exactly what happened.”
As upsetting as all of this is, Melbye hopes survivors can take heart in Remember Every Name’s steadfast efforts for justice. “My message to them is ‘We’re working hard to make things right.’ You can never completely right wrongs of this magnitude, but we are going to really, really try to see that the best possible thing can come from this as far as the cemetery is concerned.”
To show support or get involved with Remember Every Name, visit their Facebook page here.
– Daniel Share-Strom
Update Friday reached out to the Ministry of Community and Social Services, which provided the following response:
We appreciate the recent concerns from Remember Every Name about the Huronia Regional Centre (HRC) Cemetery.
The concerns come as a result of a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey map that was commissioned to confirm the boundary of the cemetery to help determine the location for the perimeter fence that would ensure no graves were disturbed and allow families the space to move more easily around the cemetery when visiting their loved ones.
This GPR report map shows that there are utilities located within the current boundaries of the cemetery. However, Infrastructure Ontario (IO), who manages the property on behalf of the province, conducted a site visit last week and determined that there are no active utilities located within the cemetery. The GPR survey did not reveal the path of sewer pipes.
The Ministry of Community and Social Services is working with IO to further investigate the concerns that have been raised and will conduct an additional evaluation of the cemetery. They will determine the path of any pipes (which are estimated to have been laid more than 60 years ago).
IO’s investigation plans do not involve disturbing any graves.
We are committed to getting answers to concerns that have been raised with respect to the HRC Cemetery. We have worked with Remember Every Name and will continue to work with them once our investigation is complete, in order to determine the best way forward based on our findings.
The contributions from Remember Every Name and the findings of the investigation will be key as we continue our work to honour the former residents and families of former residents of the Huronia Regional Centre.