No human dignity: What life was like at the Huronia Regional Centre

Overcrowded, dilapidated buildings and rampant disease made life intolerable for thousands of residents with intellectual disabilities

Overcrowded, dilapidated buildings and rampant disease made life intolerable for thousands of residents

A crib cage with metal bars designed to restrain a person in an institution.
A crib cage with metal bars designed to restrain a person in an institution. (© White Pine Pictures Photo: Polina Tief)

WARNING: Content may distress some readers.

What was it like living in Ontario's largest and oldest institution for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities?

For much of the Huronia Regional Centre's 133 years of operation, what took place behind the facility's walls was hidden from the outside world. However, internal government records and inspection reports, which came to light as part of a class-action lawsuit that was settled in 2013, paint a horrifying picture of life there. 

Here is a summary of some of the deplorable conditions and abuses that were reported.

Overcrowding at Huronia

Inspectors touring the institution in the 1940s and 1950s found residents, many of them crammed into overcrowded dormitories and day rooms. At best, by the 1960s, children and youth would gather around a television after meals. (See the NFB's Danny and Nicky for a look at the stark, stimulus-free environment.) At night, some residents were forced to sleep on the floor or to share a bed, while others slept year-round on unheated verandas. 

In 1968, the resident population at the institution peaked at 2,948 people. An inspection conducted that year concluded that the institution's facilities were equipped to house only 1,400. 

The building was in a poor state of repair

By the 1940s, many of Huronia's buildings were dilapidated and unfit for human habitation. Most wards had wooden floors, which required constant cleaning and stank of human waste. Because of the scrubbing, floors never dried and were badly deteriorated. Boards separated, floors buckled and holes were patched with plywood. 

Survivors recount the horrific conditions at Huronia: Unloved

1 year ago
Duration 2:00
Survivors from Huronia, Ontario's insitituion for people with intellectual difficulties recall the abuse and horrific conditions they had to endure while living there.

Residents were often used as a source of unpaid labour, and in 1940, a doctor inspecting the facility spoke to a resident who had a large ulcer on one of her knees as a result of constantly being on her hands and knees scrubbing floors.

The winter months were some of the most difficult at Huronia. The institution's buildings had no storm windows, and while steam heating kept the wards reasonably warm, staff recalled snow would drift across the floors on winter mornings. During the spring thaw, water would seep in around the wards' window frames, forming blocks of ice. At least into the 1950s, some residents were locked in unheated seclusion rooms, sometimes for months at a time, to control what staff deemed troublesome behaviour. 

Unsanitary conditions led to rampant diseases

Residents who needed help using the washroom were left in their own filth. It was not uncommon to find maggots in soiled linens and clothing when it came time to sort the laundry every week. 

In 1969, a public health committee was formed to improve the grossly unsanitary conditions at Huronia, but it soon met resistance. At a meeting in 1971, one committee member revealed that ward staff refused to wash their hands before preparing food. This was still a problem when the committee met again months later.

Throughout the early 1970s, the committee tried to address the institution's "perennial problem of hordes of flies." A food preparation area nicknamed the "fly pit" had 18 broken or missing window screens. In one building known as the Pavilion, children were "covered day and night with flies." There's no indication that the source of the infestations was ever found.

Given the overcrowding, understaffing and deplorable sanitary conditions at Huronia, it's not surprising that infectious diseases ran rampant. Dick Sobsey, an expert for the class-action lawsuit, estimated that the prevalence of hepatitis B infection at Huronia was much higher than in Ontario's general population. In 1989, a student from Cambrian College in northern Ontario reported that residents were given medicine from the same spoon whether they were "hepatitis carriers or not." 

Parasites were also a major problem at Huronia. In 1977, 60 per cent of residents had intestinal parasites. Until at least 1989, residents were forbidden from using some furniture because staff feared that they would get parasites if the furniture was shared.

New standards of care not met at Huronia

In 1964, the American Association on Mental Deficiency (AAMD) put forward standards for residential institutions, including minimum staff-to-patient ratios, appropriate use of restraint and seclusion, minimum hours of care per resident per day, and the difference between training programs and unpaid work. These standards were updated in 1971, but the staff at Huronia would spend decades attempting to reach even this minimal standard of care. 

Standards continued to decline even as the resident population dropped

Huronia's resident population finally began to decline in the 1970s, but this didn't lead to a significant improvement in conditions. In 1977, the institution still failed to meet both the 1964 and 1971 AAMD standards. And in 1986, Ontario's Ministry of Community and Social Services acknowledged in a report that conditions at Huronia were actually worse than they had been 10 years earlier. 

On March 31, 2009, the Huronia Regional Centre closed its doors forever. It is unclear if the institution ever succeeded in meeting the 1971 AAMD standards. Regardless, the conditions residents endured at Huronia ensured that none of them would leave the facility emotionally or physically unscathed.

Mitchell Wilson is a disability rights activist born in Toronto. Since 2015, he has focused on researching the history of the Huronia Regional Centre as a member of the group Remember Every Name.

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