MP calls for inquiry into abuse at Alfred training school

An MP is calling on the Ontario government to hold an inquiry into abuses at provincial training schools, including one he attended just east of Ottawa in the 1970s.

Hamilton MP David Sweet attended St. Joseph's Training School, just east of Ottawa, in 1970s

Flamborough–Glanbrook MP David Sweet wants the Ontario government to conduct an inquiry into abuses at provincial training schools, including one he attended in Alfred, Ont., in the 1970s. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

A Hamilton-area MP is calling on the Ontario government to conduct an inquiry into abuses at provincial training schools, including one just east of Ottawa he attended in the 1970s.

St. Joseph's Training School in Alfred, Ont., was considered a Catholic reform institution for boys that operated from the 1940s to the 1970s. After running away from home due to family issues, Sweet was arrested and sent there at age 13.

"I remember just being totally disoriented, thrown into the midst of about 300 other young boys who were all terrified, who were there for anything from just being incorrigible ... to some people who had been guilty of very violent crimes," Sweet told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

St. Joseph's Training School operated in this building on St. Paul Street in Alfred, Ont., until the 1970s, when it shut down and became an Ontario Agricultural College. La Cité now operates a Francophone agricultural program there. (CBC)

He refuses to call them "training" schools.

"There was no instruction about how you get out, they just said that you have to have good behaviour. But if anything, all the influences in there just promoted poor character, manipulation, trying to steal food and other people's clothing and that kind of thing," he said.

'We had to run'

Sweet said he was often beaten up at the school, but the guards turned their backs to the violence. He was also placed in solitary confinement for 10 days after attempting to run away, he said.

"They brought us back in handcuffs and they took us upstairs, locked us up, and then brought us out in the middle of the night and made us run around the courtyard. It was March — we were fortunate it was a mild March in Alfred, but it was cold and raining — and we had to run around there what seemed to be hours," he said. "That was the kind of treatment that you got if you stepped out of line."

... There is a great injustice still going on with the vast majority of these schools in Ontario where there was no outreach, no settlement, no offer of services.- David Sweet, Flamborough-Glanbrook MP

He was never sexually abused, he said, but knew others who had been. "I was fortunate. There were a couple of occasions where I suspected that might have been the case, and I ran from them," he said.

In the early 1990s, 230 of the school's former wards won a total of about $7.5 million in compensation from the province, the Archdiocese of Ottawa and the Christian Brothers who ran St. Joseph's.

The St. Joseph's victims shared a portion of that money with the victims of another school near Toronto. The Christian Brothers were expected to pay that money back to the St. Joseph's victims, but didn't. In 2004, a judge ordered that $1-million repayment.

Sweet didn't come forward then, in part because he knew there were others out there who had suffered more than he had.

'Great injustice still going on'

He said he's speaking up now because other victims remain in the shadows.

"I didn't speak up until now, until I realized that there is a great injustice still going on with the vast majority of these schools in Ontario where there was no outreach, no settlement, no offer of services," he said.

"It never goes away. You wake up from dreams of being locked up somewhere, and I'm one of the fortunate ones. And that's why I want to speak out. I don't have a criminal record and I am a federal legislator, and so I can speak for a lot of these people."

Sweet said an inquiry would inform Ontarians about what happened at the schools and allow former students who have been suffering in silence "to understand that they were young, they were mistreated, and the problems that they're having mentally, psychologically are not of their making, and they can feel free to get the services that they need to heal."

Some victims don't have the resources to fight the government or go to a lawyer, and some don't even know they have that option, Sweet added.

CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning