Ottawa

'It's a heavy load': Former prison babies demand apology, recognition

Robert Burke, now 68, was born inside the notorious Andrew Mercer Reformatory in Toronto. He says he still suffers from nightmares.

His mother branded 'incorrigible,' Robert Burke was born in notorious Andrew Mercer Reformatory

Robert Burke as a boy with his mother, Muriel Joan Walker, before he was adopted by another family at the age of five. (Supplied by Robert Burke)

Robert Burke, 68, was born inside the notorious Andrew Mercer Reformatory, the first penitentiary for women in Canada, after his mother was jailed for becoming pregnant out of wedlock.

Despite having no memories of the prison, Burke nevertheless continues to suffer from vivid nightmares of abuse and abandonment by the matrons who once staffed the foreboding building on Toronto's King Street, which opened its doors in 1872.

Burke's Ottawa-born mother, Muriel Joan Walker, a promising ballerina, was one of hundreds of young women labelled "incorrigible" and sent to the prison to learn "feminine virtues."

"I spent the first eight months of my life incarcerated with her," said Burke, who obtained his mother's records after a year-long legal battle. "It was pretty horrific. There was a lot of beatings and torture that went on."

Andrew Mercer Reformatory, Canada's first women's penitentiary, was open for nearly a century, from 1872 until 1969. (Supplied by Robert Burke )

Allegations of abuse

The prison was eventually investigated over allegations of abuse including the use of experimental drugs on inmates — all of which his mother experienced after her arrival in 1951, Burke said.

Burke said his mother, initially labelled by court officials as being "temperate and abstinent," developed a drug addiction and mental heath issues after leaving the prison with her son more than a year later. Burke was eventually taken from her by the province and adopted by another family.

He was born behind bars after his mother was arrested in 1951 for getting pregnant out of wedlock. 14:15

"She was very beautiful but she used to scare me sometimes, not because she would ever harm me, [but] she didn't seem like she was there," Burke, who now lives in Cobourg, Ont., told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"She suffered at the hands of the matrons and the drug experimentation.… She came out and she was a total drug addict and mentally unstable beyond recognition." 

Muriel Joan Walker had dreams of becoming a ballerina before she was deemed 'incorrigible' and sent to Toronto's notorious Andrew Mercer Reformatory. (Supplied by Robert Burke)

A fight for recognition 

For years, former Andrew Mercer inmates and their children have fought for official acknowledgement of the illegality of their imprisonment, as well as recognition of the abuse, torture and trauma they experienced at the Toronto prison.

Burke said he wants an official apology, and wants the children of those women to have better access to the documents detailing their incarceration.

"I could have saved myself so much grief because I had all these nightmares [growing up] and all these strange feelings, and I was so withdrawn," he said. "If I had known my past, I would have had a way better understanding of where I was coming from."

Official documents show Robert Burke was rushed to the hospital when he was four months old. A letter from the doctor to the prison states the injuries did not appear to be accidental. (Supplied by Robert Burke)

Velma Demerson, who died last week at the age of 98, is the one of the only women in Canada to get a public apology and compensation from the federal and provincial governments for her time at the reformatory.

At 19, after her parents tipped off authorities, Demerson was jailed and stripped of her citizenship for falling in love with a Chinese man and having a child out of wedlock. Her child, also born at the prison, was taken from her when he was three months old.

She received an apology for her incarceration, for the abuse she experienced and for several medical procedures performed on her by a doctor at the reformatory.

Trauma continues 

Kim Pate, an independent senator and long-standing prisoner rights advocate, told Ottawa Morning she's also calling on the federal and provincial governments to apologize to the women sent to the reformatory, and to their children. 

Until 1964, Ontario women could be jailed for "leading an idle and dissolute life". 10:08

Pate said the children, many now approaching old age, continue to suffer trauma due to their experiences at the prison, which closed its doors in 1969.

"It would mean a great deal [to get an apology]," Pate said. "I'm hopeful that some small comfort would come from [the] recognition that what was done was wrong and that it wasn't their fault, nor was it their mothers' faults."

Burke said he's forgiven those who harmed him and his mother, but an apology would go a long way to alleviate the load he's carried all these years. 

"You can't just carry this hate around," he said. "It's a heavy load."

Robert Burke and Velma Demerson met last year to share their experiences at the Andrew Mercer Reformatory. (Supplied by Robert Burke)

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