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Can their souls ever find peace? A cemetery with a tragic past

November 2019

Beside the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Headquarters in Orillia, Ontario, there is a small cemetery with a particularly tragic past. While death is a sad thing, most cemeteries provide some comfort and solace to surviving family and friends of the deceased interred in the cemetery; a place to visit to remember and reflect on the life of the departed. The Huronia Regional Centre Cemetery has not been such a place, but attempts are being made to rectify and atone for past wrongs.

The cemetery was associated with the provincially-run Huronia Regional Centre, a residential facility for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, located directly opposite the cemetery on Memorial Street. Formerly known as the Ontario Hospital School, Orillia, the institution was founded in 1876 as the Orillia Asylum for Idiots, as the intellectually and developmentally disabled were called at the time. It was the first facility of its kind in Ontario.

This cemetery became a de-facto dumping-ground for the mortal remains of those marginalized and abused by a system that was supposed to support and protect them. Residents of the facility who died were buried in the cemetery unless their family claimed the remains.

Before 1958, the graves were marked with simply a registration number on the tombstone, for privacy reasons. A total of 377 graves were marked this way, but the graves of the 179 residents buried after 1958 were marked with the resident’s name, year of birth and year of death.

The last burial in the cemetery was in 1971, after which all residents who were buried in other cemeteries according to the wishes of their families.

Sadly, an estimated 1440 residents were buried in unmarked graves or graves whose marker is now gone; estimated because of inadequate record-keeping makes the total number of burials in the cemetery unknown.

Some of the missing tombstones were removed to build walkways around the cemetery in the 1970s and others when a sewage system was installed right through the cemetery in the 1950s, a horrific indignity that only came to light in 2015.

The tombstones that could be located were laid on a cement pad in the cemetery in 1985, as the chaplain who discovered this incident could not determine the original locations.

The Huronia Regional Centre closed in 2009, in accordance with a more community-minded, de-institutionalized model for the developmentally disabled. During its 133 year existence, the Huronia Regional Centre and other facilities like it were the subject of allegations of sexual, emotional and physical abuse of its residents which, despite being designed for 1,400, housed almost 3,000 people at its peak.

A class-action lawsuit launched by former Huronia residents resulted in a $35 million financial settlement in 2013 for surviving victims, along with a public acknowledgement and apology by the Ontario government of Premier Kathleen Wynne for the decades of neglectful abuse of the facility’s residents.

In 2014, as part of the “Huronia Settlement Agreement,” researchers from the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, assisted by an organization called “Remember Every Name,” were able to identify and compile a list of the 1,379 individuals known to be buried at the cemetery, most of whom lie in the unmarked graves. Future plans include marking each grave with the name of the resident interred, now free of the overgrown grass and weeds that once obscured the flat-stone grave markers.

Attempts had been made as early as 1990 to acknowledge and commemorate the residents interred in the cemetery,. when the Ontario government erected a monument at the cemetery and encircled the marked graves with a chain barrier and walkway, but it did not encircle the unmarked graves.

The monument on the edge of the cemetery is inscribed with the following:

In Memory of Those Whose Life Journey Ended Here

This monument has been erected
in memory of those developmentally
handicapped people who lived
and died within the community
of the Ontario Hospital School,
Orillia from 1887 – 1971.

However, it wasn’t until 24 August 2019 that, as a condition of the class-action suit, a sculpture, titled the “Survivors Memorial Monument,” was dedicated on the cemetery grounds. The monument has two distinct features: two pillars representing the institutional walls that imprisoned the victims away from society, with a tree growing over the wall and crows flying over the wall, representing the survivors flying to freedom.

Survivors of the Huronia Regional Centre participated in the creation of the sculpture and chose the followig word that were engraved on the “Survivors Memorial Monument:”

BOTH to honour those who died there

AND to celebrate their own survival and freedom

FROM

“Injustice” “We were abused” “Slave labour”

“Locked away and forgotten”

THROUGH

“We will be heard” “Never give up” “Believe our stories”

“I have a name not a number”

TO

“Never again” “Trust” “Power” “Forget Me Not”

“I have a life now”

Along the edge of the cemetery, several granite monuments were placed along a concrete walkway, each one adorned with a plaque listing the names of those interred in the cemetery whose graves remain unmarked.

As of 2019, the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure still has not determined the final disposition of the Huronia property. Some of the buildings are occupied by the OPP, the provincial courts and other provincial agencies. Others are vacant but still patrolled by security and awaiting future use, but still others are boarded up and deteriorating.

Some survivors have suggested the entire complex should be demolished.

***********************************************************************

Terms of the Huronia settlement:

A $35-million settlement fund, which includes legal fees.

A formal apology from the Ontario government to all former residents of Huronia.

A commemorative plaque to be installed on the grounds of Huronia.

The Ontario government will ensure proper maintenance of the cemetery and create a registry of those buried there.

Some 65,000 documents pertaining to the case will be made public.

The claims process is open to all 3,700 surviving residents of Huronia who lived there between 1945 and 2009.

Former residents are eligible to receive a maximum of $42,000, depending on the severity of alleged abuses outlined in the claim.

Sources: https://www.mcss.gov.on.ca/en/dshistory/lifeInstitution/cemetery_huronia.aspx, https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2327137/huronia-regional-centre-cemetery, https://www.barrietoday.com/local-news/survivors-gather-for-unveiling-of-monument-at-hrc-cemetery-20-photos-1657094, https://www.simcoe.com/news-story/7532854-cemetery-facelift-plan-opposed-by-former-orillia-hrc-residents-and-supporters, https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2013/09/17/former_residents_settle_huronia_lawsuit_for_35m.html, https://www.collingwoodtoday.ca/local-news/survivors-memorial-to-be-unveiled-at-former-asylum-cemetery-1650465, https://northernhoot.com/septic-infrastructure-desecrates-graves-in-huronia-cemetery-ontario-government-bandies-responsibility-ignores-citizen-concern/

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/can-their-souls-ever-find-peace-a-cemetery-with-a-tragic-past/

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