08.04.2010 08:30 AM

The obligation we owe those who could not speak for themselves

Goar: Former residents of mental asylum seek justice

The time for apologies has passed. No words can right the wrongs the Huronia Regional Centre did to its residents. No expression of regret can change their blighted lives. No profession of contrition will excuse the five provincial governments that knew what was going on behind its doors and did little.

Last week an Ontario Superior Court judge authorized a $1 billion class action suit against the provincial government by former residents of the Huronia Centre, originally known as the Orillia Asylum for Idiots.

If this case goes to trial, it will set a legal precedent. The courts have never allowed a collective lawsuit against a government-operated psychiatric facility. Ontario ran 16 such institutions. (They are all closed now.)

It will reopen one of the ugliest chapters in Ontario’s history. For decades, retarded children, unmanageable adolescents and adults deemed insane — which could mean anything from homeless to paranoid schizophrenic — were locked up in mental asylums. Few outsiders were allowed in.

Stories got out, but policy-makers discounted or ignored them. Complaints were filed, but they were settled quietly.

It has taken nine years to bring about this class action suit. The two lead plaintiffs, Marie Slark and Pat Seth, are not the worst victims, but they have clear memories and the ability to articulate them. Slark, diagnosed as “mildly retarded,” was confined to the Huronia Centre at 1961 at 7 years of age. Seth followed in 1964 at 6 years of age. She was labelled “developmentally challenged.” Both were beaten and medicated against their will.

But the real force behind the litigation is a social worker named Marilyn Dolmage, who spent five years on staff at Huronia. She and her husband Jim, a phys-ed teacher, are acting as “litigation guardians” for the plaintiffs.

Marilyn Dolmage has three reasons for taking on this battle.

The first is what she witnessed as a social worker. She saw residents tranquillized, kept in caged cots and disciplined with a heavy-duty hose.

The second is her younger brother, Robert. Sent to Huronia at birth with Down’s syndrome, he died of untreated pneumonia at the age of 8.

The third is her son, Matthew, born with severe cognitive and physical disabilities. She fought to keep him out of institutions like Huronia.

She and her husband found lawyers who would take the class-action suit, persuaded residents it was safe to talk and kept pressing ahead despite delays and setbacks.

The plaintiffs are seeking “justice and compensation for severe abuse they and other class members suffered while residing at the Huronia Centre.” They contend the Ontario government is guilty of “negligence and breach of its fiduciary duties to the residents and their families.”

Both women have filed affidavits chronicling their mistreatment at Huronia. Seth’s describes how she was hit with a radiator brush and held upside down in cold water for not eating. Slark’s recounts how she was medicated against her will and sexually abused.

The evidence also includes a 1960 article by Toronto Star columnist Pierre Berton, in which he described the “atrocities” he saw inside the psychiatric institute; a scathing 1971 report to the provincial health minister by Walton Williston; and sworn testimony by former staff and family members of residents.

The worst was over by the time Premier Dalton McGuinty took office. When it closed last year, in fact, Huronia had individual apartments, a canteen, a chapel and a therapeutic swimming pool.

But to generations of residents, it was a place of suffering. They were deprived of their rights, beaten or drugged into submission and punished for complaining.

The government cannot restore what they lost, but its can accept responsibility for this egregious injustice.

Carol Goar‘s column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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