September 16, 2013: Huronia Regional Centre Class Action Begins

By Marilyn Dolmage

On September 16, 2013, a precedent-setting class action suit begins against the Ontario government involving the first of three residential facilities that housed people with developmental disabilities.  Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia, Ontario housed mentally disabled people from 1876-2009  and former residents have launched a class action suit claiming physical, emotional, and psychological abuse that left them traumatized.   Two other class action suits have been certified to proceed involving the Rideau Regional Centre and the Southwestern Regional Centre.

Marilyn Dolmage of the Ontario Coalition for Inclusive Education played an integral part in the establishment and advancement of this class action suit on behalf of people with developmental disabilities. Many years ago, Marilyn worked as a social worker at Huronia, She had remained in touch with former residents Marie Slark and Patricia Seth and has helped them to share their personal stories and to come forward as lead plaintiffs in the class action. Marilyn was also affected personally by Huronia.  Marilyn had never met her own brother who was institutionalized from birth after being diagnosed with Down syndrome, but discovered he had died of pneumonia – without treatment - when he was eight years old while living at Huronia.

Marilyn learned much more about the challenges faced by people with developmental and other disabilities from her son Matthew, who died at age 29 in 2004.  Marilyn has been a passionate advocate for her own and other families, and to end segregation and promote the effective inclusion in schools and communities across Ontario.

Ensemble reprints the following excerpt written by Marilyn Dolmage to honor her request for public interest and support:

We want to demonstrate public interest in the outcome, on behalf of people with developmental disabilities - too many of whom continue to be marginalized and inadequately supported, in Ontario. This will provide unprecedented opportunities to listen to survivors, and for learning by students and allies.

We would especially appreciate your support when opening arguments are made on Monday Sept 16th, and when the lead plaintiffs Marie Slark and Patricia Seth and I testify on Tuesday Sept 17th.

The public first heard about these cases through David Gutnick’s CBC Radio documentary entitled Gristle in the Stew which can still be heard via this web link:

Kirk Baert, the lead lawyer at Koskie Minsky, the firm handling all three cases told the CBC: "Everybody is really quick to advise others, especially vulnerable people who have been treated badly by the state, to forget about it and just put it behind them. Most people don't do that. They expect that when they are treated badly by government to get treated fairly.”  Developments for all three cases can be found on Koskie Minsky’s website:

Carol Goar of the Toronto Star has called the trial “a day of reckoning”, but in fact it could take as long as 10 weeks to hear the case as 64 years of government documents concerning the institution will finally come to light – along with expert opinion about what they reveal.

Like David Gutnick, Goar reminded the public that Pierre Berton revealed the horrible conditions at Huronia Regional Centre back in 1959.  Imagine how different things would have been if we had heeded Berton’s caution that - unlike the citizens of Nazi Germany - we cannot say we didn’t know what went on behind government walls.

Goar wrote: “shutting the doors doesn’t undo the damage provincial employees did to thousands of cognitively disabled youngsters. The province has silenced them for half a century. But their day of reckoning will come — no matter how many legal roadblocks the government erects.”  This legal action is not about individual staff culpability. It is about abuse and neglect at the highest levels of government, where the harm was known but not stopped.  Carol Goar’s article can be found at

I hope people will see how this relates to society’s ongoing responsibilities to children and adults who live with developmental disabilities.

Perhaps (like me) you have wondered how the recent news about aboriginal children being subjected to experiments and denied food in residential schools might relate to Ontario’s government-run institutions for people with developmental disabilities.

In the July 24, 2010 Toronto Star, Tom Koch provided some analysis stating  that the most shocking thing about the revelation was that we were shocked by it! He wrote: “This has not been genocide… but something more horrifying: a studied indifference to their fate”. He mentioned the 1956 research which infected handicapped children at New York’s Willowbrook State School with hepatitis as another “of numerous examples that will be discovered” of the “common and accepted practice” to use vulnerable people as research subjects.

On July 25, 2013, writing about those aboriginal experiments in the Globe and Mail, Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, challenged Canadians to “confront the ugly truths and move forward together” in “true partnership”. Just as we do, he called for educational improvement, equitable funding and self-advocacy, but he said that “reconciliation… means truth telling”, and it must start with the disclosure of all related government documents.

Recently, Philippe Telford was abandoned by his mother at the Developmental Services Office in Ottawa. The public learned how relieved his mother Amanda was, but we have no idea what has happened to 19-year old Philippe. When I was a social worker at Huronia Regional Centre, I saw that institutions responded to what was seen as the “burden” on families, without being able to address what would befall those admitted.  So much harm has come to people with developmental disabilities when they have been removed from society, segregated, made invisible and deemed disposable.

By contrast, I find it remarkable that Huronia’s lead plaintiffs Marie Slark and Patricia Seth are now being heard and respected by the media and judiciary.  New allies and researchers are now listening to institution survivors and are awaiting release of the documents at trial. Canada’s History magazine will publish an article about Huronia in its fall edition.  I hope that light will finally shine into the dark corners of Ontario government policy towards people with developmental disabilities.

Pat Seth was telling me last week that she remembers being restrained in a “cage cot” She was not yet 7 years old, and had just been admitted to Huronia. It occurred to me that staff in the Admissions Unit must have really struggled to figure out what children needed, after they arrived. Pat had no idea in the world that her family would leave her there, and drive back home to Toronto. She remembers her mother letting go of her hand. Pat can recall the many details of the punishments she received for expressing her anger and frustration over the 13 years she spent at Huronia .  You may know many people who remain less able than Pat to communicate and to put their experiences in context, who spent many more years’ hostage to the institution, and who continues to live with great pain.

As pressure builds over the next few weeks, we are still hoping the government might agree to settle out of court. Marie and Pat have written an open letter to ask Premier Kathleen Wynne to intervene. It makes far more sense to avoid spending so much money on this lengthy trial and to negotiate a settlement for Huronia that might also resolve the Rideau and Southwestern Regional Centre cases. Altogether, there could be 10,000 people whose suffering should be recognized – the sooner the better. None should be deprived of compensation, if it becomes available; we hope it enhances each person's life.

Please tell others about the upcoming trial and what you hope will be gained for people with developmental disabilities in Ontario.

Please consider contacting your MPP about these class actions and the people to whom they matter.

We welcome your support and suggestions as we work towards this momentous trial. Thank you.

Marilyn Dolmage

A legal analysis of the importance of these cases can be found at


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