The Toronto Star by Kate Rossiter 5 February 2015
How would you feel about buying a condo in a building that had previously been a residential school or internment camp? Would you feel differently knowing that the people harmed at the institution had been consulted in the redevelopment process?
Recent news reports have profiled a proposal to turn the former Huronia Regional Centre into a flourishing art campus, complete with condo developments, performance spaces and artists’ studios. Canadian cultural luminaries, including Don Tapscott and Margaret Atwood, have given an enthusiastic thumbs-up to this proposal, which is seen as transformative for the town of Orillia, increasing its cultural cache and economic capital.
However, while Canada’s artists and cultural giants have been consulted, another group is notably absent from these early planning phases: former Huronia residents. This is a problem.
The Huronia Regional Centre warehoused people with intellectual disabilities from 1867 to 2009, and is now notorious as a site of unthinkable abuse and neglect. Indeed, centre survivors launched a class-action lawsuit against the Ontario government in 2010 that resulted in a $35-million settlement and an apology from Premier Kathleen Wynne. She urged Ontarians to “look out for one another, take care of one another, challenge ourselves to be led by our sense of moral purpose before all else . . . to support people with developmental disabilities so they can live as independently as possible and be more fully included in all aspects of their community.”
If the redevelopment of an arts centre is to be guided by a moral — rather than cultural or economic — purpose, former residents must be included in the process of redeveloping the Huronia grounds.
For the past three years, I’ve spent many hours listening to the stories of people who survived life in Huronia. I understand they will forever bear deep scars from their time in the institution, and care deeply about what happens to this site. Some are clear that they would like to see it torn down. Others return regularly to keep watch over the institution’s cemetery — a location that has come to represent the depths of indignity for the thousands of people who lived and died there. Although their opinions differ, these people feel passionately about what happens to the site of their suffering.
The inclusion of Huronia survivors is vital for a second reason. While we have made great inroads in Ontario around making public spaces accessible for everyone, people with disabilities are all too often left out of forms of cultural production. This is especially true of people with intellectual disabilities, who are rarely given the chance to express themselves through arts and culture. If the Huronia site becomes a flourishing arts centre, it must not only prioritize the importance of honouring the histories of suffering at Huronia, but also include survivors as active participants — storytellers and art makers who have a meaningful say in how their histories are represented.
To be sure, many will balk at the notion of including people with intellectual disabilities in such a momentous and important undertaking. It’s easier to dismiss people with intellectual disabilities as unable to understand such processes and to think of institutionalization as a relic of the past. But the survivors I know are capable, articulate and eager to participate in discussions about Huronia’s future. They are willing to share their treacherous tales with those who care to listen. And their experiences are not from the distant past: the institution closed just six years ago. Survivors are members of our community, walking wounded who carry the shameful and often debilitating scars of their past traumas. They deserve to be heard.
The arts have a long history of involvement with questions of justice, humanity, evil and disgrace. In honour of this, and in the name of inclusion and acceptance, it is imperative to include survivors in deciding what should happen to the Huronia site.
Huronia was a place where people with disabilities were excluded from society. They cannot be excluded any longer.
Kate Rossiter is an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is the Principal Investigator of “Recounting Huronia: An Arts-Based Participatory Research Project,” funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.