Every time Cindy Scott passes by Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia she has flashbacks.
The 52-year-old survivor of the notorious facility looks at the buildings and checks to make sure it’s still shut down before she goes to visit her friends who lay buried in the cemetery. It’s a trip she makes at least once a week.
She is one of thousands who lived in the facility when it housed people with intellectual and physical disabilities. The provincial government, which ran the facility, settled a $35-million class action lawsuit by survivors of the institution in 2013 over allegations of widespread physical and sexual abuse.
In operation from 1876 until 2009, the centre consists of dozens of buildings spread across 151-acres on the shore of Lake Simcoe. Since the closure of the facility, a small number of buildings have been used by the OPP for training, and the Ministry of the Attorney General for a courthouse. The majority of the campus remains unused.
A group of artists and businesspeople want to change that. Led by Charles Pachter, famous for his painting of the Queen riding a moose, the Huronia Cultural Campus Foundation has a vision to turn the property into a creative hub in the vein of Alberta’s Banff Centre.
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The proposal for the project outlines a plan for a creative arts centre, an international sculpture park, a summer performance centre hosting the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, a memorial pavilion, a First Nations gallery and museum, a folk Hall of Fame and research and conference centres for everything from business to culinary arts.
It’s a project that, Pachter stresses, looks to the future of the site and the potential it has for Orillia and Ontario.
“We have to familiarize the public with the future potential of this site rather than dwell on the lugubrious past,” Pachter tells TVO.org. “I don't want to be perceived as being unsympathetic to this, it's just that if this project is going to take on any kind of meaning it has to grow and become something far more expansive and inclusive. That past will never be forgotten and it will be memorialized and honoured. We'll probably have an international sculpture competition to build a monument and there would be a pavilion.”
But survivors and advocates are raising questions about just how the history of the centre will be memorialized and respected, and how and to what extent people who suffered abuses there will be consulted in the planning process.
The first consultation with survivors took the form of a round-table meeting in April organized with the help of advocates like Kate Rossiter, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University who works on arts projects along with survivors of Huronia, and Marilyn Dolmage, the litigation guardian for the class action lawsuit. Pachter was not present at the meeting, but did meet with some survivors at a later date.
At the April meeting, the Huronia Cultural Campus group presented a multi-page proposal outlining the future uses of the site according to their vision. Its cover letter was a mock press release, drafted in 2020, that looked back on the accomplishments of the centre over the preceding five years.
“It was definitely all done. It was a future look having done it, having created this cultural centre obviously without any input from people,” says Dolmage.
The plan is still just aspirational – the provincial government owns the land and it is still in use, and the cultural campus group must raise the money for its ambitions. If the province sells the land, the opportunity to buy would be open to other levels of government and not-for-profit organizations.
“Our goal is to find a sensible, win-win solution that meets the needs of the province, City of Orillia and other stakeholders. No decisions have been made at this time regarding the future of the site,” writes Jeff Giffen, communications manager for Infrastructure Ontario, in an email response.
The steering committee is beginning its fundraising for the centre, with plans to make a bid for funding from the federal government under the Canada 150 Fund.
Pachter says that they will have features that honour the past of the institution, but emphasizes the importance of looking towards the future. He says survivors will be consulted throughout and reacts angrily at the suggestion that they are being left out of the process.
“I'm sick and tired of hearing people say this. It's not true - and they should be ashamed for keeping saying it,” says Pachter. “I have three relatives who were there for god's sakes. My aunt was there for five years. How dare they assume this. That is just not fair. I'm an artist with an Order of Canada and an Order of Ontario. My whole life has been to try and raise the bar in this country and to try and make things better, and to hear people like this with this negative attitude is sickening to me.”
A pitched argument took place in the comment section of The Walrus, where an article about the plan for the cultural campus drew comments from all sides of the issue. Pachter himself weighed in, criticizing people who brought up the centre’s past, but later deleted his account.
The steering committee, which includes luminaries like Margaret Atwood and Don Tapscott, does not include any survivors, but Pachter says there are “two or three” who have been involved in the project.
“They're not on the steering committee because they're obviously not people who are going to want to get involved in the practical aspects of building this thing up,” Pachter says.
Don Ross, another member of the steering committee and resident of Orillia, also says survivors have been consulted and will continue to be.
“They have not been neglected. We as a group have had several meetings with them. They're one of the groups interested in the ultimate fate of the Huronia Cultural Campus and the old HRC property. We're interested in what their stories are and memorializing their stories, and we're interested in also the stories of the caregivers as well who have been involved for many years,” says Ross. “There were a lot of people who were excellent caregivers. We're not going to bad-brush the whole works with the stories of a few.”
Some survivors bristle at the word “caregiver” – also used in the Huronia Cultural Campus’ documentation – as it implies they were being cared for, when many allege that there was widespread abuse by staff.
The now-settled class action lawsuit was supported by thousands of pages of documentation, but the allegations were never aired or tested in open court. Survivors have publicly recounted the twisted punishments of staff, including common practices like making people “dig for worms” – a punishment where students would be restrained face-down in the dirt. There were rooms at Huronia used for solitary confinement, and relatives of people who could not speak for themselves would discover unexplained bruises and broken bones when visiting.
In its statement of defence, the Ontario government denied that abuse, assault or mistreatment occurred at the facility. The lawsuit’s resolution led to apologies delivered in 2014 on the floor of Queen’s Park by the leaders of the Liberal party, Progressive Conservative party and NDP in a rare display of party consensus.
Since then, survivors and advocates have worked with the government to restore and memorialize the facility’s graveyard, where 1,379 former residents lay buried. Just 179 gravestones include the residents’ name, date of birth and death. The remainder are identified only by number, or left unmarked entirely.
Kathy Manners, an Orillia-based entrepreneur in the field of social innovation working with the cultural campus group, says they plan to engage survivors as the project progresses.
“There is a population of people who are still living who have either worked at the HRC or lived at the HRC,” she says. “There's a great community conversation that needs to happen around generating ideas with those people and honouring the rich history that comes from that.”
Rossiter, who works with survivors from Huronia, says not involving them early and at a high level would be a missed opportunity.
“What I see here as the tragedy is missing a group of people who are not only imaginative and skilled, but who are the best people to talk about what that space means,” says Rossiter. “I think there's a great deal of fear about including people with intellectual disabilities in planning processes and I think it's such a missed opportunity, particularly when they have a group of experts about the Huronia site.”
“As somebody who is on-looking, I'm sorry that survivors haven't been included from the very outset of the visioning process and that their sense of the project, or their sense of this space, wasn't taken as paramount from the very inception of the project,” says Rossiter.
The survivors of Huronia are a diverse group whose mental abilities range widely. Some are non-communicative and unable to live on their own, while others work and care for families.
Cindy Scott, who was in Huronia from the ages of seven to 13, beginning in 1971, has been closely involved in the group Remember Every Name, a collaboration of survivors and advocates who have been working with the provincial government to memorialize the cemetery.
“I think everybody in the survivors would want it bombed, to have that place torn down,” says Scott.
She says she knows that this isn’t realistic – Pachter and the cultural campus group have the means and money to see through their project. But Scott wants to be involved. When asked if she would be interested in meeting with Pachter again, she says “it would be wonderful.”
“We're not going to stop this but we are the survivors,” says Scott. “I was hoping that people were going to understand what the situation was and learn a lot of things about us. I'm just hoping that people will listen to us and maybe they'll understand.”
Image courtesy of Ministry of Community and Social Services