Former residents of the Huronia home for developmentally delayed children in Orillia are anxious to share their stories.
RACHEL MENDLESON / TORONTO STAR
Edgar Riel was upset by news that the hearing had been delayed. “I spent six years of hell in that place, being beat up … told that my mother had left me for good, that I was useless, a nobody,” he said.
By: Rachel Mendleson News reporter, Published on Mon Sep 16 2013
There were tears of disappointment outside a Toronto courtroom Monday as former residents of the Huronia Regional Centre learned that a historic class-action lawsuit against the Ontario government had been postponed.
Without explanation or warning to some of the plaintiffs, the $1 billion lawsuit over allegations of physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the facility for developmentally disabled children in Orillia, Ont., was adjourned until Tuesday, prompting concern among victims that their stories might never be heard.
Former resident Carrie Ford, who lived at Huronia as a teenager in the late ’60s, said it felt as though she was being mistreated once again. During her time at the facility, Ford said, she was forced to perform manual labour.
“We were working their jobs and we were not getting paid. They were the ones getting the money. We had to do the slavery,” Ford said.
The lawsuit, which covers those who lived at Huronia between 1945 and 2009, maintains the Crown failed to take action to prevent abuse it was aware was occurring there. In their written opening argument, the plaintiffs’ lawyers allege that residents were left to “aimlessly walk or crawl” around, were forced to perform the everyday tasks of running the facility, were often not bathed and were paid little or nothing for physical labour. Some 2,000 children are buried in the cemetery there.
None of the allegations has been proven in court. In its statement of defence, the Ontario government denies that abuse, mistreatment or assault occurred at Huronia, and maintains that if it did occur, “the Crown was not made aware of these allegations at the relevant time.”
In the absence of a hearing, former residents, many of whom had travelled several hours to attend the trial, engaged in an impromptu sharing session with lead plaintiffs Patricia Seth and Marie Slark, trading disturbing memories that still haunt them, even decades later.
Edgar Riel, whose mother dropped him off at Huronia in the early ’60s, when he was 9, broke down as he reacted to the news.
“I spent six years of hell in that place, being beat up … told that my mother had left me for good, that I was useless, a nobody,” he told the crowd gathered outside a courtroom in the old Canada Life building.
“Why didn’t they listen to us 50 years ago? We told them and they just ignored us. It was our word against theirs.”
Riel said he was made to haul gravel on a beach.
“I thought I was there to be helped,” he said. “All I want is justice. I think that’s what we all want.”
Jody Brown, an associate at Koskie Minsky, the Toronto-based law firm that launched the lawsuit against the province, said he could not disclose the reasons for the 24-hour adjournment or comment on discussions that have occurred with specific clients.
“We’ve been trying to communicate with as many class members as we can that the adjournment happened, or was going to happen, so they wouldn’t attend. Unfortunately we weren’t able to communicate with everyone,” he said.
Jim Dolmage, who is the litigation guardian for one of the lead plaintiffs, described the adjournment as a “shocking turn of events.”
“This whole case was about people in power making decisions for vulnerable people without their input. We are very, very concerned that that is exactly what’s happening at this point in time,” Dolmage said.
A media relations officer for the Ministry of the Attorney General said the parties agreed to adjourn the start of trial for one day, but said it would be “inappropriate” to comment further because the matter is before the court.
There are dozens of reasons why a case can be adjourned, including lawyers falling ill, witnesses being unavailable, or discussions with opposing counsel.
Kirk Baert, lead lawyer in the class-action lawsuit, told the Star last week that the trial would go ahead “no matter what.”
Founded in 1876 as the Orillia Asylum for Idiots, Huronia operated until 2009. About 3,900 former residents of the facility are still alive — 600 fewer than when Baert launched the suit in 2010.
With files from Carol Goar and Canadian Press