An ironic day, in week of coincidences | John MacMillan
Thursday, December 12, 2019 @ 11:10 AM | By John MacMillan
It’s my elder brother, Peter’s, birthday. Had he not succumbed to an aortic aneurism in 2006, he would have turned 64 this year. Calling him my “elder brother” is ironic in itself since Peter suffered from what we would now call a “developmental disability.” Even though he arrived in our family two years before I was born, intellectually Peter existed as the younger brother; as my folks aged, I became effectively his guardian.
Some days, especially after I lectured him on tardiness or some other minor error, Pete would pull rank and remind me of his primogeniture, but shortly after he would want to pet a passing dog or watch cartoons. We respected each other as beloved brothers and, most of the time, as good friends.
But Dec. 9 holds an ironic significance, for Peter and for me. It’s the day in 2013 that Premier Kathleen Wynne, and both opposition leaders, rose in the Ontario legislature to apologize to “the men, women and children of Ontario who were failed by a model of institutional care for people with developmental disabilities.” My brother, Peter, was one of those people for whom Ontario failed to care.
Governments look after all citizens in some way, but they bear a particular responsibility to protect a small number of delicate and challenging citizens: people with developmental disabilities; people with brain damage caused by birth defects or childhood disease; people who suffer from mental illness, housed in jails and correctional facilities.
Many public servants care for these challenging and special people. Sadly, though, you don’t have to look too far to find examples where some government workers and managers failed to live up to their responsibilities.
Take the example of the mentally disabled men and women who, like my brother Pete, lived in the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia, Ont. The original building opened in 1861 as the Convalescent Lunatic Asylum, one of the first provincial institutions to house people with a developmental disability.
The facility grew in tandem with Ontario, becoming the Ontario Hospital School, where Pete got sent at 7 years old; it was later named the Huronia Regional Centre. I recall our family’s visits to Orillia, especially those on Boxing Day where we reconstructed Christmas for my absentee brother in a building that can only be described as eldritch — weird, sinister and ghostly.
The building was overcrowded, but as Pierre Berton wrote in a 1960 Toronto Star column “in many respects it [had] a dedicated staff fighting an uphill battle against despairing conditions.” Sadly, history proved Berton wrong.
In 2010, former residents of the Huronia Regional Centre, along with those housed in other Ontario facilities, sued the Ontario government. They alleged that the facility’s staff “perpetrated systemic physical, sexual and emotional abuse” against the children-residents between 1945 and 2009.
The residents described being kept in caged cots, having all teeth removed for safety reasons and being held upside down with their heads under running water as punishment for not eating. Others alleged routine beatings, extortion and other degrading treatment by the facility’s employees.
To my family’s shame, we saw this in Peter: odd bruises; a broken jaw; birthday money that disappeared without explanation; fear, rage and despair in a person we loved but failed to understand. We observed changes in Peter, but never connected it to venality, continuing to trust his public servant caregivers.
The class action lawsuit sought a measure of vindication for the residents’ experiences while living at the centre. (And, in another coincidence, the class counsel, Kirk M. Baert, of Koskie Minsky, wrote articles for me when I was an editor at our university newspaper; none of his undergrad think pieces, however, were as crucial as this case’s statement of claim.)
The government settled the lawsuit in 2013, just before it went to trial, and as part of the settlement the premier of Ontario offered a formal public apology to Huronia Regional Centre residents. The premier admitted that “some residents suffered neglect and abuse within the very system that was meant to provide them care.”
This represented public accountability, a government finally owning up to responsibility for its employees’ actions. It has led to my involvement in the Justice for Soli Movement, which calls for comparable answers, responsibility and accountability in the death of Soleiman Faqiri. (Faqiri was a 30-year-old Afghan-Canadian with schizophrenia who died on Dec. 15, 2016, from an altercation with guards at an Ontario jail.)
In fact, in a week of sad coincidences, on Sunday, Dec. 15, I and many others will attend one of seven vigils across Canada marking the third anniversary of Soli’s death. My hope is that, one day soon, the responsibility shown by one Ontario premier will be followed by that of another.
My brother Pete died before the Huronia Regional Centre finally closed in 2009, nor did he live to see the class action commence. And, sadly, he never lived to hear the premier’s apology to him and to his friends.
I like to think, had he heard it, he was the kind of good soul who would have forgiven her, and then would have sought her opinion on the Leafs before he bummed her for a cigarette.
Ironically, I don’t think that premier smoked.
John MacMillan is a Toronto writer, playwright and performer. He enjoyed a long career as a public servant, from which he retired last year.
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