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Dying Before Justice

Huronia's Class Action Settlement Too Late For Ageing Survivors

by Kelly Pflug-Back

Dying Before Justice

The deadline for claims for a class action suit against Huronia Regional Centre has been extended.

The suit, launched in 2009 in response to decades of systemic mistreatment against Huronia residents, was announced to have been extended on June 26th until November 30th of this year, due to complaints from the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee (OPGT).  OPGT threatened that it would refuse to assist the 400 claimants, unless it had more time.

 It has been 5 short years since the Huronia Regional Center, an institution for people with intellectual disabilities finally closed its doors for good in 2009. Originally called the Orillia Asylum for Idiots when it opened in 1876, Huronia was the site of severe and sometimes lethal neglect and abuse endured by Huronia's residents.

According to Marilyn Dolmage, a former social worker whose brother died in the Huronia institution, the delay is devastating for many ageing claimants who may not live to see their settlement money. Dolmage has been instrumental in making the class action suit, which covers 1945-2009 abuses, a reality for survivors and their families. “We were inspired by some of what happened around Residential Schools,” Dolmage told the Media Co-op. “We wanted an apology, some kind of recognition that this happened.”

Some Huronia survivors, such as the brother of Marie Slark, a lead plaintiff and former Huronia resident herself, now face the reality of being re-institutionalized in nursing homes as they grow older. Slark's brother was left to sit on the floor all day during his time at Huronia, which impeded the development of his legs and left him unable to walk for the rest of his life.

Many survivors had already died by the time the class action was launched, and still more likely passed away before they could see justice due to obstacles in locating survivors, said Dolmage. “We don't know how many people this involved, and the government doesn't know either. They kept poor records. There's a cemetery where 2000 people were buried, 1500 of which are unmarked graves, which we're currently trying to get marked.”. As for the settlement, Dolmage said: “A lot of people never received the claim forms - it's just such a vulnerable group of people, who don't read, who would need help understanding it. We've spend a lot of energy getting the word out. One concern we have is that some family members are feeling awful, and don't want to help the person make the claim out of guilt for having left them there.”

Abuses documented at the Huronia institution include sexual abuse, rape, solitary confinement, water-boarding, the use of psychotropic drugs as punishment, forced unpaid labour, and wilful neglect resulting in physical harm and death. Families of residents were not allowed to see the areas were their children actually lived, and according to Slark, “some families, if you told them what was happening, it was like they wouldn't believe you.

The maximum amount which class members can be awarded through the settlement is $42 000, and this is if they experienced the highest level of physical abuse combined with the highest level of sexual abuse. Abuses which left no physical scars, however, including humiliation, death threats, solitary confinement, and neglect, were rampant at Huronia. “Decades of verbal abuse and degradation is worth less in the settlement than one slap in the face which left a bruise,” said Dolmage.

“It was like a prison,” said Pat Seth, another plaintiff who has been involved in helping other survivors and their families inform themselves about the suit and file their claims. “We did time, just for being born with intellectual disabilities.”

Dolmage has advised class action claimants to put together wills and think of causes or groups which they would like their settlement money to go to in the event that they die before the money has been spent or even before they get their settlement cheques – unlikely now before May 2015.

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