One of the things that I had not sufficiently prepared myself for, prior to beginning my research leave project, was the emotional weight that would come from reading accounts of past injustices endured by marginalized people. Since my research revolves around the library services offered through Toronto’s settlement houses, I have looked through settlement house records at various archives and special collections, in the hopes of finding textual and photographic references to libraries. In the process, I have encountered passages, upon passages, of reports and minutes that seem innocuous on the surface, but which, upon further consideration, are quite horrific.
Take this excerpt from the April 8th to May 13th, 1924 report written by the head worker of St. Christopher House; it reveals that, despite the gradually improving economy, the financial benefits did not trickle down to the poor:
“There is still a great deal of unemployment in the district and resulting hard times. Our donation of groceries from Dovercourt Rd. Presbyterian Church vanished very quickly. Three families threatened with eviction had to have loans and cases of undernourishment come to our notice frequently. Away last November Judge Mott sentenced four boys living in a Leonard Avenue rear house to Orillia or as an alternative that the entire family be deported to England. The family chose deportation but up to date nothing seems to have happened and those boys are a distinct menace to the neighbourhood.” (p. 5)
(City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1484, Series 1673, File 2)
Although the head worker does not explain what “Orillia” is, by my deductions, it was most likely shorthand for the Orillia “training school”, or the Orillia Asylum for Idiots (later renamed the Ontario Hospital School, and later again, the Huronia Regional Centre). Asylums in the early twentieth century were meant to isolate and remove from society people of all ages who exhibited behaviours that deviated from the norm (Leung, 2014; Rossiter & Clarkson, n.d.). Aside from committing those diagnosed with some form of mental illness or intellectual disability, the Orillia Asylum regularly admitted children and youths that the Children’s Aid Society, the Toronto General Hospital, and orphanages sent over as a last resort, in the absence of other welfare options. Indeed, advocates of asylums, such as the prominent eugenicist Dr. Helen MacMurchy, justified the practice by arguing that juvenile delinquency, crime, prostitution, sexual deviancy, and illegitimacy were all evidence of feeble-mindedness, which they felt was best treated through institutionalization (Rossiter & Clarkson, n.d.; Samson, n.d.).
Having to choose between checking into an asylum versus being deported to another country is not a real choice. It seems that to the family living behind Leonard Avenue in 1924, it was not a real choice either.
Leung, E. (2014, March 18). “Orillia Asylum for Idiots” opens in Ontario. Retrieved December 15, 2017, from http://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/timeline/53284371132156674b00028b
Rossiter, K, & Clarkson, A. (n.d.). Opening Ontario’s “Saddest Chapter:” A Social History of Huronia Regional Centre. Retrieved from http://cjds.uwaterloo.ca/index.php/cjds/article/view/99/153
Samson, A. (n.d.). Helen MacMurchy publishes The Almosts: A Study of the Feeble-Minded. Retrieved December 15, 2017, from http://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/timeline/5172ef94eed5c60000000024