On Tuesday, the Ontario government settled a class-action lawsuit with former residents of Huronia Regional Centre, a massive institution for men and women with intellectual disabilities that was operated by the Province of Ontario for 133 years, and that finally closed in 2009. The thousands of men and women who were incarcerated there, for the crime of being born with a disability, suffered tremendous physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. They were sterilized, forced into hard labour for no pay, denied the basic freedoms we take for granted, and made to believe they were sub-human. To hear from some Huronia survivors, you can listen to David Gutnick's excellent radio documentary The Gristle in the Stew, from the CBC's Sunday Edition. There are numerous articles about the details of the recent court settlement, a couple of which you can find here and here.
When L'Arche was founded 50 years ago, the dream of liberating people from institutional care was at the heart of our story. So many of our people came from the "land of the long corridor", as David Hingsburger so eloquently describes it. They came from padded rooms and too much medication, dormitory bedrooms and bathrooms without doors, nursing stations and blaring televisions, dining halls and never going outside. They came from suffering and neglect and powerlessness and violence.
And yet they survived. And not just to exist, grateful to be free from that life and content with whatever they were offered in their new lives at L'Arche. They survived to live - to celebrate and love and argue and grieve and demand what they wanted. They survived to embrace the whole of life, the abundance that is sometimes wonderful and often excruciating. They survived, and keep surviving, and that is amazing.
My boys, both of whom have intellectual disabilities, will never live the horror of institutional life. They are included in their school, welcomed in our neighbourhood, loved fiercely and unconditionally by everyone in our family. But the story of Huronia and so many other awful places that have existed and continue to exist is their story, too. The men and women who endured institutionalization, and who fought to end it, are their ancestors, their predecessors in the struggle for disability rights. My boys need to know that story - we need to teach them that story - so they can be proud of what their people have accomplished, so that they will not be afraid to demand what they deserve: a society that respects, listens, honours, and welcomes them.