History of the Institutions for the Intellectually Disabled in Ontario


About This Reading List

In 1876, the first institution for persons with cognitive challenges opened in Orillia, Ontario. It was renamed as Huronia Regional Centre in 1973 and until its closure in 2009, it was among the largest in the province.

In the twentieth century, two other “hospitals schools” were established by the provincial government to house the intellectually disabled: Rideau Regional Centre (opened in 1951 in Smiths Falls) and Southwestern Regional Centre (completed a decade later and located in Cedar Springs).

In 2010, the former residents of the three institutions launched class-action lawsuits against the government, alleging systematic negligence and abuse. On December 9th, 2013, Premier Kathleen Wynne read an official apology to former residents of regional centres for people with developmental disabilities.

The purpose of this bibliography is to introduce readers to this little known aspect of Ontario’s history. Many of the titles are available from our library and others can be borrowed from other libraries on campus—please refer to the call number of each title to determine its location and availability.


Shut Away: When Down Syndrome Was a Life Sentence
McKercher, Catherine

Shut AwayDrawing on primary documents and extensive interviews, McKercher reconstructs the story of Billy, her younger brother born with Down Syndrome and admitted to the Rideau Regional Centre. She explores the clinical and public debates about institutionalization: the pressure parents experienced to “shut away” children with disabilities, the institutions that overlooked and sometimes condoned neglect and abuse, and the people who exposed these failures and championed a different approach in the 1950s through the 1970s.

A World Without Martha: A Memoir of Sisters, Disability, and Difference
Freeman, Victoria

A World Without MarthaThe author was only four years old when her parents took her younger sister, Martha (born with Down Syndrome) to the Rideau Regional Centre in Smiths Falls in 1960. In this poignant memoir, Freeman discusses how her sibiling’s absence and institutionalization affected her and her family. Freeman skillfully analyzes the changing political and social attitudes toward people with developmental abilities in the context of Martha’s life.

Secondary Sources

Broken: Institutions, Families, and the Construction of Intellectual Disability
Burghardt, Madeline C.

BrokenBurghardt draws from narratives of institutional survivors, their siblings, and their parents to examine the far-reaching consequences of institutionalization due to intellectual difference. Beginning with a thorough history of the rise of institutions as a system to manage difference, the book provides an overview of the development of institutions in Ontario and examines the socio-political conditions leading to families’ decisions to institutionalize their children.

From Asylum to Welfare
Simmons, Harvey G.

A comprehensive analytical study of the social policy of Ontario toward people with intellectual disabilities from the nineteenth century to the 1970s. Simmons argues that the policy had sought to achieve four major objectives: to provide asylum to disabled individuals who were not able to survive in the community due to prejudice and discrimination, to provide education to those deemed capable of receiving, to provide a mechanism of social control through institutionalization, and to provide welfare. 

Institutional Violence and Disability: Punishing Conditions
Rossiter, Kate, and Jen Rinaldi

Institutional Violence and DisabilityDrawing on a wide range of primary data, including oral histories of institutional survivors and staff, ethnographic observation, legal proceedings and archival data, this book asks: What does institutional violence look like in practice and how might it be usefully categorized? How have extreme forms violence and neglect come to be the cultural norm across institutions? What organizational strategies in institutions foster the abdication of personal morality and therefore violence? How is institutional care the crucial “first step” in creating a culture that accepts violence as the norm?

“And Neither Have I Wings to Fly”: Labelled and Locked Up in Canada's Oldest Institution
Wheatley, Thelma

And Neither Have I Wings to FlyA history of the Huronia Regional Centre analyzed through the lens of family history. Three generations of relatives in Daisy Lumsden’s family were committed to the asylum in Orillia, Ontario. The time frame of the book (1900 to 1966) covers the most controversial decades in its history, a time of over-crowding and abuses that reached a crux in the 1950s and 1960s when the inmate population was nearly three thousand residents.

Primary Sources

Present Arrangements for the Care and Supervision of Mentally Retarded Persons in Ontario
Williston, Walter Bernard

In 1971, the provincial health ministry commissioned a lawyer named Walter Bernard Willison to undertake a study of the management and the level of care provided to the residents of the institutions. Williston recommended a complete reorientation in the existing policies and services for people with intellectual disabilities. He advised a gradual closure of the institutions (citing their custodial nature, overcrowding, and the lack of specialized expertise among the staff, among other factors) and increased funding toward supportive services that would allow disabled persons to live in the community. This book is an important primary source during a time when most institutions reached their peak residential populations.


Locating Additional Resources

Please consult one of our reference librarians or schedule a research consultation if you have questions about the resources listed in the guide or if you would like to find additional books, articles or online sources related to the history of the institutions for the intellectually disabled.

compiled by: Agatha Barc, 19 February 2020