HRC was a nightmare for some
Harold Dougall was 12 years old when his foster mother brought him to the Ontario Hospital School on the edge of Orillia in 1960.
Forty-eight years later, he still shudders at the memory.
It was like being locked in a prison, says Dougall, who was kept there for six years despite pleading with his mother many times to take him back home.
The first night in Cottage A, he lay awake in a windowless dormitory, furnished with nothing but 12 beds, six on each side.
"It was kind of scary," he recalls.
The only natural light came through a door, leading to an enclosed veranda.
"I had a funny feeling everything was closing in," he recalls.
"I was lying there wondering, 'Why am I in here?'"
The next day, he asked to phone his foster mother, but was told no calls were allowed.
Whenever his foster mother came to visit, Dougall clutched at her dress, begging her to take him home. But she said the institution was a good place, a place where he could learn what we now call life skills.
No such thing happened, he says.
"I didn't have any training." Dougall, now 60, was born in
Hamilton when his mother was still in high school. When he was two, he was placed in foster care.
Born with a speech impediment and general learning disability, Dougall was overwhelmed in the regular school system. He attended a special school for several years in Hamilton until it closed.
When he was 12, he was spending his days at home with little to do.
The Children's Aid Society recommended that he be admitted to the Ontario Hospital School, as HRC was then known, in the hope he could learn some basic skills. It was 1960 and there were close to 3,000 residents and 1,000 staff at the overcrowded institution beside Lake Simcoe.
There was some elementary schooling and Dougall learned to set tables and serve food in the dining room.
But he hated every day, feeling trapped by the bars on the windows and the locked doors and never knowing when a staff member would hit him or another patient on the hand or back with a shoe or a leather strap.
"Some of the staff were all right. But others would hit you. It hurt."
When the staff doctors asked about bruises, patients were afraid to tell the truth for fear of more beatings.
"They'd say, 'Tell the doctor you ran into something.'"
Eventually, Dougall did tell a doctor about the physical punishment and the practice stopped.
"They don't use straps anymore."
Dougall's first taste of freedom and independence came when he was transfered to the Adult Occupational Centre at Edgar in 1966 after six years at HRC.
Rather than a patient, he was classed as a "trainee" and for the first time he had his own room.
"I was happy. No one ever hit me."
And there were no barred windows or locked doors.
"You could go anywhere you wanted
to go," said Dougall, who walked about 15 kilometres from the centre to Orillia one day.
After nine years at Edgar, during which time he got his driving licence and some academic upgrading, Dougall moved into an apartment in Orillia, his first taste of independent living at the age of 27.
"I thought: 'I'm free. It feels good." Dougall has lived in Orillia ever since,
supporting himself by working as a dishwasher and at a number of hotels.
Now he's a day porter at a grocery store where he cleans the washrooms, empties garbage cans and cleans up spills.
He's been happily married for 17 years to his sweetheart, Amanda, and they share an apartment with two cats -- Bogus and Peggy.
He owns his own motor scooter and is very content with his life these days.
While many speak fondly of the Huronia Regional Centre and its predecessor, the Ontario Hospital, Dougall will not mourn its passing.
"It was a terrible place," he says. "I should never have been there." Dougall knows the institution
evolved since his departure, dorms being replaced by apartment-style living and staff receiving more specialized training. But his attitude to the place has not changed.
The final closure of the institution for the mentally-disabled at the end of this month is the "answer to a prayer," he says, spreading his arms and looking heavenward.
There have been suggestions the main administration building, which contains Cottage A, could be converted for a university building or other postsecondary use.
But Dougall hopes the 126-year-old building is demolished, its terrible memories disappearing into dust.
"I'll go out to watch them tear it down. I'll have a big smile on my face."