History of Developmental Services

In 1791, the British Parliament passed the Constitutional Act creating Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Québec).

The legislation did not include a poor law. Neither the provincial government nor municipal governments were assigned responsibility for providing help for the poor. As a result, 19th century Ontario did not have a regular system of relief for destitute people.

In those days, society didn't differentiate between people with mental health issues and those with developmental disabilities. They were all deemed to be "insane". Families looked after them as best they could. But what if they had no one? In early Upper Canada, the only place for them to be placed was in the common jail.

County jails served as catch-all institutions for diverse categories of people. Under the pretext of vagrancy, the homeless, the destitute, the elderly and the "insane" were housed together with criminals.

Jails were crowded. Conditions were often appalling. In 1830, William Lyon Mackenzie investigated conditions in one jail where he found "three female lunatics confined ...in the cells below the ground floor ...lodged in locked up cribs, on straw, two in one crib, and the other by herself." Mackenzie deemed their situation to be "...severe beyond that of the most hardened criminal." (1)

Finally in 1839, after much lobbying by concerned citizens, Upper Canada passed legislation to establish the first provincial asylum. "An Act to Authorise the Erection of an Asylum within this Province for the Reception of Insane and/or Lunatic Persons" also made the provincial government directly responsible for the care of people with mental and intellectual disabilities, including developmental disabilities.

(1) Thomas E. Brown, The Origins of Asylum in Upper Canada, 1830-1839: Towards an interpretation

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