This link will take you to the video : Huronia Site Visit video

Video tour of the Huronia site


The original building that grew to become the Huronia Regional Centre was built on 13 acres of what is now Orillia’s Couchiching Beach Park opened in 1861 as one of the first provincial institutions to house people with a developmental disability — at that time known as the Convalescent Lunatic Asylum.

That institution, closed in 1870, and it re-opened six years later, this time known as the Hospital for Idiots and Imbeciles.

Read: The words we used: The evolution of language

The first institution

In 1877, under the direction of newly appointed Dr. Alexander Beaton, the facility opened a school for people with a developmental disability, a revolutionary concept at the time.

Construction of the Administration Building, 1889

Construction of the
Administration Building, 1889

In 1885, Dr. Beaton spearheaded the expansion of the institution to a 151-acre site on the shores of Lake Simcoe that included an old stone farmhouse and outbuildings. The site grew to include a new female residence in 1887 and a male residence a few months later. The property became self-contained with the addition of a water tower, boiler house and kitchen, and a small plant that created gas to light the buildings. What is now the Administration Building was added in 1891, and soon after the buildings at the Couchiching Beach Park site were closed.

Dr. Beaton believed in the rights of people with a developmental disability and that included a name change to the Hospital for the Feebleminded.

Read: The reasons for institutions

Rapid growth

The institution grew rapidly from the turn of the century to 1926.

Farm area, 1950

Farm area, circa 1950

More land was purchased and several new buildings were added including two 3-storey residences, a laundry, a boiler plant, a fire hall, a superintendent’s residence, a pump house and a curling and skating rink. The farm on the northwest side of the property included barns for a variety of animals.

During this time the facility was renamed The Ontario Hospital. A new director in 1927 expanded the facility’s training programs and special education classes for residents. And from 1928 to 1945, the facility included a training school for nurses.

During the 1930s, two more resident buildings and a Nurses’ Residence were added and the facility was again renamed, as the Ontario Hospital School, a name it kept for nearly 40 years. More land was purchased just before the end of World War II, and the following year a 300-bed infirmary was opened.

Read: Life in an institution

Institutionalized care

In 1955, the infirmary was expanded and a new steam plant was constructed.

Infirmary, circa 1934

Infirmary, circa 1934

By 1968, the population had risen to nearly 3,000. Through this period, provincial leaders and advocates in the community living movement encouraged acceptance for people with developmental disabilities within the community and worked to reduce the population in provincial facilities as well as increase community supports. Resident numbers began to decline while staff numbers were rising, providing better supervision and quality of care.

Read: Attitudes towards people with disabilities

Community Living movement

The community living movement advocated an increase in the number of smaller facilities across the province resulting in a gradual increase in community supports. Resident numbers began to decline while staff numbers were rising, providing better supervision and quality of care. A sign of how the idea of community living was taking hold was evident in the increasing numbers of residents who were discharged to the community and by the numbers who were provided with support within their communities.

Accessibility swimming pool

Accessible swimming pool

The final name change came in 1974 when the Huronia Regional Centre came under the direction of the Ministry of Community and Social Services. Some land was sold to Georgian College and the City of Orillia, and some of the oldest buildings were demolished. Although existing buildings were renovated throughout the years and up to the closure of the facility as needed, the last brand-new buildings for residents included a pool in 1984 and a residence housing people with multisensory needs in 1986.

Read: The shift to community living

The final years

For more than 100 years, institutional living was a part of Ontario’s history. But more than 50 years ago, attitudes started to change. Society slowly began to accept that people with a developmental disability didn’t need to be secluded in an institution; they needed to be included in a community. A new era where people of all abilities could contribute and participate in Ontario communities had begun.

On March 31, 2009, the government officially closed the last remaining institution, keeping a promise to end the era of institutionalization for people with a developmental disability and welcoming former residents into communities throughout Ontario.

Kitchen of one of the apartment-style residences at Huronia

Kitchen of one of the apartment-style residences at Huronia

In 2004 when the announcement was made to close the Huronia Regional Center, the population was less than 360. The large ward style living space of earlier years had been converted into apartments and the facility was concentrated at the south end of the property.

Today, the site is managed on behalf of the government by Infrastructure Ontario and houses the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Headquarters for Ontario. The original gas house was torn down in 1997, and of the remaining buildings, Cottage C is now a Courthouse, Cottage O is the OPP Academy, and 3 other large buildings are empty. Some of the farm land has become part of the Orillia Campus of Georgian College.

Read: At home in the community

Settlement agreement and apology

Link to apology in PDF format

Read the apology

In fall 2013, the Ontario government reached a settlement with former residents. The $35 million settlement included provisions for a formal apology and settlement of claims, as well as efforts to honour the legacy of the Huronia Regional Centre. As Premier Kathleen Wynne said in her official apology to former residents of regional centres for people with developmental disabilities, “We will protect the memory of all those who have suffered, help tell their stories and ensure that the lessons of this time are not lost.”

The future of developmental services

The history of Huronia mirrors the changes in our society over the last century, from a secluded care-based rural institution to today, where people with a developmental disability live in a variety of community settings — from group homes to more independent, assisted living. We have updated our developmental services legislation to put inclusion at the forefront and institutionalization behind us.

We are creating a system of services and supports that is fair and equitable, more capable of responding as needed for those most at risk, and better equipped to meet the unique needs of our fellow Ontarians with developmental disabilities.

As a major indicator of this commitment, in April 2014 the government approved plans for a multi-year initiative which will see the injection of $810 million in new funding to support individuals with developmental disabilities. Read more about this commitment.

The system we are creating will bring us one step closer to the realization of our vision of an inclusive Ontario — one in which people with all abilities are supported so they can live as independently as possible in our communities.