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Ontario premier apologizes over Huronia abuse

Ontario premier apologizes over Huronia abuseOntario Premier Kathleen Wynne makes an official apology on behalf of the province to former residents of the Huronia Regional Centre, a provincial institution for the developmentally disabled, for the abuses that occurred there between 1945 and 2009, at Queens Park in Toronto on Monday December 9, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

TORONTO - Ontario failed to protect some of its most vulnerable residents from neglect, abuse and exploitation at a provincial facility for the developmentally disabled, Premier Kathleen Wynne said Monday in addressing what she called a "painful chapter" in the province's history.

Wynne formally apologized in the provincial legislature for the pain and loss that have permanently marked hundreds of former residents of the now-shuttered Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia, Ont. — a moment long awaited by those who lived at the facility.

The apology is part of a $35-million settlement that was approved last week in a class-action suit against the province over the treatment at Huronia. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they believe it's the first time a government has been made to say it's sorry through such an agreement.

"Over a period of generations, and under various governments, too many of these men, women, children and their families were deeply harmed and continue to bear the scars and the consequences of this time," Wynne said.

"Their humanity was undermined. They were separated from their families and robbed of their potential, their comfort, safety and their dignity."

The province "broke faith" with them, Wynne said, and while there has been a radical shift in how developmentally disabled people are treated, more still needs to be done.

Her words set off a wave of applause in the legislature and in the public galleries, where dozens of former Huronia residents watched side-by-side with some who lived at two other similar Ontario facilities. Some gave a standing ovation while others wiped tears from their eyes.

Earlier, the premier walked through the galleries to shake hands with some former Huronia residents, a gesture some valued even more than her expression of regret.

"I thought (the apology) was marvellous but I think what impressed me more today was the fact that she came up into the gallery to shake our hands," said Betty Ann Bond, who spent three years at Huronia after children's aid brought her there.

Patricia Seth, who was one of the lead plaintiffs in the suit, said she couldn't help but tear up at the premier's "heartfelt" speech.

"It means a lot, it means that I can go forward, that we can go forward now," she said outside the legislature.

The province must now ensure that the horrors of Huronia are never repeated again, the Opposition parties said Monday.

A deal was reached in September just hours before the class action case was scheduled to go to trial.

Though a few former residents have opposed what they deem an inadequate settlement, many have expressed relief that their suffering is finally being acknowledged.

The suit covered those institutionalized at the centre between 1945 and 2009 and alleged residents suffered almost daily humiliation and abuse at the overcrowded facility.

Some said they worked in fields for little or no money, and recalled being forced to walk around with no pants on as punishment for speaking out of turn.

The case's sudden resolution meant those who had geared themselves up to testify never shared their stories in court, and some worried the centre's grim history would be wiped clean.

Part of the settlement aims, however, to chronicle what happened at Huronia by placing a commemorative plaque on the grounds and maintaining the cemetery where hundreds of children were buried.

Researchers will also be allowed to visit the now-closed centre and retrieve artifacts they deem historically important.

Class-action lawsuits have also been launched over allegations of abuse at two other provincial facilities, the Rideau Regional Centre in Smiths Falls, Ont., and the Southwestern Regional Centre near Chatham, Ont.

Wynne acknowledged both centres in her speech Monday, but did not extend her apology to those who had lived there.

David McKillop, lead plaintiff in the Rideau case, said hearing her nonetheless gave him hope his suffering would also soon be recognized.

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