Orillia Asylum

From its opening in 1876 to its closure in 2009, an Orillia, Ontario, institution for people with cognitive challenges has had a long and difficult history. In 2013, former residents of the institution have reached a compensation settlement with the Ontario government

Text by Nelle Oosterom

Posted September 13, 2013

The Orillia institution first opened in 1876 as the provincial “Asylum for Idiots.” At that time, the study of mental illness was in its infancy and “idiot” was the accepted way of defining “lunatics” who could not be treated or cured.

As Heather Robertson wrote in the article “Heartbreak in Huronia” for Canada’s History magazine (October-November 2013) “idiots included slow learners, epileptics, the deaf, mute and deformed, incorrigible troublemakers, the elderly, and the homeless.”

In the early years, the institution’s population ballooned and overcrowding was a chronic problem. Renamed the Ontario Hospital in 1907, it became a self-sufficient village with several hundred patients and staff. Later it became the Ontario Hospital School, but overcrowding and squalid conditions continued to plague the institution and it was the focus of a number of investigations.

In 1973, the institution was again renamed, this time as the Huronia Regional Centre. Its closure in 2009 came as former residents launched legal action against the institution.

You can also read an academic paper about the social history of the institution.

This Urban Explorer video provides an inside tour of the Orillia institution after it was closed.
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