Shut Away

Lily doesn’t like the school she was sent to just because she learned things more slowly. But she’s happier now because she has a new friend.

Written by Allyson Gulliver • Illustrated by Arden Taylor

Posted August 22, 2022

Orillia, Ontario, August 1960

“I dare you!” The words were bouncing around in Diane’s head. Why hadn’t she just said no? Now if she didn’t touch the fence and run back to her friends, they’d tease her forever.

She swallowed hard. It was just a fence. So what if everyone said the huge red brick building behind it was full of scary people? All she had to do was take a few more steps forward, then a few more …

“Hi.” The voice was soft and gentle but it still made Diane gasp in shock. This must be one of those scary people! She should run!

But the girl who came out from behind a bush on the other side of the fence wasn’t frightening at all. She had a round face and friendly eyes that sparkled with a shy smile. “I’m 12 and my name is Lily. What’s yours?”

Diane’s hammering heart slowed down a bit. This girl looked nice. She managed a little smile. “I’m Diane. I’m just here to touch the fence.” As soon as she said it, she felt bad. After all, she could turn around and go back home. But Lily was stuck on the other side.

“Do you live in there?” Diane asked, pointing at the towering building.

Lily’s face clouded over. “Yes. I don’t like it. One of the helpers is nice but the other one hits me when I get things wrong. I miss my mum and dad and my sisters and my baby brother.” She stopped and her eyes filled with tears. “He was so little and I loved to hug him.”

Diane’s stomach felt awful. She couldn’t imagine being away from her own family. “What’s it like in there?”

The other girl didn’t answer right away. “It’s not nice,” Lily finally said. “The paint is coming off the walls and it smells like a bathroom everywhere.” She waved her hand toward a smaller brick building. “They call that place a cottage but I think cottages are supposed to be nice places in the woods and that cottage is bad. We have to sleep all squished together.”

Lily sighed. “I used to have a friend but she got really sick and then she went away.”

Before Diane knew what she was saying, she blurted out, “I can be your friend! I’ll come see you again tomorrow after school.”

Lily clapped her hands and danced around in a circle, a huge smile brightening her face. “I have a friend! I have a friend!” Just then a bell rang loudly, and her smile disappeared.

“Oh no! Goodbye Diane!” She turned and ran toward the smaller building without another word.

Diane had been waiting for ages. She was going to have to go home soon for supper, but she still couldn’t see her new friend. Where was Lily?

She couldn’t stay any longer. It had been okay when she had the other girl to talk to, but without Lily’s cheerful smile, the building was making her nervous. Sadly, she turned for home.

“Wait, Diane! Wait!” Lily ran up to her side of the fence. Her face was dirty and streaky and the sleeve of her dress was torn.

“What happened?” Diane asked.

Lily looked like she might cry — she looked like she’d been crying already.

“One of the big girls said I was ugly and stupid and my parents didn’t want me and then they all laughed at me and poked me and ripped my dress.”

She stuck her chin out. “But now my friend Diane is here.”

Diane could feel herself getting angry. “Those girls are wrong.” She held out her hand to show her friend what she’d brought.

“You brought me a beautiful flower!” the other girl gasped. She reached through the fence and took the stem, ever so carefully. “It’s orange and I love it!”

“It’s a lily,” Diane said. “They grow all along the road by my house. It made me think of you.”

Lily — the girl — held her flower up to her face and brushed it along her cheek. “I’m a flower. I’m Lily.” She looked at Diane and smiled. “And I have a friend.”

Lily is a character we made up, but her story is based on a real girl who spent her teenage years in the Ontario Hospital School. It was usually just known as Orillia, after the town in Ontario where it was located. (It was renamed the Huronia Regional Centre.)

It opened in 1876, and was supposed to care for people who had intellectual disabilities — ones that affected their brains and ability to learn and live on their own. There were many such places in Canada. The people who lived there were often treated very badly. At the time of our story, a visiting reporter described Orillia as terribly crowded with an overpoweringly bad smell.

It closed in 2009. The next year, people who had once been shut away there and in two other Ontario facilities took the province to court. Some people who survived Orillia started a project called Remember Every Name to honour the thousands who died there.

This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Kayak: Canada’s History for Kids.

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