Module One: A Hidden Truth in Canadian History

“They locked us up. Nobody wanted us in the society. That’s what we felt. Nobody wanted us, so they locked us up.”

— Joe Clayton, Ontario Survivor

Getting to the Truths of Canada’s Hidden History M1.V1

In this video, you will be introduced to Nicole. Nicole is a 19-year-old college student who travels across Canada in search of answers. Her journey begins here and so does yours.


You are told when you will go to bed, when and what you will eat, and what clothes you will wear. You are told you cannot live at home with your family. Instead, you must live with hundreds of other people, and you are not allowed to leave without supervision. You are forced to peel potatoes for hours, and are paid $2.00 a day for your work. You have no control over the money you make. You sleep, go to the bathroom and shower without any privacy, and under the supervision of someone. Always. You are told you have the “mentality of a child” and that you cannot learn. You are forced to have surgery so you cannot have children. You are told you are not normal. You are an adult, but you have to do as you are told or you will be punished.

It is really hard to read these words and imagine what life would be like under these conditions. For any person, this would not be considered a good life. It would be a life driven by fear, which would make you feel helpless and alone. Some might even try to escape this life if they had the chance. In fact, many Canadians did try to run away. They tried over and over again. For Canadians who have an intellectual disability, this has been their reality. For over two centuries, Canada has systematically segregated people with who have a disability. This has exposed people to abusive and disrespectful situations with no way out.1However, the truths of institutionalization have been silenced and forgotten. This is Canada’s hidden history.

To survivors, the word “institution” means “a scary place,” “abuse,” “no freedom” and “like a prison.” The word ‘survivors’ is used to describe the people who have endured life in an institution. Some people have been helped to leave and now live happily in the community. Some provinces in Canada have closed institutions. 

In the past, institutions were huge buildings where thousands of people were hidden away and forced to live under very strict rules. Over time, some of the larger facilities have slowly closed down. However, the systems and attitudes that influenced the running of these large institutions are still everywhere in our society. Shockingly, large government run institutions still remain open in Canada today.

An institution is any place in which people do not have, or are not allowed to exercise control over their lives and their day to day decisions. An institution is not defined merely by its size.

— People First of Canada2

How many people heard the government apologize for the abuse and neglect that Canadians who have a disability have endured? Who is talking about this issue today? Would you be surprised to learn that, in some provinces, governments are still operating institutions for people who have an intellectual disability? 

In Canada, thousands of people still live in large institutions or similar places. You are probably asking yourself, why do institutions exist? How did people come to live in these places? In this Module, you will hear from survivors and their families as they answer these questions. 

Throughout this curriculum, you will explore evidence through a collection of photos and videos of first-hand accounts. You will hear from survivors and their families, the people who worked at institutions and the allies who helped close them. This is an opportunity to learn about this type of segregation in Canada and how this history impacts people’s experiences today. 

The learning goal for this module is to introduce Canadians to the often unspoken truths of institutionalization. You will also spend time understanding the historical context of institutions. This means you will look at the attitudes and beliefs of society from 1832 to 1914 and how those contributed to the rising number of institutions that were built in Canada during that time.

For an introduction to institutions of the past, please see the student workbook (M1.1).

Evidence of Our Suffering

What we learn about the past depends on who tells the story. Listen to the evidence that comes from the perspective of survivors and families. The photos, documents and video clips in this module reflect the experiences of survivors and their families. The images below will help you see what the living conditions were like. They also show evidence of the stereotypes and mindsets that influenced the decisions of people who lived in the past. For more information on the following resources, and for instructions to guide your analysis, please visit the student workbook (M1.2), which can be downloaded from the Teacher Resources Page.

Institutions and Eugenics in Canada

  1. No institutions were built in the Northwest Territories, Yukon Territory or Nunavut in Canada. This meant that people were sent to institutions in other provinces, like Alberta and Ontario.

  2. Eugenics was first made legal in the province through the Sexual Sterilization Act (enacted in 1933). The Act was repealed in 1979 until 1989 (Eve’s case). It is uncertain how many people were sterilized during this time.

  3. Eugenics was first made legal in Canada through Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act (1928), which made it legal for about 2,832 disabled adults and children to be sterilized without their knowledge or consent.

  4. The call for de-institutionalization in Canada started in Saskatchewan in 1955 when the provincial Association for Community Living was created.

  5. The government of Manitoba currently funds two large institutions and is currently facing a class action law-suit.

  6. These governments were the first to pass legislation that gave their provincial governments the authority to build institutions for people with an intellectual disability.

  7. This province currently uses institutions as its primary model of care to accommodate people with disabilities. In 2017, approximately 1,341 people were waiting for community supports and services.

Institutional Populations in Canada (1970s)

Province Institutional Population Number of Reporting Institutions
Prince Edward Island 19 1
Nova Scotia 421 5
New Brunswick 165 1
Quebec 3,736 6
Ontario 7,256 20
Manitoba 1,417 2
Saskatchewan 1,463 2
Alberta 2,342 2
British Columbia 2,270 2

Source: Dominion Bureau of Statistics (Health and Welfare Division, 1970)

Speaking Our Truth

Institutions have impacted survivors and their families in many ways. When thinking about people’s experiences, it is important that we try to avoid the slippery slope of ‘presentism.’ It is easy to impose modern values and current cultures on the past. Instead, we must search for a better understanding of what influenced people’s decisions, shaped their attitudes and limited perceptions of what was possible for people. This is especially important when looking for patterns between what happened in the past in comparison to what is happening today. We do not want to repeat history. This will help Canadians understand why institutions continue to exist in Canada.

“Nobody who lived there and got out has ever said, ‘Boy, I’d really like to go back and live there again.’ Nobody. Not one. That tells you something.”

— Bill Hogarth, Survivor from Valleyview Centre in Saskatchewan

Survivors across Canada have used their voices to share personal stories about what life was like living in an institution. Family members have also shared personal accounts of how life was changed by the absence of their loved ones. Their stories tell us about the humiliation, fear and abandonment that was experienced. Furthermore, they tell us about the guilt, sadness and secrets that have left families disconnected. Their stories teach important lessons about what every human being needs and deserves.

Survivors often speak about the intense boredom and loneliness they felt while living at the institution.

Survivor Insights: “I Tried to Run Away Thirteen Times”

Institutions were built with the intention to protect people with disabilities. They were supposed to provide quality care and support Canadian families. This was during a time when community supports and funding did not exist the way it does today. That said, survivors’ accounts show us the outcome and the unethical truths of institutionalization.

In this series of interviews, you will hear from three survivors, Leta Jarvis, David Weremy and Joe Clayton. Each will speak about their life experiences while living in institutions in Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Ontario respectively. All three survivors are now happily living in their community. They continue, however, to experience the impact of having lived in an institution. Each survivor is eager to share their stories with people who will one day be decision-makers. Please refer to the student workbook (M1.4) for instructions to guide discussions of these interviews.

Meet Leta Jarvis M1.V2

Leta Jarvis is a loving sister and a strong woman who uses her story to teach others about the right to live in the community. Leta is a survivor of several institutions in Nova Scotia. Leta’s story is one of triumph and perseverance.

Meet David Weremy M1.V3

David Weremy has spent most of his life fighting for human rights in Canada. David is now in his 70’s and he says he won’t retire until the government closes the last institution. David’s story is one of resilience and dedication.

Meet Joe Clayton M1.V4

Joe Clayton is an artist, speaker and proud Algonquin man. Joe uses his story to help other survivors to heal and move on after living in an institution. Joe is a survivor of Rideau Regional Center in Smith Falls, Ontario. Joe’s story is one of endurance and solidarity. Joe uses his story to help other survivors to heal and move on after living in an institution. Joe is a survivor of Rideau Regional Center in Smith Falls, Ontario. Joe’s story is one of endurance and solidarity.

Family Insights: “It Was Our Family’s Secret.”

For thousands of families across Canada, sending their child to an institution was an extremely painful decision. In the past and even today, families have felt alone in caring for their loved ones. With limited support and funding from governments, many families are left with no choice but to rely on models of care the government provides.

This means people have little agency to build the life they dream for themselves or their loved ones. If a person has agency, it means they have the ability to make choices. In many cases, for an institution to accept a child, parents were told they must sign their parental rights away. This meant that they were no longer able to make decisions on behalf of their loved one, including to stop bad things from happening. The government was responsible for looking after people. This left children very vulnerable to abuse because their parents and siblings were powerless.

In this series of interviews, you will hear from three family members. Siblings and parents have an important role in the life of their loved ones. You will hear about what it was like to be a parent or a sibling of someone who lived at an institution. You will discover how decisions were made and the impact of these decisions. Please refer to the student workbook (M1.5) for more information and for instructions for guided discussions of these interviews.

Meet Barb Horner M1.V5

Barb is a proud mother and an active advocate of inclusion in the province of Nova Scotia. Barb’s daughter Mallory lived in an institution as a teenager. Their family’s journey to creating a good life for Mallory in the community shows what can be achieved by families who stay informed and connected.

Meet Ron and Jean Nobess M1.V6

Ron and Jean’s son, Derek, paved the way for survivors and families in Manitoba by protecting their right to make choices for themselves or their loved one. Listen as they tell their courageous story about how their family challenged the Manitoba government to protect Derek’s right to grow up in a loving home in the community.

Meet Victoria Freeman M1.V7

Victoria’s sister Martha was a survivor of Rideau Regional Center in Smith Falls, Ontario. In this video, Victoria talks about her personal journey to finding forgiveness and self-awareness after learning about Martha’s experience of living in an institution.

A Timeline of Human Rights in Canada from 1876-Present

The following timeline shows the evolution of human rights in Canada’s history. The timeline also highlights how human rights for people who have a disability have evolved alongside social and political changes in Canada. The timeline is organized into five periods of time. These reflect the evolution of attitudes about people, the types of care that were offered, and different laws and policies that were created to protect people’s rights. For more information on how to facilitate an exploratory activity using this timeline, please refer to the student workbook (M1.6). The workbook is available on the Teacher Resources page.


Pre-1914: A time when people with disabilities were viewed as less than human


The Ontario government passed “An Act to Authorise the Erection of an Asylum within this Province for the Reception of Insane and Lunatic Persons.” This legislation gave the government of Ontario the authority to establish the first provincial asylum for people with an intellectual disability.


Queen Victoria names Ottawa as the new capital of Canada on December 31st.


The Dominion of Canada, uniting Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, comes into existence, with John A. Macdonald as first prime minister on July 1st.


The Government of Ontario opened its first institution for people with an intellectual disability just outside of Orillia.


“Ontario has an opportunity to make a fresh start in dealing with this evil before it has grown too great to cope with it satisfactorily”

— Dr. Helen McMurphy quoting one of Britain’s Commissioners concerning the causes and impact of women bearing “feeble-minded” children (H. Simmons, From Asylum to Welfare, p.69).


Following Germany’s invasion of Belgium, Britain declares war on Germany. Canada, as part of the British Empire, is engaged in the war as well on August 4th.


1915 – 1945: A time when people were motivated by charity
Thousands of people with intellectual disabilities are institutionalized in Canada.


The First World War ends on November 11th. Thousands of soldiers return home looking for work and disability rights in Canada begin to emerge.


All female citizens aged 21 and over became eligible to vote in federal elections in Canada on May 24th.


An estimated 2,832 adults and children were sterilized in Alberta between the passing of the Sexual Sterilization Act in 1928 and its repeal in 1972. These laws are supported by The Famous Five suffragettes who believed in the principles of eugenics.


Manitoba passes a Libel Act that allows legal action to stop personal attacks based on race or religion that expose people to hatred, contempt or ridicule.


Canada declares war on Nazi Germany on September 10th.


World War II begins. The Nazi euthanasia program (code name Aktion T-4) was instituted to eliminate “life unworthy of life” for those that were “sick and disabled.”


The intention of the mid 19th century reformers was to “prepare…the ‘idiot’ children for productive lives in the outside world” (M. Burghardt, Broken, p. 17).


Women in Québec obtain the vote.

1940 – 1944

Some 908 patients were transferred from an institution for “retarded and chronically ill” patients in Schoenbrunn, Germany to the euthanasia installation at Eglfing-Haar to be gassed. A monument to the victims stands in the courtyard at Schoenbrunn.


Tommy Douglas becomes premier of Saskatchewan and enacts a “humanity first” policy in government, making available free health care to the poor and to senior citizens.


Ontario enacts the Racial Discrimination Act, prohibiting the publication or display of any notice, sign, or symbol indicating racial discrimination.


The British Columbia Social Assistance Act of 1945 prohibits discrimination based on colour, creed, race or political affiliation in social assistance programs (disability is not included).


1946 – 1981: A time when people were motivated by a vision for community living
Thousands of people with intellectual disabilities are institutionalized in Canada.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is signed by the United Nations members. Canada is among the signing nations.  In Canada, in 1948, the federal Elections Act is changed so that race is no longer a ground for exclusion from voting in federal elections. People with disabilities will wait until 1993 for the right to vote.


The Indian Act is revised and some of the more repressive features of the act are removed.


The call for de-institutionalization in Canada begins in Saskatchewan. The Saskatchewan Association for Community Living (SACL) is created.


Equal Pay for Equal Work law is adopted in Manitoba, preventing discrimination in salary based on gender (disability is not included).


The Canadian Association for Community Living is created.


The Bill of Rights, specifying the rights of Canadians, becomes law on August 10th. That same year, Indigenous peoples receive the unrestricted right to vote in federal elections.


The government announces a new immigration policy intended to remove any racial discrimination from the system on January 19th. In that same year, the Ontario Human Rights Code was passed. It prohibited discrimination in employment, housing, and access to services and facilities on grounds such as race and religion, but did not include people with disabilities. At the same time, Saskatchewan’s Medical Care Insurance Act takes effect, creating Canada’s first comprehensive public health care program on July 1st.


Laws requiring separate schools for black Canadians in Ontario are removed.


Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau introduces the Official Languages Act, making English and French the country’s two official languages on October 17th.


Ontario becomes the first province to pass a law guaranteeing a blind person the legal right to be accompanied by a specially trained dog guide in all facilities open to the public.


The Criminal Code makes it a crime to advocate genocide or publicly incite hatred against people because of their colour, race, religion, or ethnic identity (without mention of disability). In that same year, Saskatchewan became the first province to close a large institution with the closure of the Weyburn Mental Hospital.


Repeal of the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta in 1972 that ended Alberta’s eugenic sterilization program (Canada’s last remaining legislated eugenics program).

1970s – 1980s

Group homes for people with intellectual disabilities begin appearing as an alternative to institutional life.


The House of Commons approves, by just eight votes, a bill abolishing the death penalty on July 22nd.


Canada’s Federal Government Passes the Canadian Human Rights Act.


The UN International Year of Disabled Persons began. During the year, governments were encouraged to sponsor programs bringing people with disabilities into the mainstream of their societies.


1982 – 2009: A time when people were empowered by advocacy
Thousands of people with intellectual disabilities are still institutionalized in Canada.


Canada is given its own Constitution April 17th. In the same year, The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms declared physical or mental disability as a prohibited reason for discrimination; this was the first time that such a right was guaranteed in the Constitution of a country.


The Canadian Human Rights Act was enacted. It banned discrimination against people due to their physical or mental disability.


The federal government announces it will outlaw discrimination against homosexuals on March 4th. In addition, The Employment Equity Act was introduced by the Mulroney Government (Progressive Conservative Party). It sought to achieve equality in the workplace, correcting the conditions of disadvantage for persons with disabilities as well as women, Indigenous people, and visible minorities.


Under the Mulroney Government (Progressive Conservative Party), the House of Commons established a Standing Committee on the Status of Disabled Persons.


Manitoba begins the “Welcome Home Initiative” and people begin moving out of institutions.


The Mulroney Government (Progressive Conservative Party) announced a five year National Strategy for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities, a cross-government initiative to bring persons with disabilities into the social and economic mainstream.


Following the end of the Decade of Disabled Persons, the UN proclaimed December 3rd as International Day of Persons with Disabilities.


Bill C-114 gives Canadians with disabilities the right to vote (, accessed 2021).


Federal Task Force on Disability Issues is appointed by the government. B.C. becomes the first province in Canada to close all its large institutions for people with developmental disabilities.


The Chrétien government (Liberal Party) created the Opportunities Fund for persons with disabilities that aimed to provide incentives to “help persons with disabilities prepare for, obtain and maintain employment or self-employment.”


The Canadian government issues a statement of reconciliation to residential school survivors and victims and establishes the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.


Beverly McLachlin becomes the first female chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada on January 12th.


The Ontarians with Disabilities Act is enacted to “support the right of persons of all ages with disabilities to enjoy equal opportunity and to participate fully in the life of the province.”


In Starson v. Swayze, 2003 Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Mr. Starson had the right to refuse psychiatric medication. In addition, the BC government issues a formal apology to survivors of institutions for the intellectually disabled in the province.


Same-sex marriage becomes legal in Canada on July 20th. In addition, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, enacted for the purpose of improving accessibility standards for Ontarians with physical and mental disabilities to all public establishments by 2025.  At the same time, The Canadian government announces a $1.9 billion compensation package to benefit tens of thousands of survivors of abuse at native residential schools.


The Federal Disability Report released under the Harper Government (Conservative), mentions that the Government of Canada plans on moving forward with a National Disability Act.


Canada signs the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper issues a formal apology for the abuse suffered by Indigenous people in the residential school system. That same year, the Canadian Transportation Agency ordered Air Canada, Air Canada Jazz and WestJet to adopt a One-Person-One-Fare Policy for persons with severe disabilities on flights within Canada.


2010 – Present: A time when people acknowledged human rights
Hundreds of people with intellectual disabilities are still institutionalized.


The Truth and Reconciliation commission begins public hearings into policies that forced Indigenous people to abandon their cultural identity.


900 Canadians continued to be institutionalized in large government funded facilities specifically for individuals with an intellectual disability. Institutions in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta remain operational.


With the support of all provinces and territories, the Government of Canada ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the United Nations headquarters in New York City on March 11th.


A landmark Supreme Court ruling says mentally disabled adults can give reliable court testimony.


Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne gives formal apology to survivors of institutions for the intellectually disabled in Ontario.


The Supreme Court rules that doctors can provide medical help in euthanasia cases, reversing a ban imposed in 1993.


Ontario survivors win a class action lawsuit against the provincial government and are granted $36 million in compensation for the abuse and suffering they endured. Survivors only receive an average of $4,000 dollars per person for years of suffering, neglect, and abuse.


Canada provided a $50 million investment for the establishment of an independent, charitable foundation open to all Indigenous peoples to support healing, wellness, education, language, culture and commemoration on December 1st. The settlement provides $500 to $750 million in compensation to Status Indian and Inuit peoples who were adopted by non-Indigenous families, became Crown wards or who were placed in permanent care settings during the “Sixties Scoop.”


The Accessible Canada Act came into force on July 11th.


Hundreds of people are still living in large government funded facilities specifically for individuals with intellectual disabilities in Manitoba, Alberta and Nova Scotia. Thousands more continue to be institutionalized and inappropriately placed in nursing homes, long-term care facilities, group homes and prisons.

Module One Reflections M1.V8

In this video, Nicole reflects on what has been learned in Module one.