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Widening the Story – Artifact 11(footnote)

Knitting and Needlepoint: Inside and Outside the Institution

Red knitted hat and scarf next to a folded tablecloth. There is a heart-shaped needlepoint pattern in the centre of the tablecloth. The artwork is by Marie Slark and Antoinette Charlebois

Slark and her sister Charlebois want all institutions shut down. But what exactly do they mean by the word institutions? Self Advocates Becoming Empowered, a national group in the United States led by people labelled with intellectual or developmental disabilities, refers to institutions in the following way:

“An institution is any facility or program where people do not have control over their lives. A facility or program can mean a private or public institution, nursing home, group home, foster care home, day treatment program or sheltered workshop.”2(footnote)

Central to their definition is the degree of self-determination and control one has over one’s life and decision-making.

Slark and her sister Charlebois discuss three institutions that imposed extensive control over their lives, removing their decision-making agency and independence under the guise of care: Children’s Aid Society, Huronia Regional Centre, and a so-called Approved Home.

Although the role of Children’s Aid Society has ranged over time from “social control to referral and protection of children in Ontario, as a social reform extension of the state into people’s homes, the Society has played a role in policing families and children.”3(footnote) Children’s Aid Society sought to control the lives of Slark and Charlebois, as they did with many other children, by placing them at Huronia Regional Centre. Slark also lived in an “Approved Home,” which Huronia supervised.

“Approved Homes” started in 1939 and were community-based homes that received payment for taking custody of patients from the institution.4(footnote) The name of this type of institution is misleading. The “Approved Home” was a smaller institution embedded within the larger power structure of Huronia. It continued to practice fear and intimidation through abuse and control.5(footnote)

Deborah Carter Park’s extensive research on Huronia Regional Centre Admissions from 1876-1970 shows the children targeted by social service agencies, including Children’s Aid Society, and the role these agencies played in referring children to Huronia. According to Park, Children’s Aid Society is responsible for “fostering the growth and entrenchment of the asylum until the 1970s.”6(footnote) She provides significant evidence to show that Children’s Aid primarily targeted children and families who were experiencing poverty. The Society also sent children who were “perceived to be good and efficient workers” as a source of unpaid labour for the institution’s daily operations (such as laundry work).

In addition, many children were referred to Huronia by Children’s Aid Society “for social reasons and not because of disability.”7(footnote) Many of these children were deemed “defective” through faulty intelligence testing and assessments. The institutionalization of those labelled with intellectual disabilities was one eugenic social reform measure used to control the fertility of those in custody and prevent them from having families of their own.8(footnote)

Despite the extreme control and social order that staff asserted over the lives of residents at Huronia Regional Centre, Marie Slark found and asserted self-determination by developing and expressing her creative talents and skills.9(footnote) Staff at Huronia Regional Centre undermined Slark’s self-determination by pathologizing her creative talent and skill and labelled her destructive. Staff wanted residents to be controllable and compliant. Slark’s independent creativity and innovation were a threat to that order. Thus, the staff framed her creativity as a problem and used it as a weapon against her in the institution and a justification for increased control and surveillance measures.

Both Slark and Charlebois find care and comfort through their creative acts of knitting and embroidery. They use their artwork to support and build community through relationship and care.

  1. note on terminology: we engage with the word “artifact” as truth told through lived experience and expression and as something to be understood from multiple perspectives. This is very different from the way artifacts have traditionally been treated in archives and museums as objects for display that reproduce a singular master narrative. We encourage learners to question official archives and artifacts as neutral and objective truths.

  2. Liat Ben-Moshe, Chris Chapman, and Allison C. Carey, eds., Disability Incarcerated (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2014), 265, (Source).

  3. Deborah Carter Park, “An Imprisoned Text: Reading the Canadian Mental-Handicap Asylum,” PhD diss., York University, 1995, 322, (Source)

  4. Kate Rossiter and Annalise Clarkson, “Opening Ontario’s ‘Saddest Chapter’: A Social History of Huronia Regional Centre,” Canadian Journal of Disability Studies 2, no. 3 (2013): 1–30, (Source).

  5. For more on the “Approved Home” Slark was sent to as an extension of Huronia’s institutional power and control over people labelled with intellectual disabilities, see Carol Goar, “Ontario Allowed Decades of Child Abuse,” Remember Every Name, August 18, 2020, (Source).

  6. Deborah Carter Park, “An Imprisoned Text: Reading the Canadian Mental-Handicap Asylum,” PhD Diss.,York University, 1995, 322.

  7. Deborah Carter Park, “An Imprisoned Text: Reading the Canadian Mental-Handicap Asylum” PhD Diss.,York University, 1995, 322.

  8. Kate Rossiter and Annalise Clarkson, “Opening Ontario’s ‘Saddest Chapter’: A Social History of Huronia Regional Centre,” Canadian Journal of Disability Studies 2, no. 3 (2013): 1–30, (Source).

  9. Resistance in a similar Alberta institution is discussed in Claudia Malacrida, A Special Hell: Institutional Life in Alberta’s Eugenic Years (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), 123.