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Activity 2

Colonial Eugenics in Education

Peter Park’s Story – Cell of Marginalized Knowledge - Prioritizing Survivors’ Knowledge of Institutionalization


Information on Ontario’s history of eugenics is scarce, as evidence of abuse has been buried and even destroyed by institutions. This activity is about knowledge that has been marginalized, silenced, hidden, and even destroyed by divisive, socially embedded forces of power and dominance perpetuated within western modern betterment discourses.1(footnote) It reveals the abuse that occurred at Ontario institutions and the stories of those who experienced them.

Marginalized knowledge of eugenics has also been removed from sites of knowledge production. Yet, such knowledge has become a powerful tool for activism and self-advocacy. This module acknowledges the importance of marginalized knowledge. It prioritizes the activism that has emerged from lived experiences, which act as a counterpoint to the story of aggressive, dehumanizing, and oppressive language, ideas, and practices of eugenics. It shows the body appearing in and interrupting the confinement, segregation, and regulation that takes place behind closed doors.

The following text includes some of Peter Park’s Story as it was published in an article he co-authored called “Self-Advocacy from the Ashes of the Institution.” The text is quoted verbatim:2(footnote)

Background. Peter was institutionalized in the Oxford Regional Centre (ORC) in Woodstock at the age of 20 when his family received medical advice that living in an institution would be the best support for Peter who was diagnosed with epilepsy. Peter survived 18 years in the Oxford Regional Centre. It was 1961 when he entered the institution. He did not get out until 1978.

The place Peter was detained, the ORC, first opened in 1905 as the Epileptic Hospital (MCSS, 2012b).3(footnote) It is one of the oldest provincial institutions in Ontario. (MCSS, 2012a).4(footnote) Residential support was provided to people with epilepsy and tuberculosis. (MCSS, 2012b). Later, the institution also housed people labelled with an intellectual disability. By 1974 it became known as the Oxford Regional Centre after having been renamed the Ontario Hospital School, Woodstock in 1919, and then again the Oxford Mental Health Centre in 1968. In 1974, the facility housed 683 residents. It finally closed its doors in 1997 (MCSS, 2012b). Public information on the history of the Oxford Regional Centre is scarce. The scarcity of information about this institution further highlights the need to document stories from survivors in the interest of historical record.

In Peter’s words. Well, to start with, human rights were basically non-existent in the institution. I really had no choice but to do something about how bad things were for people with intellectual disabilities after being in there so long. I had to. I was bound and bent that no one would ever, ever have to go through what I went through in there. You can’t even say I “lived” in the institution. I simply existed. We weren’t treated as human, in every single way.

When it all started. I was 20 years old and I remember my family and I heard about an institution. We sure weren’t given the whole story. The one I went to ended up being Oxford Regional Centre. Two doctors were there when we talked about it—I remember that part well. The question was asked, “Can I leave anytime I want to?” It was so important to me to be able to leave. I was told I could leave anytime I wanted.

My mom and dad, sister, next-door neighbour were there at the meeting. I had epilepsy—seizures. This is what we were talking about. These two idiot doctors said they could cure my seizures.

Then, once I was in there, I couldn’t leave. Once I was inside, I saw how bad it was in there. I just wanted to get out. My paper that said I could leave whenever I wanted to was lost. I was a prisoner now. Except doing time in an institution is worse than jail. In a jail you are treated better than you are in an institution. When you go to jail, you know when your time is served. In an institution you might have a life sentence. But you don’t know day to day. They are all lying to you and you don’t know the truth. You have no rights at all, not even to privacy in the institution. You just don’t know when you are going to get out, if ever. And you didn’t even commit a crime.

My father was trying to get me out of the institution after I had been in for about sixteen years. My dad was a pharmacist. He almost lost his business trying to get me out. He even went to court to try and get me out. That didn’t even work. They wouldn’t let me out. I believe that they were making money per head and didn’t want to let me go. We were guinea pigs and they were using us, making money off us. All that medication that they tried out on us. I tried to leave many, many times. I remember one time well. It was the most memorable time I tried to leave.

I wanted to go home and go down to our cottage. Needless to say, I didn’t get to go. I outwitted the institutional staff for a while. I ran away and I stayed in the nearby town of Woodstock for a while. I took my baseball glove and walked down pretending I was going to go down to where the field was to play baseball. And I just kept walking until I was out and they didn’t see me walk by. Escaping was constantly on your mind—all the time thinking of how to escape.

I knew a family was away, so I hid out in their garage. I didn’t have any money because the institution had it all locked up, so crackers was all I could eat. I kept a supply of crackers for times like this. The food was so terrible, so I kept crackers hidden away in case the pig swill they served was so bad that I couldn’t eat it. We would buy our own food and mainly what was there was crackers, and maybe sometimes a can of spam.

Over and over I tried to escape like that. They’d catch me and I’d get punished. Didn’t stop me from trying.

Visits with my family were controlled. I remember a funny story when my brother Bob came to visit me. It was against the rules of the institution for family to visit without telling them. He just showed up to visit me because he was in the area. That time my brother got to see what it was actually like behind the scenes. On Sundays, the day family was allowed a controlled visit, the staff put out flowers and books and personal items. It was worse than a hospital because you had no privacy whatsoever. There were about 13 inches between each bed and about 12 beds in each room. Bathrooms were open with no privacy at all. The toilets were lined up beside each other. You can imagine what five toilets all in a row was like in an overcrowded institution. They didn’t want family to see what it was really like.

And listening to the outside world, knowing what was going on in the world, wasn’t an option. There was only a radio that they controlled. Later, there was a television that they controlled. There was no reading material out. They forced us to go to bed at 8:30. It was awful because at that time I really liked to listen to the hockey games. Gordie Howe was on the ice, the Mahovolichs and I wasn’t allowed to watch it. They finally got a television. I was a grown man and they put on Donald Duck. Nothing important to keep us educated about what was going on in the world.

Because my dad was a pharmacist, he gave me a CPS5(footnote) and a Merck Manual.6(footnote) I wouldn’t take any medications they tried to force on me unless they were listed in the Merck Manual. I was sent to the D Ward so often for refusing to take medication. I think that of my 18 years, I was locked up for nine of them. Between running away and refusing to take medication I did a lot of time in D ward.

In D Ward they strip you of your clothes so you’re bare. The walls are bare concrete. The floors are bare. Just concrete. No bed, no chairs. If you were lucky and the doctor said you needed one, you might be lucky to get a small mattress. I was normally on the concrete floor. I think the longest time I was in might have been four or five days’ straight. I don’t really know because there was no clock. The door to the room is always locked. There’s a little tiny sliding window they look through at you sometimes when they want to observe you. The doctor, the staff look through at you. You had to stay in view of the tiny window so they could easily observe you. If you moved to a different part of the room and they couldn’t see you—they’d punish you. They would say, “Okay—you moved from your spot—that’ll be two more days of D Ward for you.” There was an open drain in the middle of the floor. Because there was nowhere to go to the bathroom, if you couldn’t get the attention of the staff, you’d have to just go right there in the drain. Then you would have to lie close to it or you would get punished. The odour of it—you just got used to it. Like the hard floor, you just got used to it, became numb to it because there was nothing you could do about it.

One day in the showers my friend physically died right beside me. He was one of three friends I made while there. I watched him die. And the staff said he had only taken a seizure. He was talking to me for one moment and the next moment—I think it was a stroke. The staff told me it was a seizure, but it wasn’t. Death is different than a seizure. I saw people being shipped off to Penetanguishine7(footnote)—they sent them to a different type of jail.

When I saw other people being abused in the institution it’s even worse. You know it’s wrong and you’re there watching it, but you have no control. If you interrupt to try and stop it, you get even worse done to you. You see it all the time: people being abused around you. One time, I remember feeling so helpless (pauses) watching staff picking up a big handful of icy cold snow and holding a guy’s face right in it. They just smooshed his face right in the snow and held it there until he couldn’t breathe. They smothered him and yelled at him, “You do it my way or else.” I knew if I stood up, if I interrupted it would have been really bad for me. We learned to walk right on by because we didn’t want it to happen to us. They had a full system of social control. That’s how we lived. That was life in the institution. That’s part of the reason I want to fight for people’s rights everywhere I go now. I have to.

Getting out. It was strange when, after 18 years, one day without explanation or warning, I was tapped on the shoulder by a staff at 12 noon. Out of the blue they told me that at 12:30 I was leaving for Ingersol group home. And that was with only two pairs of institutional clothes, a pair of shoes and a hat. You put all that stuff in a banana box. Just like that, I walked out the door. I still don’t know to this day why they decided to let me go. Maybe it was because I was such a rebel the whole time I was in there they finally couldn’t stand it anymore. ~ Peter Park

Nine stones creating a path float over a looped background video of water rippling. The following links are revealed when one hovers their cursor over their corresponding stone. Nine stones creating a path float over a looped background video of water rippling. The following links are revealed when one hovers their cursor over their corresponding stone. Nine stones creating a path float over a looped background video of water rippling. The following links are positioned over their corresponding stone.
  1. Renata Kokanović and Meredith Stone, “Listening to What Cannot Be Said: Broken Narratives and the Lived Body,” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 17, no. 1 (February 2018): 20–31, (Source).

  2. S. Hutton, P. Park, M. Levine, S. Johnson, K. Bramesfeld, “Self-Advocacy from the Ashes of the Institution.” Canadian Journal of Disability Studies 6, no. 3 (2017), 30-59, (Source).

  3. Ministry of Community and Social Services (2012b). Oxford Regional Centre. Retrieved from (Source)

  4. Ministry of Community and Social Services. (2012a). History of Development Services: The First Institution. Retrieved from (Source)

  5. The Compendium of Pharmaceuticals and Specialties (CPS) is a widely used Canadian pharmaceutical reference guide (Canadian Pharmacist’s Association, 2013). [Note in original publication]

  6. The Merck Manual is a medical reference book, published and updated regularly by the American pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. (Porter & Kaplan, 2011). [Note in original publication]

  7. Penetanguishine is a psychiatric institution intended to provide custodial care to the “criminally insane.” It originally opened in 1904 as the Asylum for the Insane, Penetanguishene. Over the years the practices have changed, but it has been in continuous operation. It is now known as Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care (Bazar, 2015). [Note in original publication]