CLARINGTON, Ont. – Survivors of a shadowy chapter in the history of Canada’s prison system say the legacy of the alleged abuse they endured as children is being ignored, if not erased.
They point to a recent decision by the town of Clarington, Ont., to refurbish and repurpose the Jury Lands, most commonly known as the site of Camp 30 – a prisoner-of-war camp for captured high-ranking Nazis during the Second World War.
For more than 50 years, it was also the site of the Pine Ridge Training School – a correctional facility for children, mostly boys, aged eight to 18 who were deemed “unmanageable.”
The schools – about a dozen in Ontario – were shuttered in the early 1980s.
The revitalization plan will see the site, located about 75 kilometres east of Toronto, transformed into an economic centre, complete with offices, restaurants and shops.
But the plan is not sitting well with some of those who allege they suffered horrific physical and sexual abuse in the hands of their minders.
“It’s not fair that this real estate company is going to put all this money into it and glorify what it wasn’t,” said Steve G., of Markham, Ont., who, on his lawyer’ advice, did not want his last name used.
“I’d have every boy’s name or girl’s name on that wall somewhere,” he said in a recent interview.
Steve G. said he was sent to Pine Ridge as a young teen after being caught breaking and entering. He said he had a “difficult” childhood: his parents separated when he was young, his mother was a “partier” and he was forced to steal to provide for his sister.
When he first arrived at the school, Steve G. recalls looking at the white picket fence, which he would jump over in a number of escape attempts in the coming months.
Then came “the hole,” a solitary confinement cell where he would spend days at a time – his feet shackled, his wrists cuffed.
“It was a caged room – three walls of concrete and bars. I had a bed, toilet, sink, that was it,” he said. “That was your introduction to training school.”
Once, he was sent to “the hole” after an escape attempt in which he caught poison ivy.
“I had blisters all over me. I couldn’t move. And the hole temperature was about 110 (Fahrenheit, or 43 Celsius),” he said. “I remember it was so friggin’ hot. And I was sittin’ there at the sink, filling it up with water and splashing myself.”
The emotional and mental abuse was even worse, he said.
“They’re trying to ruin you. Break you down.”
Steve G. also alleges that he was sexually assaulted twice after he was transferred from Pine Ridge to the Sprucedale Training School in Hagersville, Ont.
He had escaped to Toronto, where he overdosed, and then was taken to he hospital, where he was eventually picked up by a couple of guards from the school, he said.
They allegedly put him in a pickup truck and drove out of the city.
“They beat me, they sodomized me, they did what they wanted with me,” he said, adding that he doesn’t remember all of the specifics because he was recovering from the overdose.
Steve G.’s allegations of sexual and physical abuse have not been tested in court. He said he is in the early stages of launching a lawsuit against the province.
As an adult, Steve G. said he’s struggled with alcohol and drug addictions. He’s had seven convictions, some for drinking and driving, and, on several occasions, he’s attempted suicide, he said.
But in the last few years, Steve G. said he’s turned his life around. He’s started going to church, is more open about his past, and he’s in a happy, stable, long-term relationship.
But he said he’s upset that Pine Ridge will only be recognized for its role in the Second World War, while the hundreds of children who were allegedly abused there will be forgotten.
Loretta Merritt, a lawyer who has represented hundreds of training school survivors in civil court, said only one person has been convicted related to abuse at Ontario’s network of secular training schools.
In January 2000, Raymond Arthur Elder, a former supervisor at White Oaks Training School in Hagersville, was found guilty of two charges, including gross indecency and breach of trust. Both charges related to oral sex acts which Elder had admitted to, and which involved one victim.
Elder was acquitted on nine other charges. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Sanford Cottrelle was at White Oaks, a training school for younger boys, when Elder was working there as a housemaster.
He was interviewed by police years ago about his time at the school, but was never called upon to testify at Elder’s trial.
“(Elder) would get a hold of me and he would nibble on my ear,” Cottrelle alleged in an interview.
He also alleged he was beaten by a staff member when he was on his way to bed. The attack came out of nowhere, he said.
“I don’t know what it was, if it was because I was a native kid or what,” Cottrelle said.
Since leaving the schools, Cottrelle says life hasn’t been easy. He’s been through the prison system, where he said he heard about more cases of abuse from inmates who had attended training schools in the province.
For much of his life, he says he’s had suicidal thoughts, starting from the time he was at White Oaks.
Merritt said that many of the training school survivors are now in prison, some for violent crimes.
“I’ve been in most of the maximum-security facilities in this province, with some guys who have criminal records that go on for 10 pages,” she said.
Catherine Classen, a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto who specializes in therapy for people who have experienced trauma, called Ontario’s training school legacy a “tragedy” on several fronts.
“If we actually would address the impact of trauma in childhood, of abuse in childhood, we would empty our prisons,” she said.
“So many of these behaviours really are about these people trying to cope in the best way they know how, and we never really help them figure out better ways of coping.”
Sometimes, Classen said, trauma survivors can be so consumed by what they experienced, they relive it in real time, through flashbacks.
Merritt said that’s something she sees in her clients in prison.
“I see the 12-year-old who was beaten and sexually abused and had no one and nowhere to turn. That’s who I’m meeting with,” she said.
“That’s where they go, when they talk to me. They go back to that child they were and they talk about what happened to them.”
Merritt said her clients that have taken the province through the civil courts have received payouts that range from tens of thousands of dollars to just over $100,000.
Representatives from the Office of the Attorney General, Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and Ministry of Children and Youth Services declined to comment on the training school system.