Unheard Voices: Sisters Share about Institutionalization

  • Madeline Burghardt York University
  • Victoria Freeman York University
  • Marilyn Dolmage Building Inclusive Schools
  • Colleen Orick Loyalist University
Keywords: Institutionalization, siblings, family, loss, fragmentation, advocacy


The recent emergence of institutional survivors’ accounts of mistreatment and abuse in Ontario’s institutions for the “feebleminded” offers a window into Canada’s long history of segregation, mistreatment, and neglect of people labelled intellectually disabled. The breaking of this silence has also allowed the stories of others who were deeply affected by institutionalization to come forward. Narratives from siblings of institutionalized individuals, although not first-hand accounts of the life inside institutional walls, offer much needed perspective on the extensive and ongoing effect of institutionalization in the lives of thousands of families, and offer additional insight from another marginalized group that until now has not held a place in Canada’s visible and spoken history.

This paper is a weaving together of three sibling narratives that were part of a panel at the Canadian Disability Studies Association (CDSA) conference in Ottawa, Ontario in June 2015. All sisters of institutionalized persons, the three contributors remark in particular on their profound experiences of loss after their brother or sister was sent away from the family home. The contributors believe that it is through the sharing of such experiences that society can better come to understand the devastation wreaked upon both individuals and families through misinformed and prejudicial policies over a period of more than 150 years. 


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