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A young boy sits on a dormitory bed in 1971 the institution most recently known as the Huronia Regional Centre.

Morton Shulman/Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services/Morton Shulman/Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services

Mr. Justice Maurice Cullity has formally certified a $1-billion class-action lawsuit against the provincial government alleging systemic abuse and neglect of former residents of Ontario's largest ever institution for people with developmental disabilities.

The Ontario Superior Court judge, set to retire on his 75th birthday Saturday, told a packed Osgoode Hall courtroom that a trial judge, still to be appointed, will take over the case.

The province, which has yet to file a statement of defence, will hand over the names of former residents between 1945 and Huronia's March 31, 2009, closing to plaintiffs' counsel within 120 days, Crown lawyer Robert Ratcliffe told the court.

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"In the case of family members, it may take up to six months to be able to track that information back," Mr. Ratcliffe said in court, explaining that family law courts were not introduced in Ontario until 1978. In material filed with the court Wednesday, Mr. Ratcliffe said the province believes there are no more than 1,000 former residents covered by the lawsuit, not the thousands suggested by the plaintiffs. Outside court, he declined to comment further.









Lynda Gourlie, a retired school teacher from Brampton whose sister Diane lived at Huronia between 1959 and 1979, and others left the courtroom visibly upset, even though the lawsuit may now proceed as they'd hoped.

"It's very painful to talk about. It brings tears to my eyes," said Ms. Gourlie, who describes her sister as "a recovering survivor."

"Siblings [of former Huronia residents]have a lot of painful memories on account of having children ripped from our family unit," she said. "It was a nightmare. We went to visit her two times a year and saw her being taken away through the clanking doors with the orderlies literally dragging her kicking and screaming."

The institution, which first opened as the Orillia Asylum for Idiots in 1876, held 2,600 people at its height in 1968. For decades, the provincial government, which operated Huronia Regional Centre, was accused of ignoring widespread allegations of abuse and neglect and the recommendations for reform included in a scathing government-commissioned report. In 2004, when the provincial government finally announced plans to shut the facility, there were fewer than 350 residents remaining.

Marilyn Dolmage, who once worked at Huronia as a social worker, initiated the lawsuit with her husband, Jim. Ms. Dolmage says records at the institution suggested her brother was not treated for the pneumonia that led to his death at Huronia when he was eight years old.

In her affidavit, Ms. Dolmage has described residents being kept in caged cots, having all their teeth removed for safety reasons and being held upside down with their heads under running water as punishment for not eating. Other affidavits filed on behalf of former residents describe routine beatings, degrading treatment and the frequent use of psychotropic drugs to manage behaviour.

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