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Heritage Minutes: Including a House of Refuge Segment

February 16, 2017.

Historica Canada:


I saw your post asking film makers to propose ideas for new segments for your Canadian “Heritage Minutes” series. I am not a film maker, but I am a historian, and I would like to offer a proposal that I feel is an important part of Canadian Heritage, and it is seldom acknowledged or spoken about. I believe a Heritage Minute segment would help change that, and shed light on an often forgotten piece of Canadian history.


Canada’s House of Refuge Act was established in 1890. The act stated that each county, or union of counties, was to provide a house and an associated “industrial farm”. “In Ontario, the province passed the Houses of Refuge Act in 1890, which provided county governments with grants of up to $4,000 to purchase at least 45 acres of land and construct a suitable building.”1 With the creation of this Act, Ontario finally arrived at what a “respectable” society had been seeking for decades. This Act assisted in removing severe cases of destitution from the town or township streets, and organized it with administration. Despite some resistance after 1890, House of Refuge institutions began to spread. “Although some local resistance to setting up a house of refuge continued to stunt the system, there was a relatively rapid spread of provincial institutions in rural settings after 1890, along the lines of the “out of sight, out of mind” principle inherent in the asylum approach.”2


After the first law was decided, rules became stricter and counties who once refused to build a House of Refuge, now had to. “To make a house of refuge mandatory for all counties, the Ontario government passed the Municipal House of Refuge Act in 1903.”3 For the first time since the aborted Act of 1866, each county or union of counties, had to construct a House of Refuge facility. The deadline was January 1st 1906.4 Once the building was constructed, the county council was to “appoint two persons who shall, together with the warden, form a board of management, regulation and control”.5 The deadline for the construction was moved twice. It was first moved to 1908, and then moved again to 1911. All counties or county unions had to establish a House of Refuge by 1911.6 In 1912, the Houses of Refuge Act was extended again, but “only to populous parts of northern Ontario. Northern districts, like their southern forerunners, were not quick to respond. Algoma established a facility in 1914 in Sault Sainte Marie, followed by Parry Sound (1919) at Powassan, and Nipissing in 1924.”7


In Canada, we take pride in history that is empowering, thrilling, and in history that makes us look successful and decent as a nation and as people. We often shun or do not speak about history that may provide a negative image to our country. Our history is our history. We spend a great deal of time acknowledging and celebrating famous and successful Canadians, but we never seem to shed light on the everyday common folk who also played an important role in creating the nation we live in and love today.


House’s of Refuge sheltered Canadian citizens from every walk of life. There are recorded cases of elderly persons taking shelter at these facilities. They also housed people with mental illnesses, and they also gave a home to people who lost their businesses, the Great Grandfather’s of famous Canadian actors, as well as retired Police Officers and Firemen. When people hear the term “Poor House” or “Asylum” they cringe and often associate these places with people they deem “less than” others in society. My goal in discussing House of Refuge facilities is to remind our current population that the people who stayed in these facilities were human. They lived in a time when life was full of difficulties, and they worked from dawn until dusk to simply survive. They might not have been politicians or people who’s names we read in our history books, but these were Canadian people who played a part in shaping our nation, no matter how big or small it may have been. These citizens mattered, and I believe a Heritage Minute segment created in their honour and memory is a great way to acknowledge the people that lived and died in House of Refuge facilities.

Sources:

[1] Tyler, Tracey. "The County Poorhouse." York University. The Toronto Star, 3 Jan. 2009. Web. 29 Jan. 2014. <http://socialwork.blog.yorku.ca/2009/01/03/untitled/>.
[2] Carter Park, Deborah, and J. David Wood. "Poor Relief and the County House of Refuge System in Ontario, 1880 - 1911." Science Direct. Journal of Historical Geography, 1992. Web. 2 Mar. 2014.
[3] Tyler, Tracey. "The County Poorhouse." York University. The Toronto Star, 3 Jan. 2009. Web. 29 Jan. 2014.< http://socialwork.blog.yorku.ca/2009/01/03/untitled/>.
[4] Carter Park, Deborah, and J. David Wood. "Poor Relief and the County House of Refuge System in Ontario, 1880 - 1911." Science Direct. Journal of Historical Geography, 1992. Web. 2 Mar. 2014.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid
[7] Ibid.