Lessons in brutality at Ontario’s training schools

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Warning: This story contains graphic content that may be upsetting to readers.

It was a jacket that sealed Howard Kwint’s fate.

Kwint was a teenager in the late 1960s, living in Pickering with his adoptive parents in a strict Baptist household.

Like many teens, he had a habit of being late for class or not turning up altogether.

The truancy eventually added up to a suspension. On his way out of the building, Kwint realized he had forgotten something.

“I came back into the school to get a jacket out of my locker and one of the vice-principals called the police,” he said.

“They charged me with trespassing.”

A judge sent the “incorrigible” youth to Sprucedale Training School in Hagersville, near Hamilton, one of 13 provincially run schools that operated between the 1920s and the 1980s.

Kwint and his classmates were meant to receive “moral, physical, academic and vocational education,” according to the province’s Training Schools Act of 1965.

Instead, they received a lesson in brutality.

“We were pitted against each other,” said Kwint, who said he was forced to take part in a fight club run by school staff, who would bet on the outcomes.

Kwint took karate classes and the 16-year-old held his own at first.

“I did OK until they said I couldn’t use my feet anymore,” he said. “And I got pummelled badly by a couple guys.”

He said he got his nose “splayed across his face” on a few occasions. That was hushed up.

“They called my parents quite a few times to tell them they shouldn’t come visit this week because I was sick,” Kwint said.

“I wasn’t sick. I was beaten to shit.”

Kwint is one of thousands of children and teens sent to Ontario training schools, where survivors say they were subjected to horrific sexual, physical and psychological abuse. He is part of a class-action lawsuit against the province that seeks $600 million for up to 20,000 survivors.

“Born Bad,” a new documentary now streaming on CBC Gem, sheds light on the training school system through interviews with four survivors, a child psychologist and other experts.

Writer and director Marc de Guerre said he was “shocked” to hear survivors’ stories.

“The schools were sites of genuine horror and lifelong trauma for many of the kids that were sent there,” de Guerre said.

In its statement of defence filed with the court, the province denies the allegations of abuse at training schools and asks for the lawsuit to be dismissed.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General confirmed the province was served with the statement of claim on Dec. 12, 2017, and the class-action lawsuit was certified on Nov. 30, 2018.

“It would be inappropriate to comment further on a matter that is currently before the courts,” spokesperson Brian Gray told The Spectator.

The trial is scheduled to start in February 2023.

Swimming was one of the few pleasures allowed to students at White Oaks Village, a training school in Hagersville for boys eight to 12 years old.

But Adrian Parker dreaded going to the pool. That’s where his abuser was.

“We would go to the pool under the guise of having swimming lessons with him one-on-one,” said Parker, who was 12 at the time.

But one staff member had other ideas.

“It started with sort of grooming in the shower,” Parker said, describing how this staff member would massage his arms and urge him to “relax.”

“It advanced into mutual masturbation on the promise of going on trips.”

In exchange for his participation and silence about what Parker detailed as escalating incidents of sexual abuse, the staff member promised to get him on the list of students who could leave the school for day trips.

“(He would say), ‘I can probably get you out of here earlier,’” Parker said.

“That was the one thing that stuck, because it was just so horrifically lonely.”

A judge sent Parker to White Oaks in 1977 after the youngster was caught shoplifting at a Hamilton grocery store and selling stolen cases of pop in Simcoe.

Shamed into silence, Parker did not tell anyone about the abuse he suffered, which started up again when he was sent back to White Oaks after more petty thefts.

He said being violated at the hands of people meant to care for him left him “confused” and emotionally scarred.

“I was already vulnerable and insecure, and I didn’t know where to go,” he said.

“I didn’t know who to trust.”

Training schools, organized by the provincial Department of Reform Institutions, housed “delinquent children” who often came from poor, single-parent homes beset with drug and alcohol problems.

Students did not need to commit a crime to be deemed “troubled” and sent away. Skipping class, missing curfew, or even having the wrong boyfriend was enough to end up incarcerated with an open-ended sentence.

The philosophy of the training school system was that children could be reformed with a tough-love approach and then returned home. The reality was quite different.

“These were not treatment centres, these were basically jails for kids,” Simona Jellinek, a Toronto lawyer who practises in the area of sexual assault law and who has represented dozens of former training school students in lawsuits against the province, told the Toronto Star in 2017.

The schools were situated mainly in small towns like Hagersville and Simcoe, often far from students’ homes to discourage family from visiting.

That left children as young as eight years old cut off from the outside world.

“It was in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but farmers’ fields,” Kwint said of White Oaks, which was built southwest of Hagersville on the site of a former RCAF Commonwealth flight training school.

“You could leave — there was no real security — but there was no place to go.”

A 1973 report by the Globe and Mail found most supervisors and teachers at the training schools had no professional training or higher education. That was hardly a secret to the students.

“It was run by people that had no business being anywhere near that sort of system,” Kwint said. “Nobody teaching there had a clue what they were doing.”

In its statement of defence, the province said training schools “were not established as places of restraint or detention.”

The province noted the system was later “modernized … to create an atmosphere where positive, progressive programs of treatment and training would address the problems of juvenile delinquency.”

Each school was regularly inspected by the ministry to ensure it was “reasonably well-run,” the province said in its defence. In response to claims of “systemic negligence” by school staff, the province said students enjoyed a variety of educational programs and vocational instruction, and received health care — including psychological care — “as appropriate.”

Teaching staff were “properly” trained and supervised.

But governments and educators of the day had no understanding of childhood trauma or behavioural disorders, de Guerre said.

“Kids were just seen as ‘bad’ and that was the end of it,” he said.

The director said he was taken aback by stories of abuse that left survivors “scarred for life.”

“It’s a film about survivors,” de Guerre said.

“But I also want people to think about all the kids that didn’t make it, the thousands of kids who went through a system that destroyed them, destroyed their life.”

If any abuse occurred at the hands of school staff — which the province denies — the province said it “was not authorized, condoned, or carried out with the knowledge of the Crown.”

“These individuals acted outside the scope of their duties, and the Crown denies that it is vicariously liable for any such alleged acts,” the province writes.

“At all times the Crown acted in the public interest, honestly, in good faith, and in accordance with any and all applicable statutes.”

Kwint was sent to a training school one week before his 16th birthday and did not return home for nearly two years.

He said his parents did not realize the province could keep so-called “delinquent” children locked up until they were 18, and unsuccessfully tried to bring their son home after a few weeks away.

When he finally did get back to Pickering, Kwint found himself behind his classmates academically.

“I had to start all over again. There were a lot of things I didn’t know,” he said.

But that knowledge gap was not reflected in his grades, which he said were undeservedly high.

“They were trying to make an example of me — ‘here’s a kid who went to training school, look how he’s straightened out,’” Kwint said.

He later became a professional musician, playing in a band for 40 years until recently retiring due to health reasons.

Parker’s life took a different turn. He said the abuse he suffered in silence at White Oaks Village “most assuredly” set him up for a return to petty crime, which landed him in a youth correctional facility in Simcoe known as Sprucedale — not to be confused with the Hagersville training school of the same name.

“I was basically incarcerated from 12 to 15,” Parker said. “And then when I was released from Sprucedale, that was what I had to go on with the world.”

Jellinek said it was common for children who experienced the training school system to later end up in prison.

“Many of my clients went straight from training school pretty much right into adult jail,” she said.

Wanting to put some distance between himself and his past, Parker set off on an adventure, hitchhiking to Florida in 1981.

“I was basically a 12-year-old in a 15-year-old body, and I acted that way,” Parker said, describing a freewheeling existence of wanton sex, drug abuse and “just doing crazy, crazy stuff” that left him feeling “empty inside.”

A career in acting and modelling followed, while Parker used drugs to keep his childhood trauma at bay. To this day, flashbacks from White Oaks can trigger what he calls “panic mode.” He sees the abuse he experienced in Hagersville as the root cause of persistent seizures and mental-health challenges throughout his life.

“I’m slowly getting to a better place at 55 years of age, but that’s 43 years later,” said Parker, who in recent years graduated as a paralegal and published a memoir on the advice of his therapist.

In the mid-1990s, the OPP investigated allegations of abuse at White Oaks school in Hagersville, interviewing more than 300 former students.

As reported in the Toronto Star, the probe resulted in charges against two former housemasters at the school, which closed in 1982. Only one was convicted — on a charge of gross indecency and breach of trust.

Parker said he tries not to feel resentment toward the staff at White Oaks and the judges who sent him there.

“I’m learning not to carry so much baggage anymore,” he said.

At the same time, he hopes the lawsuit will “hold the province of Ontario accountable for the people that they placed in charge of us.”

“Someone has to bear the cost for what it’s cost me mentally and physically over the years,” he said.

Anyone who attended any of the training schools was eligible to join the class-action lawsuit, though some former students have previously sued and settled with the province.

A 2017 Toronto Star investigation uncovered 220 legal settlements in which the province made payouts to victims, ranging from several thousand to hundreds of thousands of dollars. As a condition of settlement, victims had to sign confidentiality agreements.

The class-action lawsuit alleges criminal acts by training school staff, but in 2017 lawyers told the Star former students chose the civil route because criminal convictions for sexual abuse are rare.

As well, given the time periods covered by the claims — some go back 50 years — many of the alleged perpetrators are now dead.

The province claims any losses or damages claimed by training school survivors cannot conclusively be linked to their time in the schools, and instead may stem from “physical, emotional or psychological problems” that predated or followed their stay.

Beyond financial compensation, Kwint is looking for justice for himself and the thousands of other children and teens — many of whom, he noted, are now dead — who were trapped inside these institutions.

Now living in Port Perry, he said speaking with lawyers about his experience brought back a “floodgate” of long-repressed memories.

“A lot of things that went on there came back,” he said.

“And none of it was good.”

—With files from the Toronto Star

Resources for survivors of sexual violence

SACHA Sexual Assault Centre Hamilton and area

24-hour support line 905-525-4162; sacha.ca

McMaster University Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office

svpro@mcmaster.ca

Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention Services of Halton

905-875-1555

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator

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