Monday Madness ~ Little Bouts of Insanity

A photo of the devastation from the Hailybury fire of 1922 "Haileybury 1922" by Russell Photo - Haileybury Heritage Museum (Virtual Museum Canada (online source)).

A photo of the devastation from the Hailybury fire of 1922
“Haileybury 1922” by Russell Photo – Haileybury Heritage Museum (Virtual Museum Canada (online source)).

I think we all have a little story of madness…either we have experienced our own bouts of temporary “insanity”, or we have had encounters with others experiencing their own madness.  While reading a local history book article written by my father’s cousin regarding my Grandmother’s family I had to chuckle about a horrible story of madness.  Yes, I did chuckle but only because the outcome of the story was a happy ending and the story seemed so unbelievable.

Having lost everything in a great fire which had engulfed their community, my Grandmother’s family went to stay with a neighbour.  It was there that the neighbour lady who was suffering a mental illness took my Great-uncle Anicet and tried to stuff him into the wood stove! I have included the quote of this tale  which I have translated from the original French:

Joseph Beland and Dorilda Boulay, my grandparents, left their home town (village of birth) Ste-Ursule in the county of Maskinonge, in 1917. They came to establish themselves with their four children in the promised land of Nedelec, in the Temiskaming. Their children: Dorilda age 5, Francoise age 4, Arthur age 3, and Paul-Emile age 1. They were not rich and they settled the land and, as most of us know, the farm land of Nedelec is rich in stones (full of stones). But grandpa had the heart to overcome this challenge and give his offspring a good life in this rather wild area called Temiscaming. The 22nd of August 1918 Gerald was born, followed by Bernadette in 1920. The 8th of August 1922 Anicet was born; this was the year of the great fire in Hailybury. The family lived peaceful days in their humble dwelling, when a neighbour arrived running to tell them to get out of the house quickly as the fire was heading their way and was close. It must be said that literally the fire ran the fields and, as it was a very dry autumn, it burned everything in its path. Grandma picked up her small children and ran to the neighbours who gave them a place to stay. The neighbour lady (the lady that lived there) suffered from a mental illness and at one point she seized baby Anicet, to put him in the wood stove. But because of her watchful eye and maternal instinct, grandma saved her youngest. The great fire proved to be a terrible ordeal for the Beland family. They lost everything but the clothes on their backs. The neighbours were generous, but they too were suffering from the disaster. In 1934 they moved onto a farm in Belle-Vallee, To situate you it was the land of Phillipe Goudreault.

An excerpt from an article written by Diane Beland printed in “Raconte-moi ton histoire: Belle-Vallee et Judge 1909-2009”

Having read this vignette what touched me was that my dad’s cousin knew this story only through narrative tales told by her grandparents.  Her father Anicet had only been a baby at the time of the event.  I called my dad to talk about this story and he reiterated the tale.  He had heard this story too from his grandparents and from his mother, Bernadette (my grandmere).  It is often those little bouts of madness which live on in a family’s oral history!
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Madness Monday– The Sad Tale of a Long Lost Relation

Asylum for Idiots and Feeble-Minded, Orillia. Source: Archives of Ontario

Asylum for Idiots and Feeble-Minded, Orillia.
Source: Archives of Ontario

I have been working on both my family history and that of my husband’s family for many years but only in the past year have I made true breakthroughs in researching my husband’s side of the family.  While I enjoyed years of my Grandma’s family stories and childhood memories, my husband seemed to have little information on his relations and the lives of his ancestors. I have had to walk a tight rope to extract family knowledge from my husbands’ parents and grandparents without becoming an irritant.  It’s often a fine balance between being pleasantly interested and annoyingly nosy and harassing.  Slowly, as I’ve taken the information granted me and run with it, I have managed to win over my in-laws and even excited their interest!

Now that my husband’s family respects and appreciates my research efforts they eagerly entrust me with their family history queries, and puzzles.  It amazes me how often a new mystery surfaces.  This summer my mother-in-law mentioned that her mother had, had a younger brother Robert Vincent Martin who was sent away to an institution as a child.  She was hoping that maybe I would be able to track what happened to him.  She believed he had been sent to an asylum in Orillia, Ontario when she was just a child.  She could remember nothing else.

A quick Google search was all it took to find the asylum, The Asylum for Idiots and Feeble-Minded, later renamed the Huronia Regional Center.  This institution was in operation from 1876 to 2009, first as a hospital training school. Modeled after those in Britain, it was meant to actually educate those termed “idiot” or “imbecile” children.  In the 1900s however the rise of the eugenics movement changed the focus of such institutions from education to seclusion and segregation.

Born in 1932, my husband’s Great-Uncle Robert was admitted in the mid 1930s.  We do not know the condition he suffered which would have been the impetus for his parents decision to institutionalize him.  His sister, my husband’s Grandma, remembers visiting him only once as a child.  Grandma says she has never understood why he was sent away and it has haunted her much of her life.  The thought of this tore at my heart and my spirit.  Though I did not know him and he was not my relation, this new research challenge had become emotional and personal to me.  I began by reading as many online articles as I could on the Hospital.  I came across author/researcher/advocate Thelma Wheatley. I contacted her through her website to ask about further sources of information and she referred me to Marilyn Dolmage who was aiding former patients in their class action suit against the government of Ontario for abuses they suffered while in the custodial care of the Huronia Regional Center and other similar institutions across the province!

Marilyn had access to government lists of Huronia patients and found Robert!  According to her information he had been transferred from Huronia Regional Center to the Oxford Regional Center, a similar institution in Oxford county, Ontario, in 1960 and he died there April 29, 1993.  I was unsure what motivated the transfer.  In 1960 celebrated Canadian journalist and historian Pierre Berton, then writing for the Toronto Star, wrote a scathing report detailing the horrible living conditions of the Huronia facility (Reprinted in 2013). I wondered if perhaps he was moved by a family member when Berton’s article raised concerns.  Or perhaps the shuffling of patients was meant to remedy the overcrowding at Huronia, Berton had shone a light upon.

My heart broke when I read horrific accounts of abuse.  All we could hope is that Robert escaped the worst horrors.  Aware that Grandma’s brother had now passed we hoped to obtain his patient records to find some sort of closure and peace of mind.  The Huronia Regional Center records and those of the Oxford Regional Center once held at the Ontario Archives–but protected by the privacy act–are now available to patients and their next of kin through the MCSS (  We are in the process of requesting these records and are hoping obtaining these records and learning where Robert is buried will be a salve for the hurt Grandma feels and the emotional sympathy we are experiencing. A long, lost relation is finally found!


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