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‘Heights’ radio doc series highlights inclusive village for intellectually disabled

Natasha Daw in the recording studio at Summit Sound Studios in Westport. She sings on the song “Every Soul on Earth is Equal”, music and lyrics by Suzanne Pasternak arranged and produced by Chuck Dailey [bass guitarist for I Mother Earth]. Dailey was the sound editor for the documentary.

Story by Sharon Harrison
Voices from the past say the revolutionary community at Prince Edward Heights for people with intellectual disabilities, staff members and their families, should never have been closed.

In 1971, the abandoned Second World War Royal Air Force Bombing and Gunnery School area high above the town of Picton (aka the ‘Hill’ and ‘Heights’) became home for people with disabilities as their families wanted them out of ‘institutions’ for a more fulfilling life and home. At the edge of the Craig Barracks, a large scale pilot project by the Ontario Ministry of Social Services was transformed into the ‘Heights Complex’.

Kim Inch a former Heights employee at an interview for episode six, with production manager Pat Larkin and Suzanne Pasternak.

Multi-media storyteller and folklorist Suzanne Pasternak has been collecting oral histories, writing, singing and creating documentaries for more than 30 years. While she now resides in Kingston, Pasternak has called Prince Edward County home for several decades and maintains strong ties here.

Over her career, Pasternak has created historically-based folk operas, musicals, plays and books. Her best known is the dramatic cross-border folk opera story of ship’s cook ‘Minerva’.

Her latest endeavour, Voices from the Past: A Retrospective from Prince Edward Heights is a six-part documentary being broadcast on 99.3 County FM in conjunction with the radio station’s sixth year anniversary. It explores the community that existed at the former Camp Picton site through the 1970s and ’80s.

While Pasternak had lived in the County since 1993, Prince Edward Heights was not something she says she knew much about.

“I had been aware that up at the abandoned air force base there had been an institution for people with intellectual disabilities,” says Pasternak. “And you would see some of those folks in the community working at the car wash or walking down the street, and a friend worked up there; that’s about all I knew.”

She notes that a lot of people have moved into the County and know nothing about Prince Edward Heights.

“I thought it would be a great story to tell,” she says.

The process took a while, and of course, COVID-19 played a role too, though it was about a year-and-a-half ago she first approached the radio station with a proposition to collaborate on a federal grant.

“The grant, the Government of Canada’s New Horizon’s for Seniors Program, was specifically to develop something in the community that would draw upon the knowledge of other seniors in the community,” explains Pasternak.

Almost immediately after learning they had been successful getting the $23,983 grant, Ontario went into lockdown due to the pandemic.

Pasternak says 60 per cent of the funding helped the radio station buy better recording, and other equipment, to ensure the documentary could happen.

Meanwhile, being locked down during the pandemic, Pasternak settled into research. When it came to interviewing people, she had to wait until Stage 2, but even then she says she couldn’t get near anybody or into the radio station because of the very strict protocols.

“I was literally doing interviews starting in the spring as soon as Stage 2 happened, out in the corn field and things like that,” laughs Pasternak. “The lockdown and the pandemic have had a huge impact on the development, but in a lot of ways it worked in my favour because I had to go so slow and so carefully.”

She says her original research was about how people with intellectual disabilities were treated in big Ontario institutions.

“It was very much like residential schools and very dark, which meant the more I learned about Prince Edward Heights, I realized it was absolutely revolutionary. There was nothing like it.”

The Ontario government started closing down the big, old institutions where thousands of people were housed.

“They were overcrowded, under-funded, under staffed, and in 1971 the first move toward what they call community living, was to place clients taken out of Smith Falls and Orillia to Picton.

The site had baseball fields and lawns, and churches and schools in a village setting.

“The clients had incredible freedom and were able to live in houses and have their own rooms, and it was really something.”

She said they recruited staff from across Ontario, attracting people who had been working in big institutions and people who were working in psychiatric hospitals where there was the most terrible abuse.

“They wanted a fresh start and they wanted to do things differently.”

Prince Edward Heights, at Picton, was one of 12 developmental services facilities between the 1960s and 1990s.

Prince Edward Heights opened in 1971, and while most people had moved out by the early ‘80s, Pasternak says the last of it closed in 1999.

“Many people were hired and what was the most unusual thing was they were able to bring their families with them and everybody lived up upon the Heights: you had the staff, with their kids and their pets and the disabled and the counsellors and everybody lived as a village.”

Pasternak says the impact it had on the children of the staff was interesting, something she says was revealed during the interviewing process.

She specifically mentions Jim (JJ) Johnston, a board member and radio host with 99.3 County FM, whose parents both worked at the Heights as counsellors.

“The kids in the summertime would get summer placement jobs working with both the high-functioning disabled folks, as well as the severely disabled,” she says. “They felt completely comfortable with their population, and many of these young people when they grew up went to university or college and went into the field of people with disabilities, so it really shaped their lives.”

“It is integration and inclusive, and it is very interesting.”

During the interviewing process of former administrators and with one of the former physician’s and many others, the message Pasternak heard was how the institution should never have closed.

“To have such a beautiful place like the Heights, particularly for severely disabled people, where there was so much more freedom and a lot of safety, you don’t even think, when you dealing with people who have been institutionalized all their lives, you put them in downtown, they don’t know about dealing with cars and crosswalks, or anything, and kids were brutal to the disabled on the street.”

The first episode laid out the history.

“It describes how people with intellectual disabilities were seen and how the parents were told by the doctors and the institutions to ‘just take your child with Down syndrome and leave it at Huronia or Smith Falls, and just walk away and never look back’.”

Episode two ends with a speech with then premier Kathleen Wynne’s apology in parliament for the government of Ontario on how this unchecked abuse went on in institutions in Ontario.

“The more I interviewed people, the more I saw what happened at the Heights was revolutionary in a positive way,” Pasternak says. “That’s the story I want to tell, and the great big hearts that went into it.”

One of the questions Pasternak asked was, ‘How did working with people with intellectual disabilities change you as a person?’

“The responses I’m getting just melt your heart,” she said, noting the documentary series is for everybody, including young people

“You’ve got all these stories about young people and how it impacted them when they were all living up there and they were part of that whole scene, so it’s for everybody.”

“I am really proud of this documentary, it’s fantastic. It’s a fabulous story which we need so much now, this is very uplifting, it’s a really a happy documentary.”

The first episode of Voices from the Past: A Retrospective from Prince Edward Heights aired on Thursday, Oct. 15, with the next five episodes running on consecutive Thursdays on 99.3 County FM at noon and repeated at 6pm. The documentaries are expected to be available after each broadcast at

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  1. Charlie Campbell says:

    I am one of the people who worked at the ‘Heights’

    In fact, I transferred down from Orillia just a few months after the Heights opened, and retired a couple months before it closed.
    Then worked part time in the group home systems for another 19 years. Almost 39 years. I liked the job. The people I worked with, and for.

    I started at the OHS (Ontario Hospital School-Ministry of Health) Orilla in January 1969, long before the Ministry of Community and Social Services renamed it the Huronia Regional.

    I started as a male attendant, and worked in an education ward. I was 21 y/0. The male staff were paid 2cents an hour more than the female staff, as they were expected to respond to any emergency.

    The ward I was on, had 100 patients. The institution had approximately 1500 patients at the time. The facility was huge, with many buildings. A large farm which gave employment, and which helped feed the institution. (sound familiar?) The OPP Administration and training complex now sits on those farm grounds. All of the buildings were connected via underground tunnels. I would take 10-12 guys and play kick ball in different parts of the tunnels, until an adjoining ward would complain of the noise. Winter go tobogganing; fall, apple fights. I was always the target.

    My second day on the job, since I was the new guy, I was assigned med administration, with minimal initial supervision. For the entire ward. I would have this task until a new guy started.

    In the summer of 1969, Ontario accepted the UN Bill of Human Rights, and they were applied to the many institutions. By the fall of that year, the wards were divided into two, with more staff.
    That September I began the start of a two year course. The course was the MRC course. MRC. Mental Retardation Course.

    I worked in Orillia for almost 3 years. I heard about Prince Edward Heights opening, and put in for a transfer. I had an interview at the old school, and was accepted. I was told at the time, that the heights would be closed within five years. That was fine with me.

    I stayed at the Royal and then the Globe Hotel until the place I was given to rent was ready, and then I moved my family down.

    I need to say now that I was already working for the province. I transferred down. So did the other staff who had the housing. All experienced staff from the many institutions. Many could not deal with the open structure and concept of the Heights, and returned to their previous workplaces.

    The Board of Education ran the school, and they acquired some fantastic teachers. Everyone was expected to attend school until 18. Some of the teachers had housing. The OPP also had a house up on the Heights.

    The initial people placed here seemed to move on and out quickly.
    They were adults and older teens. Then we had many children placed at the heights. 10y/o.+- ages. Now, many of these folks are in the various group homes. Repatriation to home towns and areas when possible, was the policy when the Heights closed.

    The Ministry of Community and Social Services eventually took over from the Ministry of Health. The MRC course eventually became the DSW course offered at the various Colleges.

    The ‘village’ setting gave the people living here, the chance to do things. To go on their own to see their friends in another houses,or go to the other ‘areas’. Go to church and shows and dances. Staff would walk with the younger ones, the older residents went about, on their own.

    There was training in life skills provided to all. Life skills and all that it meant. That was what the DSW program was about. Development.

    I worked in the “Deaf” area for 8 years, and working with a number of deaf staff and consultants, we taught sign language, a life skill along with the basics of life.

    Yes! People did go down town on their own when living at the Heights. Staff initially went with them either walking down the hill, or using transportation provided. The term Dignity of Risk was adopted, and so if they felt capable to go on their own, they had every right to do so. Staff had to know and when to expect return. Accountability and medications etc.

    The majority of the adults had work locations and training to go to. Car washes, work working, many enterprises that the community appreciated and used. The laundry used to provide laundry services to the local EMS, until the Province decided that it wasn’t right to to be making a profit, so things were all shut down.

    The Heights had many calls about Clients stealing and for us to keep ‘them’ up on the hill. We would explain that we CAN’T keep people up on the hill. The store owners COULD stop them from entering, or to call the police. We talked to the people many times.

    Heck, I had to go down a number of times, because a few had ‘one too many’, and needed a ride back.

    People got married. Had relationships. Informed consent / permission was quickly checked, if we were concerned about some individuals.
    Yes, Every Right to do so.

    I am one who says that the Heights was a good place, considering many of the options. I like the group homes as well, and the staff and managers work their butts off, but many Group homes tend to have more people living in them than the homes at the Heights had. Locations and staffing usually limits the occasions when one get into town. But they get there!

    There are numerous family homes. Indeed, family homes are always being sought. Check with the local Association or with Pathways. Present viable solutions.

    Labels of course alter and change with the times. From MRC to DSW From patients, to residents to clients. People with needs and challenges.
    The Province has mandated accessibility, but that is slow in coming. Obviously our towns and cities continue to need to have their own challenges addressed.

    For the most part, staff cared and did the best they could. Hell, many had developed great friendships cried because a client was being transferred out.
    And then we were also told that we were not to be friends. That we were staff. Employees. Doing a job. Guess what! Most of us never bought into that.

    the link below is a photo of the old Ontario Hospital School/Orillia. That is the second one. It is the name with the photo, which shows just how far we have come.


  2. Marilyn Dolmage says:

    To classify people as a “population” and in terms of “functionning” is very disrespectful and dehumanizing. And that’s how severe harm is done – and how people later try to justify it. There were 19 such institutions – and this one was really no different. Maybe some lived in nicer rooms (certainly not all), but the people labeled disabled were controlled and captive. It was not “inclusive”. Their lives were very different than staff’s. That’s why there were class actions, settlements and an apology. To deny history is to risk repeating it. We can do better as a society that to defend segregation, and people still deserve better than group homes and seniors’ institutions.

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