By Victoria Freeman
Birds make me think about freedom.
They can go where they want and don’t have to talk about it.
It’s a gift in itself because it’s something that doesn’t come overnight.
You have to work on it. If you have it, it’s just there, like a light.
These words, from a person who lived for 20 years in a large Ontario institution for people with intellectual disabilities, inspired the title and overarching theme for Birds Make Me Think About Freedom, a play I co-created in 2018 with members of L’Arche Toronto’s Sol Express performance ensemble[i], led by Cheryl Zinyk, with assistance from Jumblies Theatre.[ii]
My late sister Martha had lived at the Rideau Regional Centre in Smiths Falls from 1960 to 1973. Birds was created through funding remaining from the court-ordered settlement for former residents of three such institutions, the last of a province-wide system that was finally shuttered in 2009.
Because the lawsuits were settled out of court, survivors’ stories had not been widely shared. Our aim was to educate the public about this shameful and shocking chapter of Ontario’s history and honour those who suffered and died in the institutions, as well as advocate for others still held in similar institutions in other provinces.
But how do you research and ethically represent a history that has been experienced by people with intellectual disabilities, some of whom do not use words to communicate?
Most written records were created by the institutions themselves or are held by families who frequently had extremely limited contact with their institutionalized children. The remaining survivors are aging, some infirm; many have already died. Some are deeply traumatized even decades after their release, for they were abandoned by their families, isolated, suffered abuse and neglect, and were often punished for protesting mistreatment. Would they be willing to remember? Would remembering be retraumatizing? If they were not able or willing to speak, was it ethical for others to speak for them?
Cheryl and I began our research and creation process by consulting a trauma psychologist who worked with people with intellectual disabilities; we subsequently identified three survivors who agreed to provide guidance to us for all phases of the project, from developing plans for listening sessions with other survivors to providing feedback on performative approaches and then the play itself.
We discovered that memories and experiences of institutionalization were somatic, kinetic, auditory, and visual as well as verbal, and could be conveyed to the project team through movement, song, visual arts, and other means, while some institutional survivors had very minor intellectual impairment and gave extensive and vivid oral testimony. As survivors were not trained performers and repeated live performance was potentially retraumatizing, we chose to use short videotaped or audiotaped survivor testimonies in the production – and only sparingly.
The Sol Express performers who co-created and performed in the play also had intellectual disabilities but had not been institutionalized themselves. As we wrote elsewhere: “Our project …facilitates intergenerational transmission of this hidden history, and challenges the performers to respectfully tell stories about disability that are not their own, though based on the same harmful attitudes they continue to resist.”
But how could they learn about this history, and learn directly from survivors, without becoming traumatized themselves, especially when they realized, as one performer put it, that “this could have been me” ? How could they stay safe during rehearsals and performances if they were repeatedly representing such painful experiences? Would they want to tell such stories?
As the performers listened to the stories of survivors, survivors’ family members and friends, both in person and through video and other media,[iii] they learned that the institutions were not shuttered buildings, but systems of “care” that denied freedom and choice — and their commitment to telling these stories solidified. All of us struggled with the emotional difficulty of the material, but we worked together to take care of ourselves with breathing and grounding exercises and by building a nest of connection where all would be safe. We developed an artistic approach to convey the difficult truths of institutionalization and the survivors’ hard won wisdom by working with symbols and metaphor (caged birds, released birds, birds who have always been free) and other forms of indirect expression; this approach was understandable and non-traumatizing to the cast, to survivors who had contributed to the show, and to other people with disabilities in our audiences.
We also realized our play needed to be not only about past suffering, but also about deinstitutionalization and the future. As one actor says at the beginning of the show: “Our play is a journey that takes us to some dark places…but we don’t stay there.” We asked new questions: what had given survivors the hope and courage to continue? We learned, for example, that Marie had taught herself to knit at Huronia, using bobbypins for knitting needles.
Through words, visual art, dramatic improvisation, and movement we explored themes of freedom and choice, as well as connection, separation, confinement, mistreatment, resistance, and resilience. We created an honouring ceremony to remember the names of those who had been buried in graves marked only with numbers. With Anishinaabe actor Jamie Oshkabewisense, we researched stories of Indigenous survivors,[iv] one of whom gifted us with an eagle staff he had made. Singer/composer Lieke van der Voort used voice to express the inexpressible. We ended the play with a haiku jointly written by the cast: “Beat strong and steady/Our hearts and wings together/ Fly with other birds,” offering an alternate vision of inclusive living and interdependence.
The play premiered at the 2018 Toronto Fringe Festival to standing ovations and was awarded Patron’s Pick, but the true reward was when some survivors attended three nights in a row – we knew then that we had represented their experience truthfully. Others reported their favourite moment was the animation where the birds (painted by Sol Express artists) burst out of the institution and flew away to freedom.
We were subsequently invited to perform at the ten-year commemoration of the closing of the institutions in March 2019 as well as in London last fall. We hope to bring Birds to Ottawa when pandemic restrictions lift.
Victoria Freeman is a writer, multidisciplinary artist, educator, and public historian. She co-wrote the film By These Presents: “Purchasing” Toronto, which was accepted at the now postponed 2020 Glasgow Short Film Festival, and has co-written two plays, The Talking Treaties Spectacle, performed at Fort York at the 2017 Indigenous Arts Festival, and Birds Make Me Think About Freedom, which premiered at the 2018 Toronto Fringe Festival. A World Without Martha: A Memoir of Sisters, Disability, and Difference was published by UBC Press in 2019.
[i] L’Arche Toronto is part of an international organization ,”where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life in a community with a wide circle of family, friends, and neighbours.” See https://www.larchetoronto.org. Sol Express is an innovative creative and performing arts program developing the talents and skills of artists with intellectual disabilities. They were joined by assistants and other performing artists on stage.
[ii] Jumblies Theatre is a Toronto organization with national reach “that engages in collaborations between professional artists and diverse people and communities”, expanding “where art happens, who gets to be part of it, what form it takes and which stories it tells.” See. www.jumbliestheatre.org.
[iii] We watched the video The Freedom Tour, by People First of Canada; were visited by Huronia litigants Marie Slark and Pat Seth and their litigation guardians as well as another survivor from L’Arche Ottawa; drew on Gordon Ferguson’s book Never Going Back: The Gordon Ferguson Story: Lessons from a Life of Courage, Strength and Love (Brockville: Brockville an District Association for Community Involvement, 2016), and Remember Every Name’s YouTube video testimonies of survivors
[iv] A significant number of Indigenous people ended up in these institutions, for various reasons; there has been little research to date on their experiences.