A Wall’s Heritage: Making Mad People’s History Public

By Geoffrey Reaume

“None found”.1 This was how mad people who built a 19th century brick boundary wall were described in a 1996 City of Toronto Heritage Report. The architect was extolled in this report but the unpaid labourers who actually constructed these walls were literally non-existent. The same year and only a few blocks away from where this report was issued, I found easily available documents in the Archives of Ontario which clearly state who toiled on the wall. This post will discuss efforts to first of all include and engage people with disabilities in public histories, while also bringing to a wider audience disabled people's historical experiences. Secondly, these efforts will also be discussed as a way to challenge prejudiced attitudes towards people with disabilities today by making accessible pasts relevant to contemporary experiences. Finally, it will be emphasized that bringing this history quite literally to the street corner is a way of using publicly accessible spaces to both involve and engage a community of people who have seldom been consulted about how to interpret, preserve and commemorate our own past. This article explores this effort located at Ontario’s oldest continuously operating mental health facility.

It was at this site, from the mid 19th century, that insane asylum inmates toiled for no pay under the guise of “moral therapy”. Ostensibly aimed to improve the mental health of mad people with light work and recreation, “moral therapy” ended up becoming a system of economic exploitation of asylum inmates whereby “therapy” was a cover for using public inmates to build, clean and maintain mental institutions. Asylum operators in 19th century Ontario made no secret of how much money they saved public works by having insane asylum inmates do work for no cost. Indeed, when eastern and western portions of the boundary walls were reconstructed in 1888-89, Toronto Asylum Superintendent, Daniel Clark wrote that the use of inmates in building these walls saved “ten of thousands of dollars” for the provincial government.2 The Toronto Asylum at 999 Queen St. West was originally opened in 1850 where to this day a mental health facility – the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) – continues to operate in what is now a very heavily populated area of the city just west of the downtown core. Asylum inmates built the first stone wall surrounding 50 acres of the asylum property in 1860. However, the east and west walls had to be torn down and re-built in 1888-89 as urbanization encroached on the once pastoral setting so that the property was reduced to 26 acres, the dimensions which still exist today.3

Between 1970-75 the old asylum buildings and the entire north boundary wall were demolished to make way for the new buildings, which eventually had their official opening in 1979.4 All that exists today of the old 19th century Toronto Asylum is the east, west and south boundary walls, along with two brick workshop/storage buildings in the back (south side) of the property. By the early 2000s, there were plans to redevelop the entire site again during which there was talk of tearing down the boundary walls, particularly the most visible and well preserved wall along the east side of this property – the Shaw Street Wall. By this time, I had discovered in my research for my doctoral dissertation, published as a book in 2000, that the boundary walls had been built by asylum inmates, as noted above. Previous to this, the emphasis on preserving the walls, as in the 1970s, had been because they represented the work of a well-known Toronto architect, Kivas Tully.

Thus, while local historical preservationists had advocated saving the wall since the 1970s – and were successful in doing so during the reconstruction done on this site during that decade – this was done by their emphasis on the architectural history of this structure designed by a well known local architect rather than its worth as evidence of the social history of patients who built it and who lived and died behind it. By the time the next major reconstruction yet again threatened the existence of the wall, the emphasis shifted significantly. This shift was due to the active involvement of activists in the mad community in preservation and interpretative efforts, now backed up by primary source research that provided a very different interpretation of the wall’s history.5

Instead of focusing on an architect, the historical importance of this site was re-oriented to being one of the last remaining physical symbols of unpaid patient labour from the Toronto Asylum era. This was a particularly evocative symbol in that patients were made to build the very walls behind which they were confined.6 The 1860 south wall is also notable, for not only is it the oldest part of the provincial asylum at 999 Queen Street West still in existence, it also is the oldest example of psychiatric inmates’ labour anywhere in Ontario.7

Since 1998, public history events within the psychiatric survivor and mad community in Toronto have included using the patient built wall as a site of both commemoration and public education. The first efforts to publicize the labour history of the wall were in the form of a play which was performed at various times between 1998 – 2000, at two venues right next to the property where the wall is situated, as well as at the psychiatric facility itself. This play, “Angels of 999” was written, produced and acted almost entirely (though not exclusively) by psychiatric survivors in the Friendly Spike Theatre Band, including people who were current and former patients at this psychiatric facility. It was based on research from my PhD thesis and the play used the words and experiences of historical patients as was revealed by archival records.8 The patient-built wall was the central motif in the play around which the actors performed, with unpaid labour being a major theme of the play. The building of the wall with unpaid labour was thus publicly acknowledged for the first time and began a public re-interpretation of its past which has continued since then. One psychiatric survivor who was then a member of the Queen Street Patients Council, told me after seeing the play that she had never thought much about the wall before but now she looks at it quite differently and with some pride knowing that patients were the ones who built it. It was with this sense of pride, and also righteous indignation that this history had been so willfully ignored for so long, along with the exploitation it represents of unpaid labour and contempt for the contributions of mad people to our past, that this play catapulted the history of the wall into further venues for public history.

Just as the run of the play was ending, another form of getting the word out about this history in a participatory way, was beginning – wall tours. From 2000 until 2016 when this blog is being written, 142 tours led by myself of the patient built wall have taken place, first as part of Psychiatric Survivor/Mad Pride week events and then reaching out into the wider community. For several years beginning in 2011 mad actors in the Friendly Spike Theatre Band also led public walls tours with singing and acting out historical scenes from this structure’s history. Lasting from one to two hours, depending on the occasion, the wall tours proceed along the entire perimeter of the patient built 19th century boundary walls on the east, west and south sides of the current CAMH property, during which the lives and unpaid work of the men and women who were patients at the old asylum are described near the places they toiled as represented by the wall they built, lived and worked behind. The point of these tours is to both commemorate people whose history has been previously ignored and to draw a direct link with present day prejudices towards people with psychiatric histories, particularly the high unemployment rates and related prejudice that people with psychiatric diagnoses are unreliable and violent – both of which are widely damaging myths.9 The point here is to challenge prejudice by also telling people if they ever hear anyone repeating stereotypes about the “unreliability” of mad people, to tell them to come down to Queen and Shaw (a major street corner most people in Toronto know about) and take a look at, and feel this wall. It is intended that this sort of concrete lesson will resonate with people after the wall tour ends. Some participants have said that they didn’t realize the wall was built by patient labourers prior to the tour.10

These efforts at public commemoration also led to work by myself and others in the Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto (founded in 2001) to install public plaques commemorating the labour of psychiatric patients on this site, with the support of members of the CAMH Archives and the wider mad and local community. After nearly a decade of advocating for these plaques, including wall tours, fundraising and public meetings, the plaques were unveiled in September 2010. The best way to end this account of mad people’s history as public history is to include the wording that is on the main descriptive plaque at the front of the CAMH grounds by the east wall, along a highly visible location on a busy street corner (chosen for just this reason). Along with eight other plaques scattered about the grounds, the plaques serve as a permanent public marker of a history that is now available for all to learn about. It took years of work to get these plaques installed which include carefully chosen words reflecting a critical understanding of mad people’s history as can be found on the first plaque, “Memorial Wall Plaques Dedicated to Patient Labourers”:

Ground plan of the original site and text description
Memorial Wall Plaques Dedicated to Patient Labourers.
Ground plan of the original site and text description.
Photo: Geoffrey Reaume
These patient-built walls are a testament to the abilities of the people whose unpaid labour was central to the operation of asylums in the province of Ontario during the 19th and 20th centuries. The asylum on Queen Street first opened in 1850 and was overcrowded within a few years. The initial idea of work as therapy gave way to the reality of work intended to save the provincial government money through unpaid patient labour. Men worked outdoors on construction, maintenance and farm work, including building and repairing many of the structures behind which they were confined, including the still existing boundary walls on the south side of this property, built in 1860 and the east and west boundary walls built in 1888-89. Women worked primarily inside, doing the sewing, knitting and laundry for the asylum, while also working as domestic servants in both the nurses’ and doctors’ residences not far from this spot. Both men and women also worked in their own sex-segregated wards doing domestic chores such as cleaning, washing and scrubbing floors. Patients also worked in the male (west side) and female (east side) infirmaries, where they helped to care for those of their fellow patients who were sick and dying. Seen by many as the physical representation of prejudiced attitudes towards people with a psychiatric diagnosis, the walls which still stand today are historical monuments to the exploited labour of all psychiatric patients who lived, worked and died on these grounds since 1850.11

Recommended Citation:
Geoffrey Reaume (2016): A Wall’s Heritage: Making Mad People’s History Public. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 20.

[1] City of Toronto By-Law No. 1997-0085, Schedule “B”, Heritage Property Report, Recording Date, September 1996, p. 3.
[2] Annual Report, 1890, 42-3, as quoted in Geoffrey Reaume, Remembrance of Patients Past: Patient Life at the Toronto Hospital for the Insane (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 147. For a discussion of patient labour in 19th century Ontario see: Geoffrey Reaume, “Patients at Work: Insane Asylum Inmate Labour in Ontario, 1841-1900,” in J. Moran and D. Wright, eds., Mental Health and Canadian Society: Historical Perspectives. Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2006: 69-96. Historical studies on the exploitation of labour of people confined in asylums has only recently been discussed as a significant topic worthy of consideration in itself, rather than integrated briefly into wider asylum histories. In addition to the above, see also: Lee-Ann Monk, “Exploiting patient labour at Kew Cottages, Australia, 1887-1950”, British Journal of Learning Disabilities 38:2 (2010): 86-94. See also the varied interpretations of psychiatric patients’ labour in the following collection: Waltraud Ernst (Editor). Work, psychiatry and society, c. 1750–2015 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016).
[3] Reaume, “Patients at Work”, p. 74, 85.
[4] John Court, “From 999 to 1001 Queen Street: A Consistently Vital Resource,” in E. Hudson, ed. The Provincial Asylum in Toronto: Reflections on Social and Architectural History (Toronto: Toronto Region Architectural Conservancy, 2000), p. 194-96.
[5] Terms used to self-identify as psychiatric survivor, consumer, mad, patients, ex-patient, client and other terms are diverse and contentious within the community of people who choose one or another of these identifiers. In order to respect the choices people make, this article will use terms that are used by most of the individuals involved in this history with whom the author is familiar, the most common being psychiatric survivor or mad person.
[6] Reaume, Remembrance of Patients Past, p. 147.
[7] The next oldest surviving example in the province of a building built by insane asylum inmates is from 1861 in Amherstburg, Ontario at the former Malden Asylum Reaume. See: Reaume, “Patients at Work”, p. 76.
[8] I wrote the initial drafts of this play which were then dramaturged by Ruth Stackhouse and Ken Innes of Friendly Spike Theatre Band, and additional script contributions were made by members of the theatre troupe. It was workshopped over a weekend of performances in June 1998, and then performed for 10 days in May 1999 and for two weeks in April 2000, along with several shows at different venues during this time, the last performance being in July 2000. The book launch for Remembrance of Patients Past in April 2000 was centered around the play and, before the play, we went out of the theatre to the nearby west wall where we toasted the wall and all the patients who built it and who lived and died behind it.
[9] Otto F. Wahl, Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995).
[10] Geoffrey Reaume, “Psychiatric Patient Built Wall Tours at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Toronto, 2000 – 2010”, Left History, 15:1 (Fall/Winter 2010-2011): 127-146.
[11] The wording for this introductory plaque, along with the other plaques which have fewer words, is taken directly from PSAT’s original draft of August 2005, submitted with the support of CAMH Archives to the CAMH Administration in February 2006, and re-submitted in May 2008 after another consultation on the plaques. On July 15, 2008 further dialogue arose out of a presentation I made the day before at CAMH sponsored by the Empowerment Council for Mad Pride week events entitled: “Hugging Our History: Why Psychiatric Survivors Need to ‘Own’ Our Mad Past”. This event was attended by about 30 people, including from the CAMH administration, during which discussion of the wall plaques came up leading to further discussion between CAMH and myself the following day as a direct result of a question a CAMH patient asked me: “What is happening with the wall plaques?” As a result, this final wording, with the crucial word “exploitation”, was agreed upon in July 2008, though in April 2010 one more revision was made when the following wording was added into the final line at the suggestion of CAMH and approved by PSAT: “Seen by many as the physical representation of prejudiced attitudes towards people with a psychiatric diagnosis” with the rest of the wording in this line and on this plaque having been written by myself as a member of PSAT.