Walk Leaders: The Friendly Spike Theatre Band
Text by: Rob Saunders
Photographs by: Rob Saunders
TORONTO 1886: If you stayed at the Asylum for the Insane, your mail was sent to 999 Queen Street; such is the stigma to being incarcerated in a mental hospital. Once you checked in, you never left, society labelled and forgot about you, and the state offered ‘moral therapies’ which confined you to prison-like conditions.
The Friendly Spike Theatre Band, a theatre group of self-described psychiatric survivors presented The Walls Are Filled With The Sound Of Mad People, stories of patients past in a compelling dramatization on historic site of Toronto’s insane asylum. In 1997, the City of Toronto designated the remaining walls (c. 1860) ‘historic structures’, under the Ontario Heritage Act.
Although architect George Howard did not include a perimeter wall in his design for the first mental health care facility in Upper Canada, a wooden wall was constructed in 1852, to be torn down and replaced by a brick wall in 1860. Under the guise of “leisure and unpaid labour activities”, patients built a brick wall over a 27 acre site. This and every imaginable other type of unpaid servitude was prescribed to patients, essential to the operations of the Asylum.
The intention may have been well meaning to provide patients with meaningful, engaging activities, in some cases providing skill sets which would be useful upon discharge. The reality was a state sponsored exploitation of the vulnerable and defenseless.
In a society where custodians and learned professionals flounder, so too do values, laws and good governance; until a new era of enlightenment. By the 1960’s the unpaid labour practice ended and the symbolic 999 address changed to 1001 (1979) to disengage with the disgrace of the past. The surviving walls are a symbol to the exploited patients who worked, lived and died on these grounds, and their loss of dignity and freedom.
Nine memorial plaques were dedicated on September 25, 2010 surrounding the Heritage psychiatric patient built wall at what is now known as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). They tell the varied stories of unpaid patient labour. Every silver lining has a cloud.