Front façade with doors open

Entrance to the "New Building," ca. 1950-1955

The New Building

Oak Ridge opened on the grounds of the Ontario Hospital, Penetanguishene on February 21, 1933. It was known at the time as the "Criminal Insane Building" (C.I.B.) although was more often referred to as simply the "New Building." The first patients were all transfers from the psychiatric wing of the Guelph Reformatory.

A certain amount of apprehension went into the planning and preparation for the institution's opening. Given the high unemployment rate in the region due to the economic downturn of the 1930s and the macabre curiosity of viewing 100 "criminally insane" men, a large crowd was anticipated. In the weeks leading up to the transfer, administrators and provincial officials wrote back and forth daily to plan appropriate precautions. Road closures were coordinated and members of both the local and provincial police forces were enlisted to help with the transfer.

The men were transferred from Guelph via a train that was specially commissioned for the event. They arrived in Penetanguishene at 1pm on February 21, 1933 in the middle of a snowstorm. Few locals braved the weather to witness the event - only a reporter and a few young boys (who took the opportunity to throw snowballs) - were reported to have attended. The men were dressed in ordinary clothes and free of shackles.

"Treated as Ordinary Mental Cases"

In spite of their previous involvement with the criminal justice system, administrators in Penetanguishene assured the public that these men would be "treated as ordinary mental cases" ("Ontario Hospital addition," 1932, p. 5). In many ways they were. The day-to-day during the earliest decades of the institution was typical of psychiatric hospitals during the period. Patients were expected to take on (unpaid) employment, helping to clean the wards, serve meals, or maintain the gardens. Occupational therapy was provided with patients weaving wicker, making mattresses, and working in the woodshop. Recreation facilities - a baseball diamond in summer and a hockey rink in winter - were likewise made available along with regular religious services, movies, dances, and a school. Continuous baths were installed from the institution's opening and electro-shock treatments began in the late 1940s.

Where the hospital differed from its neighbouring non-criminal hospitals for the insane was largely in its physical structure and security procedures. The building was small compared to most hospitals in the province with only 152 beds at opening, doubling in size later in 1957. It was a U-shaped design with four patient wards running the length of each of the two-storey wings. The exterior was of a simple brick design with little in the way of ornamentation. The windows featured metal bars and the yards were surrounded by high fencing. Patient rooms included a standard bed, desk, toilet, and sink with heavy prison-like doors.

Institutional Precursors

The Criminal Insane division of the Ontario Hospital, Penetanguishene was not the first attempt by the province to segregate the criminally insane population. It was also not the only institution opened especially for this population in Canada.

Rockwood Criminal Lunatic Asylum

The province - then "Upper Canada" - opened its first "asylum" in 1850. Known as the Provincial Lunatic Asylum, it was located in the west end of Toronto (today the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health).

Early within the history of this institution, a debate broke out between its superintendent, Dr. Joseph Workman, and the surgeon of the Kingston Penitentiary, Dr. James Sampson. Their conflict was centered on which of their two institutions was responsible for the criminally insane: Sampson believed the individuals should be under treatment at the Asylum and would send them to Toronto; Workman feared the danger these individuals might pose to other patients and so would declare them sane and send them back to Kingston. The standoff was temporarily solved in 1855 when the Rockwood Criminal Lunatic Asylum was opened (Museum of Health Care, 2015).

Rockwood initially occupied temporary buildings on the grounds of the Kingston Penitentiary, moving to a permanent building in Kingston in 1868. During its first 13 years, its superintendent, John Palmer Litchfield, attempted to draw the paralells between the criminally insane patient and the non-criminal insane patient. He viewed the two as more similar than different. However, Litchfield died suddenly in 1868 and was replaced by Dr. John Dickson - a man who considered criminal insanity to be a moral failure rather than an illness. He petitioned for the criminally insane of Rockwood to be returned to the Kingston Penitentiary. In 1877 his appeals were successful. An amendment to the Penitentiary Act that year resulted in the return of the province's criminally insane to the Kingston Penitentiary and the transformation of Rockwood to a general asylum.

Half a Century In Limbo

During the 56 year period between the 1877 Penitentiary Act amendment and the opening of the Criminal Insane division of the Ontario Hospital, Penetanguishene in 1933, there was no dedicated institution for criminal insanity in Ontario. Individuals confined in the province with the label of "criminally insane" were transferred between the various public institutions: the Kingston Penitentiary; the Ontario Hospitals in Kingston, Toronto, and Hamilton; the Burwash Industrial Farm; and finally the psychiatric wing of the Ontario Reformatory, Guelph.   

Criminally Insane Institutions in Other Provinces

The opening of the Criminal Insane division at the Ontario Hospital, Penetanguishene in 1933 occurred shortly after similar institutions had opened in other provinces: the Colquitz Mental Home in Saanich, British Columbia in 1919 and the Bordeaux Asylum for Insane Prisoners in Montreal, Quebec in 1927 (Cook et al., 2009; Institute Philippe-Pine, 2008).

Similar to Penetanguishene, both the BC and Quebec divisions were connected to existing institutions: the Colquitz Mental Home was a branch of the Public Hospital for the Insane and the Bordeaux Asylum was connected to the Bordeaux Prison (Cook et al., 2009). In practice, the three institutions overlapped significantly. Penetanguishene distinguished itself primarily in its construction of a new building for the division at the time of its opening.

By Jennifer L. Bazar

Page Last Updated: June 4, 2015


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To Cite this Page

Bazar, J. L. (2015). Establishing "Oak Ridge." In J. L. Bazar (Ed.), Remembering Oak Ridge Digital Archive and Exhibit. Retrieved from