Cornwall’s ‘little historian’ petitions for ‘Poor House Commemoration Day’

'Cornwall's Little Historian,' Sara Lauzon, is petitioning the federal government to recognize April 14, of every year, as Poor House Commemoration Day in Canada. She poses at the St. Lawrence Valley Cemetery monument she fundraised in July 2015, commemorating the graves of 29 unidentified people whose remains were originally found at Cornwall's House of Refuge. They were reburied at the cemetery in the 1980s. Courtesy photo

Sara Lauzon
Special to Nation Valley News

CORNWALL — On March 21, 1928, the Legislative Assembly of Alberta passed the “Sexual Sterilization Act.” This legislation authorized sexual sterilization to individuals living in designated state institutions (Asylums) deemed to have “undesirable traits.” The impact of the Sexual Sterilization Act was substantial. Under this Act, over 4,800 people were sterilized. More than 2,800 persons were sterilized under its two amendments in 1937 and 1942.

I have been researching Cornwall’s history for the past eleven years. Five years ago, one of my biggest passions quickly became shedding light on Cornwall’s House of Refuge, and I have been researching the facility ever since. The majority of my research involves unearthing sad story after sad story. When people stayed in facilities like this, they were not there because they wanted to be.

I have been asked several times how I go about choosing a new project to research. The truth is, I do not choose any projects, they choose me. For the last six months, my mind would constantly drift towards Canada’s forgotten poor; the citizens and immigrants that suffered at the hands of destitution. I was determined to commemorate their lives.

Cornwall’s former ‘poorhouse’ — the House of Refuge — around 1913 when it opened. Courtesy photo

On May 23, I started a petition to the House of Commons. On June 1, it was approved and published. I am asking the House of Commons to recognize April 14, of every year, as Poor House Commemoration Day in Canada. This day will commemorate and celebrate the lives of Canadian and Immigrant citizens that died or lived in an Asylum, a House of Refuge, or a Poor House facility in Canada. The date I have chosen for this holiday is April 14 due to the “Act respecting the Mentally Incompetent Persons and their Estates” being passed in Alberta, in 1937. This Act sounds pleasant because “respecting” is in the title, however, it was beyond demeaning. This Act marked a growing intrusion of the state into the lives of those they deemed “mentally incompetent or unfit.” Canadian citizens in an asylum were no longer capable of managing their economic affairs. The government stripped these people of their own property. Nine years prior, the government of Alberta stripped their citizens of the ability to reproduce. This disgusting sterilization law was directed at “individuals living in designated state institutions deemed to have undesirable traits.”

As Canadians, we discuss, celebrate, and commemorate the lives of famous politicians and prominent Canadian figures. We often forget to shine light on the every day common folk who played a part in shaping Canada into the nation we live in today, no matter how big or small their contribution may have been. People that stayed in these “Poor House” facilities were Canadian Citizens from every walk of life. When people hear the term “Poor House” or “Asylum” they often associate these places with people they deem “less than” others in society. The goal in commemorating “Poor House” facilities is to remind our current and future generations that the people who stayed in these facilities were human. These citizens mattered, and I believe a day to commemorate the lives of these people will show current and future Canadians exactly that.

When creating a petition for the House of Commons, it cannot be passed until it is supported by five persons, and then it needs to be sponsored by an MP. I’d like to thank Guy Lauzon for sponsoring this petition, and for seeing the importance behind it. In order for a petition to be considered, it needs at minimum, 500 signatures. The petition has 120 days to obtain that amount.

I am asking every citizen living in Canada to sign this petition. Let us honour these people, and have this special day considered during the same year we celebrate Canada’s 150th. Let us add a new chapter to Canada’s history; honouring, remembering, and commemorating the lives of Canadians who suffered at the hands of destitution. See the petition.


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