1,115 people lay to rest here.

Only 154 of them have headstones.

Wedged between one of the busiest highways in Canada and factory warehouse buildings sits the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery.

10 years ago this space would have been unrecognizable.

Overgrown with weeds, littered with debris and garbage, unidentified and forgotten similar to those buried here.

The patients, children, and staff from the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital are enshrined with the history of stigmatization and discrimination of mental illness. While the stories of those who are buried here may never come to life again, their memory will be passed on to future generations.

Mirroring how mental health was understood at the time, patients were mistreated in life and neglected in death as the cemetery was left withering away.

What had been used as a place for people to walk their dogs has since been cleaned and restored through the help of local activists and the dedicated and devoted volunteers at Among Friends.

The revitalization of the cemetery sparks a critical question that has led artist Anne Zbitnew on a journey to understand how we memorialize those with mental illness, and how we remember those we never knew.

“The stigma we hold against mental health is not new, unfortunately it’s a longer history that we’re still battling with.” says Jennifer Bazar, curator at Humber College’s Lakeshore Grounds Interpretive Centre. She points out that the some of the prejudices experienced through the history of psychiatric centres across Canada including Etobicoke’s very own Lakeshore Asylum, still exist today.

Male patients from the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital

Male patients working on the Hospital

The Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital opened in 1894 and was in operation until 1979. Using male patient labour to build all of its structure.The maintenance of certain service buildings such as the kitchen, bakery, and slaughterhouse all used the incarcerated to sustain the hospital’s survival.

All of the original cottages, tunnels, and assembly buildings that were built to house the patients still remain on the lakeshore grounds having been reconstructed to preserve the culture of Toronto and the memories that lived between those walls.

Few patient records or information about the hospital remain as Bazar explains they were left to deteriorate with the rest of the buildings. She says shame and disownment from families and society rendered patient and staff documents insignificant to collect and keep file. 

While the red brick buildings are now filled with hundreds of students as a part of Humber College’s Lakeshore Campus, it is in the hands of today’s society to continue to pass on the stories that once called this place home.

The poster that inspired Anne Zbitnew's passion for changing how we talk about mental health

Asylum Pub Night Poster

After the psychiatric hospital ceased operation, rumours stigma and folktales followed its closure. Tours through the underground tunnels were organized while ghost stories were told as people walked the very trails patients carved decades prior.

Bazar states that the inaugural opening of the tunnel tours did entail a ghost style theme full of fictionalized haunted horror stories. But after local mental health organizations got word of the halloween events in what’s left of the hospital they protested and put an end to the misrepresentations. 

 

“When we use halloween any sort of mental health topic as a costume or as a horror movie, haunted house, or ghost story your taking a marginalized population and adding to the stereotype which will only perpetuate a stigma”

Ghost tours and haunted houses were not the only creations derived from the institutions history. Posters for haunted pub nights filtered throughout south Etobicoke, gleaming over the tragedy and suffering that hundreds had experienced.

Anne Zbitnew, now a media professor at Humber College, recalls the first time she was faced with one of the posters. What was advertising a halloween themed bar night using images of real patients from the Lakeshore Hospital, fell from Zbitnew’s shelf onto the floor, having never seen it before.

She took the poster and redesigned it in a way that would “untell the story” and give movement and life back to the person exploited in the picture. This became a life long project for Anne and the topic to her masters thesis explaining how it truly chose her. 

Having signed a 99 year lease 12 years after the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital shut down, Humber College has taken initiative to portray an authentic history and educate current students about the grounds and advancements in mental health awareness.

Although the neglect and abandonment of the hospital and cemetery is not Humber’s responsibility, the school continues to make efforts to rectify inaccurate representations and falsities about the lands past. The tunnel tours, organized by Bazar, are now offered year round, as they take on a more informative approach detailing the history of patient and staff experiences and treatments.

While the cemetery isn’t a focal point of the tours Bazar says that “even though we aren’t physically taking the group to the cemetery it’s important to know that it’s a part of the story. It’s a part in different way as it helps us to talk about the stigma that predates our current situation.”

The college has held numerous of Anne Zbitnew’s exhibits including Visualizing Absence, projects by students such as Secrets of an Ever Changing Landscape, and other instalments by former inmates of the hospital.

One of her most recent works involved the support of Humber College Visual Arts and Digital Arts(VADA) students along with the help of Media Studies Professor, Cole Swanson. Together they inscribed the names of every person buried at the cemetery on rocks outlining the perimeter of the land with them.

“Perhaps the people buried there don’t want to be remembered maybe there was shame behind it.”

Zbitnew confirms that all the headstones placed at the cemetery were provided by the hospital and that the ones without identification would have never been given any in the first place.

Only one record exists of all the plots at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery along with a website that compiles a list of people buried there. Since majority of the people buried here are without identification these resources have been made accessible online for friends and family members that might want to try and find their loved ones. 

Whether it had been a lack of documented evidence, a lack of concern, or the weight of stigmatization, she proposes that maybe this is how it should be after all.

List of People Buried at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery

Coming from an environmental background, the artist’s projects have incorporated materials with temporary physical existence in order to protect and preserve the environment as is. In Visualizing Absence Zbitnew, Among Friends, relative’s of former patients, and local community members wrote all the names of those who passed on biodegradable paper that was then tied to one of the trees inside the cemetery.

Toying with this notion of reflection rather than permanency Zbitnew invites the idea of having a place to reminisce rather than a material commemoration. When asked what she would like to see be done with the cemetery she replied, “ A place to sit down and reflect would be nice. Like a bench, if you do go there you can understand a little bit more about the cemetery.”

Some may argue that a permanent piece of identification is integral to memorializing the lives lived at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital while others believe the importance is on remembering those stories and carrying them forward.

For the community members who fought to preserve the cemetery who dug out by hand the row markers and headstones that were overgrown it was about reclaiming the respect for those buried by regularly maintaining it just like any other cemetery. It became a way of connecting and understanding old perspectives of mental health and new one’s.

Society has come a long way in regards to understanding mental illness since the existence of the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital. By respecting history you respect current efforts and contemporary discussions. While awareness about mental health has increased since then Zbitnew says the language we use today still encapsulates the same stigma that affected patients 40 years ago.

 

“He’s nuts

“That’s insane

“It’s crazy

 

We use them as a descriptive words, when what we actually mean is that it’s outrageous.

Crazy was a diagnoses, people were considered feeble minded idiots.

But those words are peppered throughout our language.

Rather than dwelling on the past, we can actively change the way we talk about mental illness today remembering where we came from and who came before us.

 

“It’s time to think about bringing it out of our everyday language.”