The Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery has been given new life after years of neglect. Fencing and proper signage have been installed and efforts are being made to identify the 1,511 former patients buried there, including a number of war veterans. Photo from Google Street View

Dignity recovered for forgotten vets

By 
  • November 8, 2020

Patrick James Cox was a decorated soldier honoured for serving in France with the 7th Canadian Railway Troops in 1917, but in 1933 died at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital in Toronto fighting a very different battle.

Cox is one of 12 Roman Catholic veterans of the First World War buried on the hospital grounds in the the 1930s and ‘40s. Each of the 12 has recently received a grave marker honouring their lives and military service to the nation.

The hospital building, now part of the Humber College Lakeshore Campus in Etobicoke, closed its doors in 1979 and for decades the cemetery had been forgotten and unattended.

“A lot of people didn’t know there were burials there,” said Ed Janiszewski, who was employed at the hospital in the late 1970s and discovered the cemetery in 2004. “It was being maintained before (the hospital closed) but it later became a meadow, trees had fallen over and it was used as a dog run because there was no signage. After seeing that I approached the Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto and they helped spearhead it being recognized again and to be supported by the province and (the property) not be sold off.”

Fencing and proper signage have since been installed and Janiszewski, with the help of The Last Post Fund and other organizations including the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), has been helping with restoration efforts and identifying the graves of the 1,511 former patients buried there. The Last Post Fund, with support from  Veterans Affairs Canada, ensures a dignified burial for deceased veterans, with proper funeral, burial and grave marking.

For many families with loved ones buried at the cemetery, it was not so much that they couldn’t afford to transport the remains of their loved one back to their home communities after death. Janiszewski believes for some it was the stigma of mental illness that had them choose to lay their loved one to rest at the site.

“What often happens is they are simply not spoken about,” said Janiszewski of the challenges faced by those struggling with mental health challenges in the early 20th century. “We’re talking about a time where if there was mental illness (known) in the family, it might be difficult (for female family members) to find a husband. It was seen as hereditary and a block in the family name. There would have been quite a stigma, even worse than today.”

During the First World War, a British psychologist coined the term shell shock to describe the post-traumatic stress many soldiers were afflicted with on the battlefield. Of the 24 Catholic and Protestant veterans who recently received grave markers on the former hospital’s grounds, Geordie Elms, retired colonel and president of the Ontario branch of the Last Post Fund, suspects many likely suffered from such trauma.

“I think it’s the natural thing for our country to pay that final respect,” said Elms. “I think our country means to do it and are pretty good at, but it really was a group of people in this case that fell through the cracks and shouldn’t have.”

The hospital opened as the Mimico Asylum in 1889 but changed names several times over the years before finally becoming the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital in 1964. Most of the buildings on the site were built by the patients themselves who also maintained the property. Circumstances for patients suffering with mental illness have improved in modern times and campaigns to end the stigma around mental health in more recent years are further signs of evolving attitudes.

Burial plots at the site were separated by religion with Roman Catholics buried on the west side of the property and Protestants buried on the east and north side. Nearby St. Leo’s Church presided over the parish funerals for the 12 late veterans and other Catholics buried there.

“I think it was quite a privilege for this parish to be responsible for these people who served in the forces that probably suffered immensely because of their experience,” said Fr. Frank Carpinelli, pastor at St. Leo’s, upon learning of the role the church played in laying these veterans to rest. “They would have been among the most unfortunate. We’re having 12 special Masses in the month of November for all our deceased parishioners and we will add a 13th for them.”

Janiszewski says there are likely Second World War and other veterans buried at the site, but that information is still protected under the Library and Archives of Canada privacy legislation and won’t to be released for several more years.

A team was to gather Nov. 7 to freshen up the grounds and to remember and honour the lives of the 1,511 people buried in the cemetery.

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