The House of Refuge and the man who couldn’t get away

Nick Seebruch
The House of Refuge and the man who couldn’t get away
Cornwall's Little Historian Sara Lauzon at the House of Refuge monument

CORNWALL, Ontario – Cornwall’s House of Refuge saw over 900 individuals pass through its walls during its time in operation between 1913 and 1952, this is the story of one of those people.

Duncan McKinnon was from Kenyon Township. He was 65-years-old when he was placed in the House of Refuge, now Heartwood Nursing Home on Eleventh St.

It was Oct. 20, 1924 and like many residents at the House, he was probably homeless, unemployed and placed there at the request of the municipality.

Houses of Refuge only existed in Ontario and were created by the government. Each municipality had to be within a certain distance of a House of Refuge and this was the government’s way of dealing with homelessness at the turn of the 20th century.

Cornwall’s House of Refuge was designed to house 30 residents, but there were times were it held more than a hundred.

Residents were given meager accommodations and sometimes even being able to acquire adequate underwear was a struggle.

Everyone at the House of Refuge was expected to work, whether it be inside the house cleaning or outside on the farm on the property. In any case, there was significant stigma attached to residents of these Houses of Refuge. They were poor, perhaps they were also single mothers, many had mental health issues.

Perhaps it was because of this stigma that Dunacn McKinnon desperately tried to escape the Cornwall House of Refuge. He tried to escape many times only to be brought back. This went on until Jan. 23, 1927 when on his latest escape attempt Duncan was killed by a train. Maybe he was trying to board a moving train to get as far away from Cornwall and the House of Refuge as he could. In any case, Duncan McKinnon’s body was brought back to the House of Refuge and like many residents, he was buried there with no ceremony and no monument to mark his grave. Duncan McKinnon will now remain at the Cornwall House of Refuge forever.

The history of the Cornwall House of Refuge and the people who lived there is being researched and chronicled by Cornwall’s Little Historian Sara Lauzon.

Sara is trying to gather signatures for a petition to the federal government to have residents of these facilities like the Houses of Refuge commemorated every year on April 14.

“I want us to have a day where we remember that these were people,” she said in an interview with Seaway News.

If you would like to support Sara’s petition you can find it at this link here.

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