When the Provincial Lunatic Asylum wanted walls built to close off its inhabitants from the outside world, patients dug the foundations, laid the stones at the base and stacked bricks nearly five metres high.

When the asylum built a branch in Mimico, patients constructed the buildings that would one day house them and landscaped the grounds. For eight years they laboured, erecting buildings now used by Humber College’s Lake­shore Campus.

The inmates washed and mended clothes, transported coal into the asylum and repaired the hospital’s buildings.

They were never paid for their work.

“This is the oldest example of patient-built labour anywhere in the whole province,” says Geoffrey Reaume as he stands next to the south wall of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Queen Street West site, which was built from 1860 to 1861 by the inmates of what was then the Provincial Lunatic Asylum. “The wall is, without any doubt, a sign of discrimination and exclusion.”

Reaume, a York University professor, has made it his mission to make sure people remember the inmates of these psychiatric hospitals as well as their contributions.

As part of Mad Pride Week, which kicks off today, he will be leading a tour of the walls and the CAMH grounds.

In 1881, when the asylum expanded to the west, inmates were sent to build what would later become the Mimico Lunatic Asylum at Lake Shore and Kipling Avenue.

“It was considered a form of treatment to engage patients in labour,” says Agatha Barc, a researcher who runs a website on the history of the Mimico asylum. “From my point of view, it was a form of exploitation.”

Despite the grim symbolism of the walls and the other buildings at the Queen West asylum — built with virtual slave labour, the walls, Reaume says, were meant to keep the inmates from leaving — Reaume is adamant they must be preserved as a reminder of the people who lived and died there, and as a testament to their talents.

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