‘We by no means thought it will take this lengthy’: Searching for public consciousness, entry to reformatory lands in Guelph

Alex Smith and Brian Skerrett pose with Smith’s pup Moneypenny at the former Guelph Correctional Centre lands by a stone wall on Aug. 25, 2022.

Will the Yorklands be lost?

Yorklands Green Hub (YGH) seeks to preserve and utilize the former Guelph Correctional Centre (GCC) lands for the public, but YGH members are concerned that much may be sold and developed.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” said Norah Chaloner, chair of YGH, about the land itself, which is located at 785 York Rd. in Guelph.

“We’re trying to get more and more public awareness of it.” She explained that it is not just about knowing the land is there, but preserving it for future generations.

Chaloner said they formed the non-profit years ago to secure 70 acres of land to designate for cultural use and environmental sustainability initiatives.

“We never thought it would take this long,” said Chaloner. “We do have more support now than we’ve ever had, but we need even more.”

Until recently, it was believed by the group that the parcels of land owned by the province would be sold separately, but there have been some changes to put the packages together. The YGH was focused on acquiring parcel No. 2, which includes ponds, wetlands and natural areas near the former GCC, but now they are also looking at parcel No. 3, according to Chaloner.

Vice-chair of YGH, Alex Smith, a retired lawyer, spoke about the land itself and its value, historic and otherwise.

“The long and short of it is there’s not a whole lot of land on this part that can be developed. There’s some, but not as much as you might think. And, the other issue is the historical buildings,” Smith said.

He explained that the GCC lands were built up by the prisoners themselves. “I don’t look at this place through rose-coloured glasses, though,” said Smith. “I mean, one of the things it’s famous for is the number of riots.”

The prisoners worked with materials they had and created what Smith referred to as “a circular economy,” learning everything from agricultural skills to woodworking and masonry during their time there. The prison was open from 1911 to 2001.

“The theory was that if you put the prisoners in a nice-looking place, give them responsibility to keep it nice, they’ll take pride in it and hopefully develop a pride in themselves,” Smith said, as he gestured toward the lengths of stone walls prisoners built that he hopes will be a preserved feature.

Brian Skerrett, chair of Heritage Guelph, said the walls are listed for protection, and a parcel of land is protected, but there are others that are not.

“There are other parcels that also belonged to the reformatory, like quarries, which are all over the city,” said Skerrett, who thinks there could be a collective designation, but said that studies are ongoing.

Skerrett expressed concern for the existing buildings, structures, and even the ponds located on these lands, for they were also built and are not natural. Running along York Road, before the larger ponds, is Clythe Creek, which the YGH shared will be completely gone with the city’s York Road reconstruction.

“There is no guarantee what it will look like, and I have made inquiries,” said Skerrett, who feels the city will push through with work they have already started.

“They put so much in motion before anybody knows about it,” he said. “And then it becomes a done deal.”

Both men agreed that there are already steps in place to permanently change the lands that will impact the history and the environment.

“I still haven’t given up on Clythe Creek. I hope that once they get closer (to doing the reconstruction), people will learn what they’re going to do,” said Smith.

Educating Guelph residents about the land, the history as well as future possibilities, is part of the work YGH is doing, and its members run programs such as walks and events. Their hope for the future is to utilize the one building and develop an educational centre with public amenities.

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