The community living movement has undergone some major developments since its early beginnings, and Kenora Association for Community Living has been involved in advancing the cause for the majority of time progress has taken place. The community living movement advocates for equality and diversity in communities, which means that everyone has the right to the same opportunities to participate in community life, including chances to live, learn, work, enjoy recreational time, and contribute to community, regardless of whether or not a person has an intellectual disability.
It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly progressive action began. The Canadian Association for Community Living describes early activities in Canada dating as far back as 1930, with the CACL being formed in 1958, whereas the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services posits that attitudes toward people with intellectual disabilities were changing by the 1960s, when the community living movement was spreading across North America.
KACL's beginnings were much the same as other associations for community living in Canada. February 9, 1961, the association held its first meeting, two months before becoming incorporated, when a group of local parents gathered to discuss their dissatisfaction with their children not being allowed to attend school because of their IQ scores. At that time, two decades before Bill 82 and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Section 15(1)), tests in Kenora were performed by the Child Development Centre's psychologist, and children who scored less than 70 on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale were clinically diagnosed as being mentally retarded and were not admitted into public schools. Mental retardation was a medical term used to describe people's intelligence quotient. It became a negative term from people's ill-use, and today usage typically has no bearing on its definition - to slow or delay. Efforts by the group of parents led to classes being offered in the old Norman Community Centre and then, in 1964, Kinvalley school. Kinvalley was a purpose-built school, named after the Kenora Kinsmen for their generous contributions that led to the school's construction; Norvalle Sommerville was its first teacher. Despite the positive grassroots activities of local parents, their children would eventually become adults and there were few alternatives for adults with an intellectual disability other than being placed in an Ontario Hospital - an institution.
The community living movement grew from grassroots activities to government involvement in the 1970s. The progressive action gained a lot of attention after Pierre Berton's 1960 Toronto Star article about the living conditions inside Huronia, "What's wrong at Orillia: Out of sight, out of mind," but it started to gain momentum after Walter Williston's report, "Present Arrangements for the Care and Supervision of Mentally Retarded People in Ontario, A Report for the Minister of Health." The Williston report recommended to the government that institutions be phased out and that supports be available, provided, and integrated in the community. Mr. Charlie Strachan, one of KACL's founding members, was acknowledged in the report for providing Mr. Williston with information. Removing people from Ontario Hospitals and getting them back to their home communities was known as deinstitutionalization. In Northwestern Ontario, specifically the Kenora-Rainy River district, people were placed in Thunder Bay's Northwestern Regional Centre. Repatriating Kenorites back into the community from the Northwestern Regional Centre meant that there needed to be housing, efforts to provide spaces for skill development, and opportunities to allow people to reconnect with where they grew up. July 15, 1975, KACL opened its first residential building, a fifteen bed residence, called Charlie McLeod Manor. Two years later, KACL began its Infant Development program. The Infant Development (Infant Stimulation) program began as a pilot project in Etobicoke's Surrey Place Centre in 1974, and KACL was among the first in Ontario to adopt the program, when the pilot phase concluded, in 1977.
The community living movement continued its mission to get people out of institutions during the 1980s, but it also expanded its scope to work toward a vision of inclusive communities. KACL's board of directors hired a new executive director in 1984, who worked hard to define the association's values. Mr. James Retson used Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger's theories to develop the association's Mission Statement and Service Delivery Principles, which continue to guide the association's initiatives and efforts today. Based on the recommendation by People First, the Kenora-Keewatin Association for the Mentally Retarded became the Kenora Association for Community Living, March 10, 1986. To provide people with employment opportunities in the community, KACL opened a dedicated ARC Industries building in 1983; its purpose was to make available skill development that could be used in the workforce, and it sold whatever wares it produced during its daily workshops. Although this was not the first time the KACL had offered this type of skill development model, it was the first time it had provided its own employment space for people with intellectual disabilities to work.
KACL furthered its work to provide more natural living and working environments for people with intellectual disabilities during the 1990s. At the end of the 1980s, KACL closed its large residence, Charlie McLeod Manor, and instead facilitated independent and shared residences, where two to five people living as roommates would be the greatest number of people living in a home. Furthermore, KACL began its Host Family initiative in the early 1990s, an agreement in which a person needing support and the person or persons providing support shared their homes and their lives. The association began an Employment Services program in the early 1990s, which started around the same time ARC Industries closed. Employment Services is geared to the individual, and securing a job for that person in the community, doing something that is best suited to his or her interests, as opposed to a group setting. These initiatives marked a lot of progress toward realizing the ultimate goal of the community living movement, as people had opportunities to live and work in the community.
KACL's initiatives to further the community living movement expanded during the end of the 1990s and throughout the 2000s. In 1996 Sunshine Nursery became Kids' Zone, and then moved to its permanent location in Lakeside the following year. Kids' Zone expanded its services to offer the Toddler program in 2005, it added the SMB program in 2007, and after the 2009 renovation to the Lakeside location, Kids' Zone became the first and only facility in Kenora to have an Infant room. KACL created two programs in 2006 to provide opportunities for people to engage in physical activities: Fitness Friends and Community Wellness. And in 2010, KACL opened the Arts Hub. The Arts Hub, and the opportunities it provided for all people to explore their artistic interests, was unique to KACL and to the community living movement in Ontario. These initiatives contributed to making Kenora an inclusive community, and they provided people with an intellectual disability opportunities to live, work, and enjoy recreational time in the community of their choosing. However, the community living movement could not yet be defined as fulfilled or achieved, rather it remained an ongoing effort.
Like all other participants in the community living movement, KACL was necessarily changing its service models to accommodate the requirements of the people it serves. In March 2009, Huronia was the last institution to close in Ontario, which marked the last stage of the deinstitutionalization process; while this was certainly a major milestone and an achievement for the community living movement, it represented a new development. Many people receiving support from KACL, and virtually all people who will receive support in the future, had never been in an institution. After over fifty years of providing services to Kenora, and being part of the community living movement, KACL is now best characterized as being adaptive to change.
KACL's commitment to social justice continued to be one of the driving forces behind the work. Mr. Retson retired in 2013, following his 29 year tenure as executive director. The board of directors hired Ms. Debbie Everley as the new executive director. The association moved forward in its advocacy work, with the grace, precision, empathy, and focus on building and maintaining strong relationships through positive conversations, guided by Ms. Everley's belief that all people are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole.