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The History of Therapeutic Recreation in Ontario

Narrative History compiled by Adrienne Gilbert 2006/2007 TRO President

History Timeline document

In preparation for the first poster session at the annual TRO conference, 2006, I was asked to share a visual summary of the timelines of the development of TR in Canada created by a 4th year, University of Waterloo Therapeutic Recreation student, Kelly McKinnon. This inspired me to write more about the development of TR in Ontario so that current and future members of TRO will have a better understanding of their roots. While I have been in the field of Therapeutic Recreation since I started studying it in 1968 and remember a great deal, I have had to count on other resources including an article that my colleague Alison Pedlar and I wrote in 1997 and various TROLINE and inTRO newsletters to help compile the summary. I have also forwarded this summary to several practitioners and former board members to ensure accuracy of the dates.

The first graduates of “recreation for special populations” emerged in 1973 from the new programs created at the University of Waterloo and University of Ottawa, in addition to several colleges. These jobs were initially in mental health, in large provincial institutions for persons with developmental delays and in long term care, but soon expanded to more acute and rehabilitation focused types of agencies such as hospitals. The University of Waterloo designated Therapeutic Recreation as an Area of Concentration in 1972. Initially, the purpose of Therapeutic Recreation was to provide diversionary activities. Put this into context with the fact that the first Therapeutic Recreation text, Therapeutic Recreation Service: An Applied Behavioral Science Approach by Elliott Avedon was written in 1974, followed by Scout Gunn and Carol Peterson’s 1st book, Therapeutic Recreation Program Design: Principles and Procedures in 1978 (and yes, both are still on my shelves). During the 1970's, Bengt Nirje, was consulting with the Ontario Ministry of Health and developing the concept of normalization, whereby he advocated for “normal lives” for all Ontario citizens regardless of their limitations. This continued to support the move to deinstitutionalize Ontario citizens with physical, developmental and emotional disabilities, who until this time had been housed (some would say “warehoused”) in large institutions. In 1979, Hutchison and Lord’s book, Recreation Integration was published based on this philosophy of normalization, focusing on social action and inclusion in recreation opportunities in community based settings.

In 1979, the Ontario Council on Therapeutic Recreation (OCTR) was established as a separate but associated group within the Ontario Recreation Society (ORS). The purpose of this council was to “facilitate the sharing of resources, to promote education in therapeutic recreation practices and techniques, to promote awareness of the therapeutic recreation profession, to ensure high quality care through professional recreation services, and to represent the interests of the profession and the clients to health organizations, educational institutions and government” (OCTR pamphlet, nd). In 1985 the OCTR called for a vote to separate from the parent organization. The membership split 50/50 and since two thirds majority was not achieved, the Council remained as an adjunct to ORS.

Following the development of a strategic plan at ORS, Therapeutic Recreation and Corrections merged to become a “special interest” group in 1991. In 1993, the third International TR Symposium was held in Toronto, bringing practitioners together from across Canada but particularly drawing TR practitioners from Ontario. The first TRforOnt conference was held at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in1994. It was at the 1994 conference that discussions of a stand alone organization reemerged.

In 1995 ORS, the Society of Directors of Municipal Recreation in Ontario (SDMRO) and the Ontario Aquatics Organization merged to become Parks and Recreation Ontario (PRO) with Therapeutic Recreation remaining as a Special Interest Group. It was now called Therapeutic Recreation for Ontario. Marita Kloseck was the first “chair” of TR for Ontario and our newsletter was called “The TROLINE”. The first TROLINE was published in March 1997. In 1997, PRO and TRO hosted a joint conference where the first Annual General meeting of TRforO was held. Initially, the profits from the annual conference were shared with the TR group as it was actually a “joint conference”. This ensured that there would be enough sessions specifically geared to TR and that there would be funds to develop the TR profession. After many hours of work and several drafts, TRO’s first TR Standards of Practice were voted on and endorsed by the membership in 1997. Meanwhile, PRO decided to restructure their organization and voted to dissolve all Special Interest Branches effective Jan. 2000. With this knowledge, the TR board and members began discussing the creation of a stand alone organization. In 1999 a vote was held with 89% of those voting deciding to form a new organization. In November 1999, Therapeutic Recreation Ontario (TRO) became incorporated as a stand alone organization. In June 2000, the first TRO conference, “The Next Chapter” was held in London with Norma Stumbo as the keynote speaker and our newsletter was called “inTRO”. In 2000, the membership voted to support the new Code of Ethics. TRO opened its office in St. Catharines in 20012002 saw the approval of Registration as a precursor to certification. Following the pilot stage, Registration is now in “full swing”. The first TRO Research Annual was published in 2003 focusing on Canadian research and exemplary TR programs. A partnership was established with the Alberta TR Association in 2005 to share resources and information. In 2007, consultant Jon Pascoe helped to guide the board and members through a discussion around the future of TRO, particularly regarding certification and regulation. This included a special videoconference presentation by the executive director of NCTRC, Bob Riley who explained their certification process. A committee comprised of the president, certification and legislation board members met with Jon to develop a discussion paper for circulation to the membership regarding certification and regulation. In addition, the board was guided by the recommendations of the certification committee, which was comprised of 7-10 TRO members. The options for certification and a discussion about regulation were presented at the 2007 AGM followed by a call for a vote. The vote favoured an Ontario model. 

The development of TR in educational institutions also parallels the growth of the profession in Ontario as Therapeutic Recreation was added to their curriculum and new programs were created. Beginning in 1981, Brock University introduced Therapeutic Recreation under Recreation for Special Populations’ courses. By 2000, 4 year majors’ students received a B.R.L.S. degree designating either Inclusive Recreation or Therapeutic Recreation. In 2002, Inclusive Recreation and Therapeutic Recreation were combined with students receiving a B.R.L.S., Honours in Inclusive and Therapeutic Recreation. Meanwhile at the University of Waterloo, Therapeutic Recreation was elevated from an Area of Concentration to an official university option in 1991. In the fall of 2003, the University of Waterloo introduced the Honours BA in Therapeutic Recreation. The post diploma/post degree program began at Georgian College in 1983 with the first graduates entering the field in 1984. In 1993, TR became a specific stream at Mohawk College while Niagara College began offering a diploma in Recreation and Leisure Services with a focus on Therapeutic Recreation in 1995. Other Ontario colleges offer courses in areas such as Recreation for Special Populations, Aging, Therapeutic Recreation, or Inclusive recreation.

The TR profession has grown so much since the 1970’s with many text books, research journals, best practices protocols, registration, standards of practice, code of ethics, and national and provincial organizations. TRO the organization has come a long way since it’s beginnings as the Ontario Council on Therapeutic Recreation and has now grown to over 500 members. It is important to remember that while TRO the organization is relatively new, TR in Ontario is over 30 years old. We all owe a debt of thanks to the many people who have worked so hard to develop this profession in Ontario to this point in time. Who knows what history will say 10 years from now! It’s up to all of us. 

Date: September 2007


Avedon, E. (1974). Therapeutic Recreation Service: An Applied Behavioral Science Approach. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Gilbert, A. & Pedlar, A. (1997). Normalization and Integration: The Canadian Experience. In D. Compton (Ed.), Issues in Therapeutic Recreation: Toward the New Millennium 2nd ed. (pp. 489-505). Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing.

Gunn, S.L. & Peterson, C.A. (1978). Therapeutic Recreation Program Design: Principles and Procedures. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Hutchison, P. & Lord, J. (1979). Recreation Integration. Ottawa, ON: Leisurability Publications Inc.

McKinnon, K. (2006). The development of a Conceptual Foundation in Therapeutic Recreation. Unpublished paper.

Ontario Recreation Society (n.d.). Ontario Council on Therapeutic Recreation [Brochure]. Toronto, ON:Author.

TROLine and InTRO newsletters