Let's Talk - Sharing the Stories and Voices of Correctional Services Canada

Faces of CSC: Dave St. Onge

May 24, 2024

“It’s just a side of our culture that most people don’t get to see. This is one of the places they can have a peek. It’s not just about the crime and punishment, it’s also the art and culture. Basically, the folk art produced by the offender population is astounding in some cases.”

Dave St. Onge was always interested in history. When he was 14, he volunteered at the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes. His first paid job was as museum assistant at Fort Henry in 1981. In 1984, Dave got a summer job right out of high school at the Canadian Penitentiary Service Museum. He was planning to do a bachelor’s degree in history at Queen’s University, so working at the museum was a dream job.

Dave St. Onge,  Historian/curator, Canada’s Penitentiary Museum, Kingston, Ontario

Dave St. Onge, Historian/curator, Canada’s Penitentiary Museum, Kingston, Ontario

At the time, the penitentiary museum was in a small, limestone coach house at the Correctional Staff College.  In 1985, to celebrate Kingston Penitentiary’s 150 anniversary, the museum moved to Cedarhedge, the large limestone house across from the prison that was formerly the warden’s residence.

“We had two rooms on the first floor for display, and the rest of the first floor was the warden’s office and admin offices for Kingston Pen,” says Dave about the museum’s first few years when visits to the museum were by appointment only.

Back in 1973, it was decided that the museum in Kingston would be the national museum. The museum at Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick closed and sent more than 100 artifacts. As with most museums, most of the artifacts remained in storage until the early 2000s when the exhibits expanded to fill the entire first and second floor. Correctional officer and offender uniforms, insignia, punishment and restraint devices, contraband, escape paraphernalia, offender art and improvised weapons made by inmates are on display.

Dave talks about how the museum’s collection continues to grow with items from institutions across the country.

“We will often be sent things by institutional staff. You know, they're cleaning out storage areas, or, in some cases, they’ve confiscated things more recently and are finished with the investigation,” says Dave. “If they think it's unique, it often comes to us. It's actually in Commissioner’s Directive 568-5, Clause 22c, regarding disposal of seized items. Anything that is unique, may be offered to us.”

Other artifacts come from estates. Veteran officers pass away, and their family doesn’t want the souvenirs their loved one had kept. The Friends of the Museum has a budget, fundraised through donations and admission fees, to purchase articles on the open market.

“We just acquired two extremely rare items,” says Dave. “A Halifax penitentiary uniform button that dates prior to 1880. We also just acquired a Manitoba penitentiary embroidered cap badge from a collection on Vancouver Island that we believe belonged to Deputy Warden D.D. Burke, and dates to about the 1880s. He left Manitoba Pen in 1893 to go West to B.C. Pen where he completed his career.”

There are also modern artifacts that are a piece of history in the making.

“We just acquired a drone from Collins Bay,” says Dave. “We also acquired the pigeon backpack from Pacific Institution. So, we now have very recent examples of both high and low tech methods of smuggling.”

The museum is open seven days a week from May to October, and admission is by donation. Last year, 31,000 people came to see its unique artifacts. In the last 25 years, there have been more than 679,000 visitors. The museum received the Greater Kingston Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Award for Hospitality & Tourism in 2002 and 2022.

A large part of the museum’s success is thanks to Dave’s dedication and his love of history.

Forty years on, he says, “Even after all that time, I'm still learning about our history and some astounding stories that cover the spectrum from heart wrenching and tragic to triumphant, and always fascinating.”

You can read more stories about Canada’s Penitentiary Museum at Cedarhedge Turns 150 - Canada.ca. Watch for our upcoming podcast this summer about the museum, celebrating its 60th anniversary.

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