Huronia Regional Centre (HRC) and places like it were touted as centres of community, productivity and education for the people in their care, but in the years since their closure, survivors have instead told harrowing tales of trauma, abuse and neglect.
Filmmaker Barri Cohen’s documentary Unloved – Huronia’s Forgotten Children, which premeires at Hot Docs Film Festival on May 3, details the severe neglect and abuse faced by HRC’s residents. Cohen discovered she had two half-brothers she never knew about, and in 2013 when a class-action suit over the conditions at HRC was settled, she found out that they lived and died there. Following that revelation, she learned about the horrors that her brothers faced alongside the centre’s other residents. Her brothers were nonverbal, but even those who could speak often had their words disregarded.
“Even when survivors spoke up to authority, they were dismissed or they were beaten for it, or their own parents would say, ‘You’re lying, you’re making it up,’” Cohen said. “They weren’t believed and that infuriated me.”
There was a lot of pressure on families, especially poor working class families, to leave their disabled or “unwanted” children in institutions like HRC. In addition to having few avenues of support, there was also a pervasive ableist belief that disabled children didn’t have the capacity to miss or even recognize their family in the first place. Along with HRC in Orillia, Muskoka had its own regional centre in Gravenhurst.
Cohen was always very close with her father, which made it all the more shocking when she found out the truth about her half-brothers, Alfred and Louis. She was amazed that her father had kept so many secrets, including some that he took to his grave. The authenticity and urgency of exploring an issue connected to her own family history helped her push through the difficult subject matter.
Though she wishes she could have had these conversations with her parents, Cohen was able to bond with her remaining family by sharing stories and facts they had learned about Alfie and Louis. She couldn’t believe so many mysteries still remained in a family as close as hers.
“I was just struck by how we think we know people and we know our nearest and dearest, and do we ever really know them?” Cohen said. “Do we ever really know the pain and the shame and the secrets that they carry with them?”
It was haunting for Cohen to dig into the history of her half-brothers and learn about them from old files and medical records. Through her research, she started to feel like she knew Alfred, but it was harder with Louis since he had died at just four years old, less than 18 months after being admitted to HRC.
His medical record seemed to suggest he got a fever and died suddenly, but Louis’ autopsy report painted a picture of severe neglect, Cohen said. Unfortunately, medical information was most of what she was able to discover about Louis since most resident files included little to no detail. Since Alfred lived until 23, his file contained a few personal facts like his appreciation of music and how he liked to stand at the windows and stare out at the world.
Cohen’s father likely knew little about the boys as well. He said Alfie didn’t recognize him and the staff took away any toys he bought for the boys, so he stopped visiting at their instruction. Cohen may never have a full understanding of what her half-brothers were like, but hearing the stories of other survivors helped fill in the gaps in the story of HRC.
“Through their story, I could learn about what this place was,” Cohen said. “The survivors’ living testimony is critical to understanding not just the past but also a cautionary tale for the present.”
Once she started hearing the stories of survivors, she couldn’t get enough. She wanted to know what life was like at HRC from sunup to sundown, and what she found was dismal. Not only did the institution segregate their residents from the rest of society, they were also segregated by ability within the centre.
Residents without disabilities or with fewer needs were used for indentured labour, tasked with cleaning, taking care of other residents and so on. Nonverbal residents like Alfred and others with greater needs were housed together and given no opportunity for training or education. No matter how intelligent they were, residents weren’t educated past Grade 5.
Beyond the neglect, HRC was rife with abuse. Many residents were molested or raped. They were often subject to dehumanizing treatment like being locked in a dark and dirty pipe room alone for days on end. Residents were also restrained chemically by medication and physically through straight jackets and caged cots and cribs. Some were even sterilized against their will.
The anger Cohen felt on behalf of the residents led her to a question: what is it about human beings that makes us treat the most vulnerable among us so poorly?
“We don’t think of ourselves in Canada and North America doing this in the 20th century to people, and it was done,” Cohen said. “This is one of the answers I learned, and as a Jew steeped in Holocaust history, you understand this also: when you dehumanize another person, all bets are off in terms of care and rights and love that you think they deserve.”
After the class action lawsuit over hospital schools was settled in 2013, institutions such as schools for deaf and blind people were the subject to lawsuits as well, often for similar claims of abuse. That along with the discoveries of unmarked graves at residential schools made it clear to Cohen that the problem isn’t just about bad apples. Instead, there’s a systemic problem with these institutions.
Cohen emphasized that the goal is not to condemn small towns or the people connected to these places. It’s about an ineffective and dangerous model of care that allowed the government to push people out of sight and out of mind. She hopes viewers will come to the film with open eyes and ears and consider the contemporary institutions, such as long-term care, that are moving toward the same problematic patterns.
“Ultimately, it’s not about Orillia or about Muskoka, or even about Ontario,” Cohen said. “It’s about a model of care that was very dominant and that we took for granted throughout North America and to some extent in Europe in the 20th century, and to some extent now.”
When Cohen heard the news about the unmarked graves at residential schools, she wasn’t surprised. Indigenous people had been speaking about these injustices for many years and there were similar issues at HRC. Cohen’s half-brother Louis was buried in an unmarked grave after dying at the centre and the cemetery on the property lacked proper markers as well. The absence of a proper burial is “a way of robbing people of their humanity even in death,” Cohen said.
For decades, graves were only marked with numbers signifying the order of death. Instead of using existing records to restore the graves, the government made plaques for each row in the cemetery, listing resident names and death dates. The lack of birth dates was a disrespectful attempt to avoid acknowledging the number of children that died within the walls of the institution, said survivor Betty Bond, and many of the markers aren’t even accurate.
Bond is proud to be a member of Remember Every Name, a group of survivors and supporters who aim to honour the people buried in the HRC cemetery. The group created a monument using left over money from the HRC class action lawsuit and they host a memorial procession on Mother’s Day each year.
“It’s really important to bring this out of the depths of hell basically, and say, ‘Hey, there’s a history here. Do not forget this,’” Bond said. “That’s why we are called Remember Every Name.”
Bond was admitted to HRC in 1963 after becoming a “permanent ward of the Children’s Aid,” and people would be shocked by the things that went on there, she said. She suppressed many memories, but when she visited HRC as an adult following the lawsuit, painful pieces of her childhood came rushing back. It’s a terrible part of Canadian history and she hopes the documentary will open a lot more people’s eyes to the difficult truths behind these institutions.
“At first, I thought it was a nightmare, but then on the other hand, hey, we’re part of history,” Bond said. “We can tell our stories and let the public know and this is what we want.”
During Bond’s time at HRC, fellow resident and survivor Bev Link cared for her. They developed a close bond that remains in tact today. They live together in Bracebridge, and since Link is nearing 82, Bond now has the chance to return the favour and care for her.
After HRC, Bond went on to study wildlife for a semester at Guelph University, which was coordinated through Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Rosseau. In addition to volunteering with organizations like the OSPCA and Community Living, she helps locals care for their animals. Though the early years of their lives are full of tough memories, she’s worked hard to move past the trauma.
“We’ve gone on in life,” Bond said. “It’s part of our history, it’s part of our past. It’s not our future and that doesn’t define who you are.”
Bond is part of a group of seven survivors that will be travelling to the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto to see the premiere on May 3. She’s nervous to see the final cut of the film since she knows it will force her to relive some of the hardest parts of her life, but she doesn’t want to hide from it anymore.
In fact, she’s looking forward to the documentary exposing the truth to people across Canada. “It’s about bloody well time people know about it.”
See the trailer for Unloved – Huronia’s Forgotten Children below. For more information on how to view the film, visit the Hot Docs website.