Through trying to uncover the truth about her dead half-brothers, filmmaker Barri Cohen reveals the tragic, horrendous history of the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia, Ont., in the documentary Unloved: Huronia’s Forgotten Children (on CBC Gem).
“I knew when I was a kid that I had a half brother named Alfie, who my dad just said was really disabled and he was sent as a child to this hospital in Orillia,” Cohen told Yahoo Canada.
Alfie died when he was 23 years old, in 1973.
Much later, Cohen's father revealed that he had another son too, Louis. Cohen's father said he was "sick and died at home when he was two."
In 2013, Cohen learned about a class-action lawsuit brought forward by survivors of the Huronia Regional Centre and activists. They were seeking redress for physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The suit was eventually, contentiously, settled out of court for $35 million, but as Cohen began reading about the settlement and reading the statement of facts from survivors, she was "floored."
“I couldn't believe what I read and I just knew in my heart that nobody in Ontario knew this, unless you were institutionalized, unless you were a survivor or a family member,” Cohen said. “I knew some media was covering the trial, and had interviewed [Patricia Seth] and Marie [Slark], and their litigation guardians, but I thought there was a deeper story here.”
"Also, I wanted to know about what happened to my brothers and the only way to really understand that was through the memories, in terms of what it was like to live there, through the stories of survivors themselves."
'In his mind I was braindead and dangerous'
Patricia Seth and Marie Slark were class action litigants and are also featured in Unloved: Huronia’s Forgotten Children.
Seth was sent to the then-named the Ontario Hospital School at age seven.
“My parents, my dad mostly, looked down at me because in his mind I was braindead and dangerous,” Seth told Yahoo Canada.
Slark went to the institution around age seven as well, in 1961, after the children's aid society got involved with her family because of "neglect."
“We had a bunch of psychopaths taking care of us, like we weren’t people in their eyes," she says in the documentary. "We were just animals with no feelings.”
What's chronicled in Cohen's film is the extensive history of abuse at Huronia Regional Centre, first opened as the "Orilia Lunatic Asylum for Chronic Patients" in 1861. Throughout its history, some parents could not afford to keep their children at home, particularly those with disabilities. As described by Katharine Viscardis, whose research is chronicled in "The History and Legacy of the 'Orillia Asylum for Idiots,'" the institution was a form of "immediate care."
Dr. Madeline Burghardt, author of "Broken: Institutions, Families and the Construction of Intellectual Disability," explains that oftentimes, families were "under pressure" to institutionalize their children because parents would be "too absorbed by the needs of the disabled child" to care for their other children.
Of the institutions in Ontario, Huronia was considered the worst of them all.
A 1960s exposé from reporter Pierre Berton for the Toronto Star documented issues of overcrowding, understaffing, an "appalling" stench and a series of "terrifying" problems, including a patient who suffocated to death.
Parents were rarely able to step foot beyond the main administration building but even with these published details, the provincial government seemingly did nothing, and kept the institution in operation. It officially closed in 2009.
After the class-action lawsuit was brought forward, the government invited survivors and family members to the property to help jog their memories of what they experienced. In footage that Cohen has in the film, as survivors walk through the building, many of them point out exact spots where they would be terrorized, abused, hit, sexual assaulted and put in straight jackets as children.
'Out of sight, out of mind'
The concept of eugenics plays a large part in the story Cohen tells in Unloved: Huronia’s Forgotten Children and the realities of this part of Canada's history.
As Burghardt explains in the film, the strength of capitalism and the need for a strong workforce resulted in acts to ultimately eliminate those who were "not productive" and "undesirable" members of society.
"Out of sight, out of mind," Seth says in the film.
But unfortunately, a lot of those principles still impact recent history, long past the Huronia Regional Centre closure.
If we fast forward to the COVID-19 times, the pandemic exposed an extensive amount of neglect and harm done in seniors long-term care homes.
“We've heard this with long-term care in the last few years because of the pandemic,” Cohen stressed. “Where's the oversight? Where's the accountability? There's a problem with the institutions themselves.”
The filmmaker added that many of these survivors are now on disability pension, describing it as "a license to be in poverty for the rest of your life." Currently, the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) income support is up to $1,228.
"I'm very upset about that," Cohen said. "There is poverty, an enormous amount of poverty, and I think those are some of the conversations that need to follow, when we think about the lives of people living with disability."
For Seth and Slark they both hope that institutions like Huronia are never allowed to operate.
"[I hope] they include us in the community," Slark said. "It's not our fault that we were born the way we were. They could have had children like us."
Seth added that she wants "community," connections, friendships and empathy to come out of a story like this.
"I'm hoping a film like this ... raises awareness around our beautiful differences and how we can support each other in new ways, better ways," Cohen said.