Join us on June 7th, 7:00 Pm at the Brockville Arts Centre for a free viewing of "Unloved Huronia's Forgotten Children".
Filmmaker Barri Cohen leads part detective story, part social history in UNLOVED – HURONIA’S FORGOTTEN
CHILDREN as she uncovers the truth about Alfie and Louis, her two long-dead half-brothers. They were
institutionalized at the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia in the 1950s, with one brother unceremoniously buried
in secret in an unmarked grave as a small child. Their lives were cut short, but their story stands as a microcosm of
the immense tragedy of the western world’s 20th century disastrous treatment of intellectually disabled children
and youth. Through the interwoven narratives of a POV family story with critical institution survivors, a question
preoccupies the film: how do we allow ourselves to dehumanize the most vulnerable people in our care?
UNLOVED – HURONIA’S FORGOTTEN CHILDREN is a heartbreaking yet redemptive work that moves outwards
from a highly personal and painful family secret to an investigation of hidden, searing truths about an entire
government-enabled system of institutional cruelty and ugliness against vulnerable children. Yet, humanity is
hopefully restored by assembling community and survivor testimony, along with the filmmaker’s insistence that
these experiences be fully recognized and memorialized.
WHAT IS HURONIA?
It’s a haunted set of derelict buildings today and a place of nightmares in the memories of survivors who lived their
childhoods there long ago. It was one of three institutions created in Ontario in the 20th century to house the
intellectually disabled child. It’s part of a network of institutions that made claims to care, train, and make lives
better for children, youth, and adults who aged in place. But Huronia Regional Centre and its sister institutions were
not unique to Ontario or even Canada. On the contrary, it was typical for institutions of its day — indeed, some still
exist in Canada and across North America, even in Europe. And yet – as the film reveals, Huronia tragically breached
its standards of care, again and again.
Initially called in 1876 THE ORILLIA ASYLUM FOR IDIOTS AND THE FEEBLE MINDED, its ethos was to remove
the “stain”, shame and burden of “retardation” and “otherness” from families by housing the intellectually disabled
far away — perhaps educate them if possible — but more likely keep them fed and locked up, often forever. Countless
such places sprung up across North America since the 1900s, but Huronia was the most overcrowded – with more
than 2,500 residents in its heyday and staff in the hundreds. Its doors were locked for good in 2009.
Canadians know virtually nothing of what went on inside in places like Huronia: the neglect and abuse, the daily
humiliations, and vast breaches of standards of “care”. In 1960 Ontarians were first alerted to neglect in an expose –
but its author – the celebrated late journalist, Pierre Berton, never knew how very much worse it was for the children
locked up there.
“Remember this: They said [of the Concentration Camps] they did not
know what went on behind those walls. No one had told them. Well,
you have been told about Orillia. Prisoners have better facilities.”
Pierre Berton, 1960, Toronto Star
( from his exposé on Orillia’s Ontario Hospital School)
The class action settled in 2013 out of court and included reparations for survivors from 15 similar institutions across
Ontario. But without their day in court, survivor testimonies remain largely hidden. UNLOVED – HURONIA’S
FORGOTTEN CHILDREN brings them out of the shadows and follows survivors, former workers, activists, and
supporters as they embark on a final mission of redemption: to create a proper monument acknowledging the vast
number of unmarked graves in the Huronia Cemetery. It’s an act echoed by the filmmaker’s family – who come to
terms with the mystery and shame of a disappeared dead brother.