An award-winning documentary about the Huronia Regional Centre (HRC) is set to air on CBC this weekend.
Filmmaker Barri Cohen created the Unloved: Huronia’s Forgotten Children as a way to tell the tragic but true and personal stories of those who were abused and mistreated at the former Memorial Avenue institution for those with developmental disablities.
In 2013, Cohen learned about the class-action lawsuit led by former residents of the HRC against the province claiming physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
Cohen seeked answers for her two deceased brothers, who once resided at the HRC. During her research sessions, she unwrapped some of the horror stories of victims who had been abused.
“I was floored,” she said. “I thought, ‘I bet you nobody knows this story at a wide span.’”
Cohen started filming with her sister when they visited the HRC in 2013 during tours that were given to survivors and their families.
“That was the first time we saw this ghost town,” she said. “That’s how this all began.”
Cohen’s brothers were young children when they went into the HRC. Alfie was about four years old and he died at 23. Louis was about two-and-a-half years old and he died some 18 months later. Their deaths largely remain a mystery.
“I’ll never really know other than what is in their patient records,” Cohen said.
Alfie had epilepsy, which was progressively getting worse, according to his records. He was found dead in his bed early one morning in the pavilion unit. Louis’s death was troubling because the only health issue he had was mumps during the year he died. From Cohen’s perspective, Louis wasn’t treated properly for the contagious disease, which caused him to develop blood clots.
“I can’t imagine how he suffered,” she said. “The patient records don’t indicate if he cried out, if he suffered, and why the parents couldn’t be called.”
Both of her brothers died alone at the HRC, he says, adding that was common for residents who died at the facility.
While the film and all of the research Cohen put into it is personal, she says the objective is not to “take Orillia to task.”
“It’s a story about an institution that was very common around North America,” she said. “There was nothing unique about the HRC.”
Cohen became angry with the Ontario government and unions that closed ranks around workers during her research, but she realized she was angrier with the system of thinking behind how most vulnerable people were cared for.
“These kids were dehumanized the same way seniors are dehumanized in long-term care, the same way kids of residential schools were dehumanized. There is some common ground there,” she said.
In Cohen’s film, she asks why places like the HRC were built, why were they were staffed without better training, and why children were mistreated and not believed in.
“It may be that some kids really had high-level needs with critical care and maybe they were physically disabled as well,” she said, “but if you were going to spend millions of dollars on these buildings, maybe there was a better way to think about this.”
Through making the documentary, she was tasked with telling the story of the HRC in an educational way that wouldn’t be too painful for viewers.
“I wanted to craft a story that showed resilience, great courage, and something of redemption through the monument and the work of the Remember Every Name survivor group.”
While it’s difficult, Cohen hopes her film helps viewers accept how people have dehumanized each other over the years, and how that is a topic that requires more discussion.
“We need to look at contemporary ways of how we are housing people, how we provide care, and residential care in the form of long-term care, group homes, and looking at those kinds of institutions,” she said. “Accountability is still lacking. This isn’t just something that is in the past.”
A clip of the film has been posted to CBC’s documentary channel. As of Friday afternoon, it had seven million views, almost 200,000 shares, and more than 11,000 comments.
“I think that’s because the film has enough in it that touches people to say, ‘Hey, I had an aunt, uncle, mother, brother, cousin who either lived there or lived in a similar place,’” she said. “The overwhelming response has confirmed the essential truth of the film, and it’s been overwhelming and very humbling.”
Cohen hopes her film allows survivors to finally have a voice to express what it was like to live and be cared for at the HRC. One of those survivors is Orillia resident Cindy Scott, who went to the HRC when she was seven years old in 1971 and lived there until she was 13. Scott says while watching Unloved: Huronia’s Forgotten Children, she had terrifying flashbacks.
“There are a lot of children who would bang their heads, play with their fingers, and would be screaming,” she recalled. “It was horrible because they were very terrified.”
Scott, 59, says Cohen did a great job on the film. She praises her for being able to capture the “true” story of the HRC.
“We need to have this film so we can tell people what happened at this institution,” she said. “People need to know why people were abandoned and abused.”
Scott wants the film to raise awareness to stop people from being hurt in similar institutions ever again.
“There was a straitjacket, hitting, smacking, abuse, and sexual assault,” she said. “I experienced it all in the institution.”
Unloved: Huronia’s Forgotten Children will air Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBC and CBC Gem.