My half-brothers died at Huronia, a notorious institution for people labelled with developmental disabilities
The new documentary Unloved tells Alfie and Louis Cohen’s tragic story
Family secrets are difficult to pry open, especially when they're more than six decades old.
In September 2013, Ontario reached a $35-million settlement in a class-action lawsuit with former residents of Orillia's Huronia Regional Centre — a government institution previously known as the Ontario Hospital School — over grave harm and abuse suffered there.
First opened in 1876, it was one of the original institutions for people with or labelled with developmental disabilities in North America. The lawsuit concerned survivors from 1945 to 2009, although the abuse and deprivation of basic care, safety, dignity, human rights, quality education and connection with family had likely been happening since the facility opened. Many had been sent to Huronia as children, either because they had an intellectual disability or were wrongly labelled with one by authorities. Often, these kids were poor, came from broken families or were placed at the institution by children's aid societies.
My family's secret
I barely noticed news of the lawsuit until my half-sister Adele called, asking if I'd known that Alfie — one of my father's two sons from his first marriage and whom I'd never met — had been there. I didn't, not exactly. I understood he had been in a hospital in Orillia, but I had never connected it with this terrible place in the news.
Alfie had been sent to live at Huronia in the 1950s and died there in 1973. I later discovered that a younger brother, Louis, had also gone there. Doctors had diagnosed both little boys as profoundly "retarded," an awful word rightly shunned today.
They were a lot to handle for their young mother, my dad's first wife. In those days – and to some extent still today – there were no community supports and few special education programs, funds or resources to help families. Instead, doctors and community leaders pressured parents to send their children away to an institution. They were led to believe their children would get better care from those with allegedly more experience. People trusted their doctors, and my father was no different.
Dad always said Louis had died at home when he was two, but the truth was a secret Dad took to his grave. As I reveal in my documentary, Unloved: Huronia's Forgotten Children, I discovered that Louis had actually died at Huronia in 1957 when he was four. What we didn't know, however — my brothers, my sister and I — is where he was laid to rest.
Solving this mystery was one of the things that drove me to make Unloved. Could I find Louis's burial place? And through this search, understand what this place was all about?
The reality of life in residential care in Canada
This search emphasized for me how children deemed intellectually disabled were often seen as not worthy of the basic human rights and rituals afforded to other members of society, even in death with a proper burial or gravestone.
Throughout history, we have created spaces and policies that have dehumanized our most vulnerable and marginalized: children, people with disabilities and neurodiversity, the elderly, those with mental illness, and people of colour.
This happened with residential schools. It's also true for other Canadian institutions. Throughout my research, I read over and over how unmarked graves were found on the grounds of these places.
My hope is that by watching Unloved, viewers will recognize how much segregation and warehousing of vulnerable people still goes on today. During the pandemic, we were forced to take notice of the suffering in long-term care homes. Is this model, where personal agency, love and human rights are not assured, the best we can do?
I'm grateful to my family for their participation in Unloved. The emotional impact of Alfie and Louis's story on me and my siblings was hard — especially for Adele, who was their full sister, and for my older brother, Marshall, who had to re-examine everything he thought he knew about his early childhood. It was Adele who bravely led me into the now-empty Huronia building, wanting to know what our brothers lived with so long ago.
I am also grateful to the brave and resilient survivors who shared their memories and stories with me. They showed me how vulnerable so many people still are, living in conditions marked by a failure of love, compassion and decency — comforts my brothers never experienced at Huronia.