The Current

Her brothers suffered abuse and neglect at Huronia care centre. Now she's telling their story

The Huronia Regional Centre in Ontario was sold to families as a safe home for children with disabilities. But in reality, it was the site of appalling abuse and neglect. Now filmmaker Barri Cohen is taking her personal experience and shedding light on some of the survivors of that institution.

Filmmaker Barri Cohen examined the abuse and neglect that happened at a centre for people with disabilities

Barri Cohen, director of Unloved: Huronia’s Forgotten Children, holds photos of Alfred and Louis, her two long-dead half-brothers whose lives were a microcosm of the larger tragedy of Canada’s disastrous treatment of intellectually disabled children at the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia, ON. (Peter Bregg CM - White Pine Pict)

Read Story Transcript

This story contains details readers might find distressing.

The Huronia Regional Centre in Ontario was sold to families as a safe home for children with disabilities, but in reality, it was the site of widespread abuse and neglect. Now filmmaker Barri Cohen is taking her personal experience and shedding light on some of the survivors of that institution.

Huronia was a government-run institution for children with developmental disabilities, located in Orillia, Ontario. It was shut down in 2009, after more than a century of operation.

In 2013, the Ontario government reached a $35-million settlement in a class-action lawsuit with former residents of the Huronia Regional Centre. But to this day, the centre still affects those who lived there as well as their families. Survivors of the centre noted cage-like beds, negligence by staff, and poor living conditions. 

Cohen set out to learn about the brothers she didn't know she had in the film Unloved: Huronia's Forgotten Children. The production is being shown at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. She spoke with Matt Galloway on The Current about the documentary.

Tell me about your brothers?

What I know about my brothers is a little bit from what my late father had told me. He came to me one day when I was about 12 and said, "I buried a son today." And I was shocked. I thought, oh, it's one of my brothers. My God, what is he talking about? He said, No, I had two sons from my first marriage.

Of course I knew about my sister Adel from that marriage, and we were relatively close and I saw her often. I didn't know about these other brothers. And he talked about this one son, Alfred, that had died. And he said, in fact, I had another son as well. He didn't live that long. He was only two when he died at home. 

And that's all I really knew until the class action settlement in December 2013. My sister Adele called me and said, there's this settlement. Are we eligible to get any money? And I said, for what? And she said, well, Alfred was at this place in Orillia, Huronia Regional Centre. 

At the time he was there, it was called Ontario Hospital School, and survivors had sued for gross abuses, neglect and harm. They settled out of court. 

Survivor Cindy Scott stands near unmarked graves at the Huronia Regional Centre Cemetery. (White Pine Pictures)

So I immediately started doing research on the class action lawyer's website, read the plaintiffs statement of claim and and other supporting documents, plus the settlement. And I was floored. And that started me on the journey. Shortly after that, I was able to obtain their patient records. 

I would later find out in the course of research and making the film that our dad had lied and said that Louis, who died in 1957, that he had died at home. It wasn't true. He had gone to Huronia as well when he was a little over two years [old] and then died. I think he was about four when he died. 

There's a clip of a government film that essentially encourages families to think about sending their children to this institution. 

Correct. In fact, what happened in 1960, the late, fabulous investigative journalist Pierre Berton was really the first journalist, or anyone really, to kind of blow the lid off, apart from hidden government inspection reports. 

So in 1960, he published in the Toronto Star an exposé of Huronia. So he didn't know about the abuses, but he certainly saw a derelict, broken down kind of facility, overcrowded with more than 2,000 people. Very little love and care, very little stimulation, very custodial, horrendous conditions. 

And he said very dramatic things. Like he said, you've been warned about this place. So I think the Ontario government freaked out, basically. And they created this propaganda film called One on Every Street to say, this is what we're doing and it's a wonderful place, but it's broken down, needs some paint. Its facilities are decrepit. Will you give us more money? 

Essentially, it was a call to Ontarians to, you know, will you give us more of your tax dollars to keep funding these things and do it better? 

Who are the children who were sent to Heronia? 

In some cases, they were labelled and basically tested like my my brothers using in some cases IQ tests. But they also often could be troublesome kids, kids from poor communities, kids who were in the care of children's aid. 

But if you were a kid who had psychiatric issues, who came from a very troubled home, you were often sent there and not given the psychiatric or mental health care that you needed, especially if you were poor. 

Unloved: Huronia’s Forgotten Children

3 months ago
Duration 2:32
A filmmaker's quest to discover what happened to her brothers with disabilities uncovers an institution's shocking history of neglect and abuse

What do you know about what life would have been like for your brothers there? 

Good grief. It's an interesting question because you don't really get that sense from their patient files. So I relied very much on survivor testimony and witness testimony in that sense in the film. And I think it was a very, very dreary, almost militarized existence. 

There was no love or care, very little stimulation. I don't think there was any, what we would conventionally call, speech therapy or rehab or anything like that. I think they were left in their cot cages for hours on end. 

Certainly, Alfred, as he got older, probably would have been herded into a television room after his meals or left to play games that often involved kids hurting each other because staff themselves were bored, untrained and would, based on the evidence that was presented and plaintive statements and what survivors told me, they would often encourage sadistic play behaviour among the kids. 

And one of the most tragic parts of all of that is that this still happens. In some parts of the country, people are still being forced to live in institutions. 

Correct. And that's an excellent point, because this isn't just a historical piece. This is to tee us all up to think about the ways in which institution-like environments are still going on, creating harms, out of sight, out of mind, away from inspections. 

Since the pandemic alone [we've seen] the appalling conditions of long-term care places. And we do know that a lot of families who don't have enough direct funding to keep their loved ones at home or help them to make independent living decisions sometimes are compelled to put their kids, and not just kids, but even older children and young adults, in long- term care places.

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Alison Masemann. This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now