Barri Cohen first learned of the existence of her half-brother on the day he died.
She was 12 when she heard about Alfie, a son from her father’s first marriage, who had severe developmental delays and died just before his 24th birthday. There was also a younger brother, Louis, who she was told was also disabled and had died at home as a toddler.
The siblings were never spoken about again.
It would be decades before Cohen would learn that both Alfred and Louis had lived and died at Huronia Regional Centre, an institution in southern Ontario for children with developmental disabilities.
In 2013, a lawsuit launched by those who had survived the neglect and abuse at Huronia was settled . Premier Kathleen Wynne issued an official apology. And that’s when Barri Cohen began to dive deep into the legal documents produced for the lawsuit.
What the filmmaker learned shocked her to her core.
“I was floored when I read them, I was absolutely floored. The level of detail of neglect, of harm, the number of incident reports, the number of institutional inspection reports that were ignored decade after decade after decade,” Cohen said in an interview with The CJN.
“I couldn’t believe that nobody knew about this and if they knew about it, they didn’t care.”
Unloved: Huronia’s Forgotten Children, which premieres May 3 at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival, is Cohen’s response to the silence that surrounded the institution.
The documentary film unravels the secrets surrounding Alfred’s and Louis’ short lives as well as the conditions that allowed institutions like Huronia to exist for over 100 years.
Cohen also interviews survivors of the school, who describe the toll of living at Huronia. Some of the children sent to Huronia were not in fact disabled at all, but were placed there by childrens’ aid societies who could not find foster homes, or by parents unable to cope. They tell harrowing stories of neglect, abuse and abandonment.
Shortly after the lawsuit was settled, the province allowed survivors and their families to visit the centre. Cohen bought a camera and with her half-sister, Adele, walked through Huronia, both of them seeing it for the first time.
Although the centre had been closed for several years by then, the cage-like cribs remained. Survivors pointed out rooms where they were routinely locked up and the scratches on the door left by desperate children.
“Adele was really motivated to go on those tours and to see and talk to people and to understand,” Cohen recalled. “It was hard for her to watch the film, it made her very sad.”
Unloved also follows Cohen’s attempts to learn more about her two brothers. Although she was told Louis had died at home, she discovers that he was four years old when he died at Huronia. The documents that she uncovers show that both brothers suffered from numerous health problems and infections while at Huronia. Ultimately, the paper trail peters out and it appears a death certificate was never filed for little Louis.
Eventually, with the help of a dedicated researcher at the Ontario Jewish Archives, Cohen learned that the child was buried in the same Jewish cemetery as his older brother Alfred. A Jewish welfare agency paid the bill for the burial, but no grave marker for the little boy has been found.
“That became one of the driving mysteries of the film and emblematic of how people are dehumanized or shunned, even in death,” she said.
Making the film affected all of Cohen’s siblings, who had to reshuffle what they thought they knew about their earliest years and their family. It also raised deeper philosophical questions for Cohen.
“It made me question what is it about us as humans that consistently dehumanizes people who are different from us?” she asks. “When you think the other person is less human, you can do anything, you tell yourself.”
“To separate small children from their families is to implicitly believe the kids don’t have feelings like you and me… The trauma of separation as we know is enormous. It lasts a lifetime. For our brothers we’ll never know what that was like, but we hear from survivors what that was like.”
Although Huronia has been closed since 2009, the lessons of the film are still relevant, Cohen says. “Look at long-term care, look at what happened under COVID and it didn’t happen under COVID, it just got revealed by COVID: the dehumanization, the segregation, the separation, the neglect, the abuse,” she said.
“The casual failure to do oversight over these institutions, that’s an Ontario problem that goes back generations.”
Meanwhile, survivors of Huronia and other similar centres around the province exist on meager payments of about $1,100 a month. Families continue to struggle to find resources to keep their disabled children at home while waiting lists for services grow, she said.
“Once you segregate people away, it gets them much harder to get accountability, never mind love and care. That’s why I think it’s an urgent film now.”
Unloved has its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival May 3. It plays again May 6. Online screening passes are available May 4-7.
The movie will also appear on CBC’s Documentary Channel in the fall, and then move to CBC’s streaming platform, Gem.
Cohen says she also plans to take the film to Ottawa and wants to arrange screenings for lawyers, medical professionals and disability activists.