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#HotDocs22 Review: Unloved: Huronia’s Forgotten Children

May 3, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2022 Hot Docs Film Festival runs from April 28th to May 8th in Toronto, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Filmmaker Barri Cohen’s perception of her happy family was shattered when her father revealed that he had two other children from a previous relationship, who were both born with developmental disabilities and placed in the care of the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia, Ontario. These two half-brothers whom Cohen or her other siblings never really knew about, Alfred and Louis, both died at the government-run home for disabled children.

In her powerful investigative documentary Unloved: Huronia’s Forgotten Children, Cohen explores the dark history of the Huronia Regional Centre, which the Ontario government started operating in 1876 as the “Hospital for Idiots and Imbeciles,” revealing the disturbing abuse that the residents faced. We learn from survivors that the treatment went past neglect and became abject cruelty, such as forcing the kids to lie on the floor and have their faces shoved in plates of food (“digging for worms” is what they called it), or locking them in “crib cages” that they couldn’t escape from.

Cohen explores how this institutional model of care was guided by the rise of the eugenics movement in the 20th century, and how it aligns with the history of Indigenous residential schools in Canada. These poor conditions at the centre weren’t even really a secret at the time, either, with Toronto Star reporter Pierre Berton visiting the institution and writing a scathing article about it in 1960.

The Ontario government responded to criticism by releasing the 1960 propaganda film One On Every Street, footage from which is shown throughout Cohen’s film, encouraging parents to put their disabled children in institutional care so that they would not become a burden on society or their families. The NFB later released the documentary Danny and Nicky in 1969, which followed two boys with Down syndrome and offered a more unvarnished look at life inside the centre.

Cohen interviews survivors from Huronia who sued the Ontario government for damages, only to have their case settled out of court, and disability activists who are trying to properly memorialize victims of the institution through the Remember Every Name project. The film also follows Cohen and her family on their own personal journey as they try to find where Louis is buried, with only Alfred ever receiving a gravestone. While Unloved: Huronia’s Forgotten Children is not an easy film to watch, it offers a sad but important look at how disabled people have been mistreated throughout Canada’s history.

Screenings:

Tuesday, May 3rd – 5:30 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Friday, May 6th – 2:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

The film is also available to stream across Canada for five days starting on May 4th at 9:00 AM.

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