As Canada continues to dig into its sometimes dark and difficult past, more stories of survivors are brought into the light.
A documentary airing this Sunday aims to shine that light on the story of those who attended the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia, including some former residents from Muskoka.
“It is a difficult story to hear but an important one because for over 100 years government-run institutions (hospital schools) existed without society really knowing what went on there, much the same way we are hearing about residential schools,” says Debbie Vernon, a survivor supporter and Remember Every Name co-ordinator who was interviewed for the film. “The cemetery at Huronia Regional Centre has unmarked graves and work continues to identify those who were buried there so their names, date of birth and date of death can be revealed.”
Vernon is one of several people interviewed for Unloved: Huronia’s Forgotten Children, which airs Jan. 29 on CBC at 8 pm.
The documentary follows filmmaker Barri Cohen and is part detective story, part social history, as she uncovers the truth about Alfie and Louis, her two long-dead half-brothers. They were institutionalized at the Huronia Regional Centre (HRC) in Orillia in the 1950s.
Debbie Vernon, who is currently a Bracebridge Town councillor, worked at HRC for a year after graduating from Georgian College in 1976.
“I moved out west for a few years but I returned home and helped move people from Muskoka Regional Centre in Gravenhurst, back to their home communities,” she says. After the Muskoka Centre closed the government transferred Vernon to work at HRC until 1999.
Also interviewed for the film were Muskoka residents Bev Link and Betty Bond, Huronia Survivors and Remember Every Name members.
As the documentary explains, Bev and Betty met at the Huronia Regional Centre in the 1960s when their time overlapped with each other. Betty was 7 and a permanent “ward of the state” (as she puts it) and the elder Bev was 20 years old.
For Bev, the scourge of living at the institution was made worse through the daily indignities of horrendous anti-Indigenous racism, according to the film. However, her core kindness couldn’t be destroyed despite unspeakable traumas.
It’s that kindness that saw Bev establish a successful career as a much-beloved healthcare assistant and volunteer in Bracebridge. She often gave candy to staff and patients at the local hospital. Betty went to high school and enrolled in college courses, learning computers and animal welfare management. She is a tireless animal rescue advocate in Bracebridge.
With the help of their friend and advocate Debbie Vernon, Bev and Betty are determined to properly mourn Huronia’s dead, honour those buried at the cemetery, and share their collective stories.
The documentary also includes well-known Muskoka-based artist Hilary Clark Cole, who says she was humbled and honoured to be selected by the Remember Every Name survivor group in 2018 to build a 10-foot monument honouring the dead at Huronia’s cemetery.
You can find more information on the documentary here.
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