The Mystery of Duplessis Orphans

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Credit: morcanbooksandfilms.com

By: Emma Kelsall

20,000 is considered a large number. To count from 1 to 20,000 would take you approximately five hours—twenty thousand seconds totals to 5 hours, 33 minutes, and 20 seconds. Now imagine the number 20,000 in people. East itself instructs around 1,050 students; 20,000 people would fill East 19 times and then some. Imagine we removed 20,000 people from East Amherst. Over 80% of the town would be gone.

Now answer me this. If 20,000 children were systematically neglected, would it reach the regional news? The national news? The international news? You would suppose this to be a moving event that shook the world. Yet, when a country only one border away from us wrongly branded 20,000 as mentally ill and confined them to psychiatric wards, the occurrence remains relatively uncommon knowledge. Meet the Duplessis Orphans.

Restricted social services were available to citizens of Quebec during the 1940s and 1950s. The Roman Catholic Church gave much of the social services available before the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. People considered socially disadvantaged were among their charges: those living in poverty, alcoholics, or other persons deemed unable to maintain jobs, unwed mothers, and orphans.

Consistent with the principles of both the Church and the time, despite not having been officially orphaned due to their “bastard” status (being born to unwed mothers), many children were admitted to orphanages. Due to a lack of secular involvement in social care, some of these orphanages were run by religious institutes; they persuaded unwed mothers to leave their children to be raised in the Church. Many of these orphans born out of wedlock suffered from inadequate treatment in these institutions, despite their initial promises of helping the children.

Mental institution admissions until 1950 were regulated by the Loi sur les Asiles d’aliénés (Lunatic Asylum Act) of 1909. The law provided that, for three reasons, the mentally ill may be committed: to care for them, to support them, or as a measure to preserve social order in public and private life. However, the act did not describe what a social order disturbance was, leaving the decision to admit patients up to psychiatrists.

Union Nationale Premier Maurice Duplessis’s provincial government received subsidies from the federal government to construct hospitals but received far fewer grants to fund orphanages. For orphans, government contributions were just $1.25 a day, but $2.75 a day for psychiatric patients. This inequality in funding provided a strong financial incentive for reclassification. Under Duplessis, the provincial government was responsible for knowingly misdiagnosing many healthy older children as mentally incompetent and sending them to psychiatric hospitals based on superficial diagnoses rendered for fiscal purposes. Duplessis also signed an order-in-council that modified the classification of orphanages into hospitals to provide them with federal subsidies.   

A commission reviewing mental hospitals in the early 1960s after Duplessis’s death revealed that one-third of the 22,000 patients identified as “mentally defective” were identified as such for the financial benefit of the province and not because of any actual psychological deficit. After the publication of the Bédard report in 1962, the region ceased to maintain the institutional notion of “asylum.” As many of the orphans reached adulthood, they could leave the facilities in light of these institutional changes.

Years later, long after these facilities were closed, asylum survivors started to talk about the child abuse they experienced at the hands of some workers and medical staff. Those who spoke openly about their experiences say they were physically and sexually assaulted and subjected to lobotomies, electroshock, and straitjackets.

Middle-aged Duplessis Orphans reported more physical and mental impairments than the control group in a psychiatric study completed by participating hospitals. The orphans were less likely to be married or have a stable social life. 80% revealed that between the ages of 7 and 18, they had endured a traumatic experience. More than 50% said they had suffered physical, emotional, or sexual assault. Approximately 78% reported difficulty functioning socially or emotionally in their adult lives.

By the 1990s, the Duplessis Orphans Committee was founded by around 3,000 survivors and a broad group of supporters, demanding compensation from Quebec’s provincial government. In March 1999, the provincial government offered approximately CAD 15,000 as full compensation to each of the victims. The offer was refused and strongly criticized by the provincial government, with Daniel Jacoby, the Quebec Ombudsman at the time, arguing that the government’s treatment of the affair trivialized the victim’s alleged abuse. In 2001, the claimants received an increased offer from the provincial government for a flat payment of $10,000 per person, plus an additional $1,000 for each year of wrongful confinement. The bid was around $25,000 per orphan but did not compensate suspected victims of sexual or other assault.

After the leaders approved the bid of the Duplessis Orphans Committee, the result was bitterly protested by the other members when they heard that, under the terms of the settlement, the prosecutor, the chairman, and the former public relations officer of the Committee would obtain compensation of six to seven figures, compared to the small sum paid to the actual victims. Subsequently, the Committee voted to replace both the president and the official of public relations. Opponents of the decision pointed out that over $1,000 a day for work was paid to three bureaucrats overseeing the government’s compensation program. At the same time, the orphans themselves earned the same amount of money for a whole year of their confinement.

Seven religious communities ran some of the facilities:

  • The Sisters of Providence
  • The Sisters of Mercy
  • The Gray Nuns of Montreal
  • The Sisters of Charity of Quebec
  • The Little Franciscans of Mary
  • The Brothers of Notre-Dame-de-la-Misericorde
  • The Brothers of Charity

The orphans decided to drop all further legal proceedings against the Catholic Church when the provincial government’s settlement was reached. This angered some survivors; one of the orphans, Martin Lécuyer, said in 2006,” “It’s important for me, that the Church, the priests, that they recognize they were responsible for the sexual abuse, and the aggression. It’s not for the government to set that peace … It’s an insult, and it’s the biggest proof that the government is an accomplice of the Church.”

Researchers Léo-Paul Lauzon and Martin Poirier released a study in 1999 claiming that both the provincial government of Quebec and the Catholic Church made considerable profits by wrongly certifying thousands of Quebec orphans during the premiership of Duplessis as mentally ill. The authors made a conservative calculation that by claiming the children as “mentally defective,” religious organizations earned $70 million in subsidies (measured in 1999 dollars), while the government saved $37 million simply by having one of its orphanages redesignated from an educational facility to a psychiatric hospital. The authors were accused of making “false claims” by a representative of a religious order associated with the orphanages. In 2010, it was reported that about 300-400 of the original Duplessis orphans were still alive.

In 2004, some of the Duplessis orphans asked Quebec’s government to discover an abandoned cemetery on the eastern edge of Montreal. They claimed it contained the remains of orphans who might have been the target of human experiments. The orphans in the custody of the asylum were regularly used as non-consensual testing subjects, according to testimony by people who were insane at the Cité de St-Jean-de-Dieu asylum, and many died as a result. The group wanted the government to exhume the bodies so that autopsies could be carried out. The orphans of Duplessis made their case before the Human Rights Council of the United Nations in November 2010.

While the Duplessis Orphans’ fate hangs in the balance, a somewhat relieving revelation that more and more people find out about this case, for example, the case reached a greater audience in 2014, due to the release of A24’s comedy horror movie Tusk, in which the main antagonist is a Duplessis Orphan.

Until the extent of this case is revealed, we can only wait. We may never even find out what horrors were inflicted on those 20,000 children. Either way, the provincial government of Quebec wears the stains of young blood on its hands.

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