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The Duplessis Orphans (French: les Orphelins de Duplessis) were children victimized in a mid-20th century scheme in which approximately 20,000 orphaned children were wrongly certified as mentally ill by the government of the province of Quebec, Canada, and confined to psychiatric institutions. The Catholic Church has denied involvement in the allegations, and disputes the claims of those seeking financial recompense.
The 1940s and 1950s were considered a period of widespread poverty, with few social services. The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s had not yet occurred. The Roman Catholic Church in Canada, as elsewhere in the world, tended to be the caretaker of the poor, alcoholics, unwed mothers, and orphans. Many children were admitted to orphanages, in some cases run by religious institutes, not because they were orphans but because they were abandoned by their parents who were not married. Children born out of wedlock suffered from poor care.
The Loi sur les Asiles d'aliénés (Lunatic Asylum Act) of 1909 governed mental institution admissions until 1950. The law stated the insane could be committed for three reasons: to care for them, to help them, or as a measure to maintain social order in public and private life. However, the act did not define what a disruption of social order was, leaving the decision to admit patients up to the psychiatrists.
The Quebec government received subsidies from the federal government for building hospitals, but hardly anything for having orphanages. Government contributions were only $1.25 a day for orphans, but $2.75 a day for psychiatric patients, providing a strong financial incentive for reclassification. In the 1940s and 50s, the Québec government was responsible for a significant number of healthy older children being diagnosed as mentally incompetent and sent to psychiatric hospitals, based on superficial diagnoses made for fiscal reasons.
A commission in the early 1960s investigating mental institutions after Duplessis' death revealed one-third of the 22,000 patients did not belong. The Bédard report of 1962 put an end to the outdated concept of an "asylum," while many of the orphans reached adulthood and could leave the facility.
Years later, long after these institutions were closed, the children, now grown up, began to speak out about the harsh treatment and sexual abuse they endured at the hands of some members of institutions and medical personnel. They claim that they had been abused physically and sexually, and were subjected to lobotomies, electroshock and straitjackets.
In a psychiatric study completed by one of the involved hospitals, middle-aged Duplessis Orphans reported more physical and mental impairments than the control group. In addition, the orphans were less likely to be married or to have a healthy social life. 80% reported they had suffered a traumatic experience between the ages of 7 to 18. Over 50% said they had undergone physical, mental, or sexual abuse. About 78% reported difficulty functioning socially or emotionally in their adult life.
Legal recourse in the 1990s
By the 1990s, there remained about 3,000 survivors and a large group formed to start a campaign. They called themselves the Duplessis Orphans Committee after Maurice Duplessis, the Premier of Quebec at the time whose government was responsible for their plight. In addition to government, the College of Physicians of Quebec came under fire after some of the orphans found copies of their medical records that had been allegedly falsified. Labelled as mentally deficient, many of these children were subjected to electroshock, a variety of drug testing and used in other medical experiments.
At first, the government of Quebec was not receptive, but after the "duplessis Orphans" started gaining widespread publicity in March 1999, the Parti Québécois government made an offer of approximately $15,000 as full compensation to each of the victims. The offer was rejected and the government was harshly criticized by the public and even the provincial Ombudsman, Daniel Jacoby, came out saying that the government's handling of the situation had trivialized the abuse the victims alleged.
In 2001, the claimants received an increased offer from the Quebec government for a flat payment of $10,000 per person, plus an additional $1,000 for each year of wrongful confinement to a mental institution. The offer amounted to approximately $25,000 per orphan;, but did not include any compensation for alleged victims of sexual or other abuse.
After the offer was accepted by representatives of the group, the result was bitterly contested by a other members upon learning that under the terms of the settlement the committee's lawyer would receive over $5-million, while the former public relations person and the group president would also receive six- to seven-figure payments, compared to a flat $10,000 plus $1,000 per year offered to the actual victims. The group then voted to replace both the president and their public relations representative. Many believe that justice was not done and criminal wrongdoing was allowed to go unpunished.
Alleged criminal charges were dismissed. Opponents of the judgment led by Rod Vienneau of Joliette, Quebec, pointed out that three of the bureaucrats running the compensation program were being paid over $1,000 per day of work, whereas the orphans themselves received the same amount for an entire year of their childhood confined illegally to insane asylums.
Seven religious communities were involved in operating 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, and the Brothers of Charity. The Quebec Bishops offered no apology, saying that the Church was not responsible for the orphans' situation. The representative for the seven orders, Sister Gisele Fortier, called the allegations "upsetting ... but very much sensationalized, and needs to be put into context." Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, archbishop of Montreal, asserted that the religious orders "deserve our respect and have a right to their good name." When the settlement was reached, the orphans agreed to drop any further legal action against the church. This offended some of the Duplessis Orphans. In 2006, one of the Orphans, Martin Lécuyer, stated "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."
In 1999, Researchers Léo-Paul Lauzon and Martin Poirier issued a report arguing that the Quebec government and the Roman Catholic Church made substantial profits by falsely certifying thousands of Quebec orphans as mentally ill during the 1940s and 1950s. The authors made a conservative estimate that religious groups received $70 million in subsidies (measured in 1999 dollars) by claiming the children as "mentally deficient," while the government saved $37 million simply by having one of its orphanages redesignated from an educational institution to a psychiatric hospital. A representative of a religious order involved with the orphanages accused the authors of making "false assertions."
Fate of the remains
In 2004, members of the "Duplessis Orphans" asked the Quebec government to unearth an abandoned cemetery in the east end of Montreal which they believed held the remains of orphans who may have been the subject of medical experiments. According to testimony by individuals who were at the Cité de St-Jean-de-Dieu insane asylum, the orphans were routinely experimented upon and many died. The group wants the government to exhume the bodies so that autopsies may be performed.
- Child abuse
- Magdalene asylum
- Religious abuse
- List of Indian residential schools in Canada
- Léo-Paul Lauzon
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- Thifault, p.133.
- "Duplessis Orphans", The Canadian Encyclopedia, January 14, 2015
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- Léo-Paul Lauzon#Other writings
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- Paulin, Marguerite. Maurice Duplessis: Powerbroker, Politician, XYZ Publishing, Montreal, 2005
- Thifault, Marie-Claude and Perreault, Isabelle. "The Social Integration of the Mentally Ill in Quebec Prior to the Bédard Report of 1962", Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, 2002, vol.29, no.1
- "Les enfants de Duplessis" (Duplessis Children), 1991, by Pauline Gill
- "Les fous crient au secours" (The mad cry for help) 1961, by Jean-Charles Pagé
- "Naître rien: Des orphelins de Duplessis, de la crèche à l'asile." 2002 by Rose Dufour, with the collaboration of Brigitte Garneau ISBN 978-2-89544-027-7
- Les enfants de la Grande Noirceur. by Rod Vienneau, 2008
- "Plaidoyer d'un ex-orphelin réprouvé de Duplessis." 2000, by Jacques Baugé-Prévost
- "Les heures sauvage" 2001 by Bruno Roy
- Matthias Dickert: The Duplessis Orphans. A Historical, Political and Literary Approach. In: Teaching Canada – Enseigner le Canada Ed. Martin Kuester, Claire Köhling, Sylvia Langwald, Albert Rau. Wißner, Augsburg 2017, pp 165–175
- The Duplessis Orphans at CBC Digital Archives
- O douce Providence a composition by Alyssa Ryvers with Hervé Bertrand, a Duplessis Orphan.