The Duplessis Orphans (French: les Orphelins de Duplessis) were the victims of a scheme in which approximately 20,000 orphaned children were falsely certified as mentally ill by the government of the province of Quebec, Canada, and confined to psychiatric institutions.
The 1940s and 1950s were considered a period of widespread poverty, few social services, and Catholic predominance in Quebec. The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s had not yet occurred, so the Roman Catholic Church still held major social power.
Maurice Duplessis, the premier of Quebec, was a strict Catholic. It was the Church’s responsibility to be the sole caretaker of the poor, alcoholics, unwed mothers, and orphans. He put the schools, orphanages, and hospitals in the hands of religious orders, noting he “trusted them completely.” He signed an order-in-council, changing orphanages into hospitals in order to provide them with federal subsidies.
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.
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 a security measure to maintain social order in public and home 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 doctors diagnosed the children with various mental illnesses while ignoring their actual mental state. Children in Quebec orphanages were therefore declared “mentally deficient.” Schooling stopped, and the orphans became inmates in a mental institution where they were sexually, physically, and mentally abused by lay monitors and nuns. Children who complained about the conditions were sent to local reform schools.
Seven religious orders participated: 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The Bédard report of 1962 put an end to the outdated concept of an “asylum,” while many of the orphans reached adulthood and could leave the facility.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 who had survived them and become adults began to speak out about the harsh treatment and sexual abuse they endured at the hands of some members of institutions and medical personnel. 
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 underwent a traumatic experience between the ages of 7 to 18. Over 50% said they underwent 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 after Maurice Duplessis, the Premier of Quebec during that time whose government was responsible for their plight. In addition to government and Church responsibility, the College of Physicians of Quebec came under fire after some of the orphans found copies of their medical records that had been falsified. Labelled as mentally deficient, many of these children were subjected to electroshock, a variety of drug testing and used in other medical experiments. Released upon reaching the legal age of maturity, they were uneducated and ill-equipped to cope with life as adults.
At first, the government of Quebec stonewalled them, but after they started gaining widespread publicity in March 1999, the Parti Québécois government made a token 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 Nevertheless, the government still refused to hold an inquiry. 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 $15,000 per orphan; however, it was limited to each of the surviving 1,100 orphans the government had labeled as mentally deficient, but did not include any compensation for victims of sexual or other abuse.
The offer was accepted by those eligible while the remainder received nothing. The vote on the offer was taken by a show of hands in a closed-door session overseen by Committee chief, the author Bruno Roy, one of very few orphans who enjoyed a successful career following the traumatic experience of youth detention. The results of the vote were later bitterly contested by a group which believed the victims should have received more. Many believe that justice was not done and criminal wrongdoing was allowed to go unpunished.
The Quebec Government declined to prosecute the criminal cases. Opponents of the judgment led by Rod Vienneau of Joliette, Quebec, pointed out that bureaucrats processing the applications for compensation were in many cases 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.
The Catholic Church publicly announced that they played no responsibility in the orphans’ situation and refused to apologize. 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.” This offended many 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.”
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.
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."
- Child abuse
- Child sexual abuse
- Duplessis Orphans in the French Wikipedia
- Religious abuse
- List of Indian residential schools in Canada
- Léo-Paul Lauzon In 1999, Lauzon and Martin Poirier issued a report on the money collected by the Quebec government and the Roman Catholic Church who falsely certifying thousands of Quebec orphans as mentally ill.
- CTV.ca News Staff (19 June 2004). "Duplessis orphans want Mtl. burial site dug up". CTV News. Archived from the original on 22 November 2011.
- The Duplessis Orphans at CBC Archives
- Farnsworth, Clyde H. (21 May 1993). "Orphans of the 1950's, Telling of Abuse, Sue Quebec". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 February 2015.
- Pauin, Marguerite (2005). Maurice Duplessis: Powerbroker, Politician. Montreal: QC: XYZ Publishing. p. 46. ISBN 1-894852-17-6.
- Pauin. Maurice Duplessis: Powerbroker, Politician. p. 196.
- Thifault, Marie-Claude; Perreault, Isabelle (2002). "The Social Integration of the Mentally Ill in Quebec Prior to the Bédard Report of 1962". Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 29 (1): 130.
- Thifault, p.133.
- Protesters in straitjackets demand inquiry of Duplessis Orphans era February 19, 1999
- Allegations of child abuse April 2, 1993
- Orphans sue Catholic orders over mistreatment May 21, 1993 B/W Photo of Denis Coque, Silvio Day, Hervé Bertrand, Yvette Gascon
- Sigal, John; Christopher, J.; Rossignal, Michel; Ouimet, Marie-Claude; Boucher, Sophie; Paré, Nikolas (31 July 2002). "Health and Psychological Adaptation of les Enfants du Duplessis as Middle-Aged Adults". pp. 15–16.
- Medical Experimentation at Duplessis Orphans' CBC Digital Archives
- Modest Offer, Apology Rejected at Duplessis Orphans' CBC Digital Archives
- "Duplessis orphans accept Quebec's final offer", CBC News, 1 July 2001.
- "Orphans oust controversial". Montreal Mirror. Archived from the original on 3 June 2012.
- "Seven Institutionalized Children and Their Adaptation in Late Adulthood: The Children of Duplessis"J.Christopher Perry, John J.Sigal, Sophie Boucher, and Nikolas Paré
- Orphans accept settlement July 3, 2001
- "Everyone gets rich except Orphans". Montreal Mirror. Archived from the original on 30 June 2012.
- Campbell, Victoria (2013). "The Duplessis Orphans at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights: Healing through Representation". Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology 19 (4): 377.
- Farnsworth. "Orphans of the 1950’s, Telling of Abuse, Sue Quebec".
- Campbell. "The Duplessis Orphans at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights". p. 376.
- "Duplessis orphans seek proof of medical experiments". CBC. 18 June 2004. Archived from the original on 9 April 2010.
- Léo-Paul Lauzon#Other writings
- Pauin, 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) March 1, 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" 2008 by Rod Vienneau
- "Plaidoyer d'un ex-orphelin réprouvé de Duplessis" 2000 by Jacques Baugé-Prévost
- "Les heures sauvage" 2001 by Bruno Roy
- The Duplessis Orphans at CBC Digital Archives