Duplessis Orphans

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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[1] were falsely certified as mentally ill by the government of the province of Quebec, Canada, and confined to psychiatric institutions.[2] The Catholic Church has denied the allegations, and disputes the claims of those seeking financial recompense.[3]


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.[4]

Maurice Duplessis, the premier of Quebec, was a strict Catholic. The Church in Canada, as elsewhere in the world, was inclined to be a caretaker of the poor, alcoholics, unwed mothers, and orphans.[5] 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.[6]

Many children were admitted to orphanages because they were abandoned by their parents, not because they were orphans, but often because their parents were unmarried. Children born out of wedlock suffered from poor care.[7]

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,[4] providing a strong financial incentive for reclassification.

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.[8]

The doctors falsely[citation needed] 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.[4]

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.[4]

A commission in the early 1960s investigating mental institutions after Duplessis' death revealed one-third of the 22,000 patients did not belong.[4]

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.[8]

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.[9][10][11]

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.[12]

Legal recourse in the 1990s[edit]

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.[13] Released upon reaching the legal age of maturity, they were uneducated and ill-equipped to cope with life as adults.[citation needed] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duplessis_Orphans 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[citation needed] 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.[16] Many believe that justice was not done and criminal wrongdoing was allowed to go unpunished.[17]

The Quebec Government declined to prosecute the criminal cases.[18] 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,[19] 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.[20] The representative for the seven orders, Sister Gisele Fortier, called the allegations "upsetting ... but very much sensationalized, and needs to be put into context."[21] 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."[22]


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."[23]

Fate of the remains[edit]

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.[24] On December 13, 2015, a new interview with one of the survivors was conducted on RT.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ CTV.ca News Staff (June 19, 2004). "Duplessis orphans want Mtl. burial site dug up". CTV News. Archived from the original on October 22, 2011.
  2. ^ The Duplessis Orphans at CBC Archives
  3. ^ "The church refutes charges by Duplessis Orphans - CBC Archives". www.cbc.ca. Retrieved February 17, 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d e Farnsworth, Clyde H. (May 21, 1993). "Orphans of 1950s, Telling of Abuse, Sue Quebec". The New York Times. Retrieved February 3, 2015.
  5. ^ Pauin, Marguerite (2005). Maurice Duplessis: Powerbroker, Politician. Montreal: QC: XYZ Publishing. p. 46. ISBN 1-894852-17-6.
  6. ^ Pauin. Maurice Duplessis: Powerbroker, Politician. p. 196.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ a b Thifault, p.133.
  9. ^ "The Spokesman-Review - Google News Archive Search". news.google.com. Retrieved February 17, 2019.
  10. ^ "Sarasota Herald-Tribune - Google News Archive Search". news.google.com. Retrieved February 17, 2019.
  11. ^ "The Prescott Courier - Google News Archive Search". news.google.com. Retrieved February 17, 2019.
  12. ^ Sigal, John; Christopher, J.; Rossignal, Michel; Ouimet, Marie-Claude; Boucher, Sophie; Paré, Nikolas (July 31, 2002). "Health and Psychological Adaptation of les Enfants du Duplessis as Middle-Aged Adults": 15–16.
  13. ^ Medical Experimentation at Duplessis Orphans' CBC Digital Archives
  14. ^ Modest Offer, Apology Rejected at Duplessis Orphans' CBC Digital Archives
  15. ^ "Duplessis orphans accept Quebec's final offer", CBC News, July 1, 2001.
  16. ^ "Orphans oust controversial". Montreal Mirror. Archived from the original on June 3, 2012.
  17. ^ "Seven Institutionalized Children and Their Adaptation in Late Adulthood: The Children of Duplessis"J.Christopher Perry, John J.Sigal, Sophie Boucher, and Nikolas Paré Archived April 7, 2014, at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ "Lodi News-Sentinel - Google News Archive Search". news.google.com. Retrieved February 17, 2019.
  19. ^ "Everyone gets rich except Orphans". Montreal Mirror. Archived from the original on June 30, 2012.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ Farnsworth. "Orphans of the 1950s, Telling of Abuse, Sue Quebec".
  22. ^ Campbell. "The Duplessis Orphans at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights": 376. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  23. ^ Léo-Paul Lauzon#Other writings
  24. ^ "Duplessis orphans seek proof of medical experiments". CBC. June 18, 2004. Archived from the original on April 9, 2010.
  25. ^ "RT". RT International. Retrieved February 17, 2019.


  • 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

Further reading[edit]

  • "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 [fr]
  • 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

External links[edit]