Even by the standards of mid-twentieth century Canada, when discrimination was rampant and governments’ restricted fundamental freedoms, Maurice Duplessis stands out. His tenure as Premier of Quebec (1936-1939, 1944-1959) is referred to as Le Grande Noirceur. By the 1950s Duplessis had become associated with some of the worst instances of state abuse of civil liberties in Canadian history. One of these policies is known as “Duplessis’ orphans.”
As Premier, Duplessis (a bachelor with no children) had a powerful ally in the Catholic Church. The church was responsible for social services across the province, including orphanages. More than 20,000 “illegitimate” children - born to unmarried, often young, women - were born between 1949 and 1956. The proportion of illegitimate children in Quebec was lower than the rest of Canada, but the province had the highest rate of institutionalization and fewer adoptions. It was not uncommon for single mothers to be shamed into abandoning their children to the church; there was a powerful stigma attached to unmarried mothers, and abortion and selling contraception were criminal offences. Many children were also abandoned following the death of a parent. Others were forcibly removed from their parents as a result of poverty, unemployment, sickness or abuse. Orphans faced a difficult life in Quebec. Their status exempted them from compulsory schooling for several years; the religious orders prioritized work over education; boys were excluded from the priesthood unless they had a special exemption; and they could not be consider lawful heirs of their biological parents. For many, this meant a life of deprivation, religious indoctrination and feelings of guilt for their status as “children of sin.” And the church was poorly equipped to care for them. Orphanages had limited resources, and each nun was often responsible for watching at least ten children under two years old. “The majority of children spoke only in sounds until the ages of 4 to 6, and were incapable of telling time, eating with utensils, getting around, washing themselves, etc. In one trade school, up to 25% of the children between 9 and 16 were found to be bedwetters. [Ombudsman, 1997].
The term “Duplessis’ orphans” refers to a cohort of orphans who, during the period when he was Premier, suffered traumatic abuse at the hands of the state and the Catholic Church. The worst abuse involved transferring orphans to psychiatric hospitals to secure federal funding. At the time, federal funding was more generous for hospitals than orphanages. Healthy orphans were diagnosed as mentally unfit and sent to psychiatric hospitals or, in some cases such as Mont-Providence, entire orphanages were reclassified as psychiatric institutions. In the latter case, the nuns’ relationship to the children changed dramatically: the nuns stopped educating the children and the orphans were treated as patients who were “mentally deficient.” The Montreal Journal would later report that most of the children were improperly diagnosed: “Jean Gaudreau, a psychologist at the University of Montreal who visited one of the orphanages in 1961, said there is little doubt that children were unnecessarily institutionalized during that time. Tests conducted then showed, he said, that mental deficiencies were often caused by lack of stimulation, not mental illness.” An estimated 2000 to 4000 orphans were physically, mentally and sexually abused. In addition to failing to treat children when they were ill, according to Paré et al., they suffered the following abuses: “présence de règles injustes et de châtiments excessifs, abus physiques perpétrés par les personnes responsables, négligence émotive, exposition à de la violence perpétrée sur d’autres enfants par les personnes responsables, abus verbaux provenant des personnes responsables, négligence physique, abus sexuels perpétrés par les personnes responsables (93).” Many of them were forced to work as domestics, farmhands or in church-run institutions (e.g., hospitals) - their pay was remitted to the orphanages. Several committed suicide, were killed or struggled with mental illness. News reports claimed that the orphans allegedly endured lobotomies, electroshock, straitjackets and corporal punishment. The church was complicit in this scheme. When the province removed the orphans from psychiatric institutions in the 1960s (following the 1962 Bédard Commission report that recommended deinstitutionalization) they struggled to integrate into society. Many of them grappled with personal and romantic relationships, addictions, unemployment and financial hardships. According to Paré et al.’s survey of former orphans, the “abus et la négligence subis par les [enfants de Duplessis] pendant l’enfance ont compromis leur ajustement psychosocial à long terme (85).”
The issue gained momentum in 1989 when the popular host of Radio-Québec’s Parler pour parler, Jeannette Bertrand, invited several orphans to appear on her show. Pauline Gill’s 1991 exposé, L'histoire vraie d'Alice Quinton, drew further attention to the orphans’ plight. A Quebec-based writer, Bruno Roy, led an organization called Duplessis Orphan’s Committee in 1992 to secure redress from the Quebec government. Their initial attempts were unsuccessful. A Quebec Superior Court rejected the committee’s petition for a class-action lawsuit and they were unsuccessful in having criminal charges laid against the monks and nuns accused of abuse (many of the hospital files had been lost or destroyed). Meanwhile, the committee demanded apologies from the Quebec government, Catholic Church and the Quebec College of Physicians. The campaign was bolstered in 1997 with a supportive report from the provincial Ombudsman that recommended compensation for victims of abuse. The Ombudsman, Daniel Jacoby, offered the following reflections on the legacy of Duplessis’ children and their campaign for redress:
Each of the parties involved (government, the medical profession and religious communities) passes responsibility for the events on to the others or to the values of the period. Moreover, neither media coverage, nor petitions, criminal complaints, legal proceedings or appeals to the National Assembly or the different departments have until now allowed for reconciliating the different points of view or identifying specific responsibilities. Indeed, it is very difficult to go back in time and, after such a long time, specifically identify those responsible. Furthermore, the Superior Court, who had to rule on an authorization to file a class action, has itself been led to believe that legal recourse is not the appropriate avenue. … Due to the limits of the judiciary system, the "Enfants de Duplessis" now consider themselves the victims of a system of justice which they feel is hostile or inaccessible, since it does not allow them today to reveal or prove the injustices they allege. … In fact, the government, medical profession or religious authorities have assumed responsibilities in such a way that, in practice, the "Enfants de Duplessis" continue to suffer the wrongdoings for which they have never been compensated. … The social context at the time cannot justify that persons, following medical certificates issued for financial rather than medical reasons (grants obtained), have been confined in asylums, neither can it justify certain abuses. Today's society has the obligation to officially acknowledge the wrongdoings caused to its citizens. [Comments and Reflections by the Quebec Ombudsman]
The government apologized and offered $3 million in compensation, but the offer was rejected. Jacoby described the offer as unfair and humiliating. By 1999 the Catholic Church had refused to apologize or offer compensation. Following extensive publicity and public pressure, the Quebec government offered another apology in 2001 as well as individual compensation of $10,000 plus $1000 for each year spent in an asylum (1500 qualified for compensation). The Duplessis Orphan’s Committee accepted the offer. The government provided an additional $26 million in compensation in 2006.
The Duplessis Orphans’ scandal raises several human rights issues. From a human rights perspective, children occupy a unique place. As Micheline Dumont suggests “‘les enfants de Duplessis’, est passé du statut le plus ingrat de la société, parias sans existence légale qu'on dissimulait soigneusement derrière les murs d'institutions gigantesques, à celui de personnes lésées dans leurs droits fondamentaux. Dans notre nouvelle société de droits, ce statut confère une notoriété certaine. (484)”. Many of them were disabled and poorly treated, and most suffered from discrimination later in life. Beginning in the 1970s, several provinces introduced legislation to recognize children’s rights. Quebec’s Youth Protection Act of 1977, for instance, guaranteed youths the right to be consulted about switching foster care parents and to consult a lawyer before judicial proceedings, while the Ontario Child Welfare Act of 1978 protected the privacy of adopted children. And yet, only children and prisoners are denied the same fundamental rights (e.g. voting or mobility or contract) as other human beings. They are, in this way, uniquely vulnerable to human rights abuses. The case of Duplessis’ Orphans exemplifies their vulnerability.
Rod Vinneau. Les enfants de la grande noirceur: les orphelins de Duplessis: revelations chocs par la Commission pour les victims de crimes contre l’humanite dans le dossier des orphelins de Duplessis. Library and Archives Canada Amicus #: 33978709.
John Sigal et al. Health and psychosocial adaptation of les enfants de Duplessis as middle-aged adults: final report. Library and Archives Canada Amicus #: 27771264.
Jacques Baugé-Prévost. Plaidoyer d’un ex-orphelin reprouve de Duplessis. Library and Archives Canada Amicus #: 22143105.
Le programme national de reconciliation avec les orphelins de Duplessis ayant frequente certaines institutions. Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec.
Programme national de reconciliation avec les orphelins et orphelines de Duplessis: demande d’aide financiere: guide du demandeur. Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec.
CBC Archives:Duplessis Orphans
Radio-Canada archives: Orphelins de Duplessis
National Film Board (1972): Quebec: Duplessis and After
Television mini-series by Ciné Télé (1999; 2007 DVD version): Les Orphelins de Duplessis
Quebec Ombudsman, 1997. The "Children of Duplessis": A Time for Solidarity: Discussion and Consultation Paper for Decision-making Purposes. [The best source for a succinct summary of background information, statistics, historical context and the issue.]
Quebec Ombudsman, 1997. Comments and Reflections by the Quebec Ombudsman.
Dufour, Rose. Naître rien: Des orphelins de Duplessis, de la créche à l'asile (Éditions MultiMondes, 2002). In particular, note pages 18-19 for a brief history of how the issue became public.
Dumont, Micheline. “Des religieuses, des murs et des enfants.” L'Action nationale 84, 4 (1994): 483-508.
Gill, Pauline. L'histoire vraie d'Alice Quinton, orpheline enfermée dans un asile à l'âge de 7 ans (Montreal: Editions Libre Expression, 1991).
Malouin, Marie-Paule. L’univers des enfants en difficulté au Québec entre 1940 et 1960 (Bellarmin, 1996). The author, who was given a mandate by the church in 1992 to investigate the controversy, directs blame away from the church and towards the government. See, also, an interview with the author published in L’actualité, July 1997, Vol.22, No.11.
Nootens, Thierry. “Mémoire, espace public et désordres du discours historique: l’affaire des orphelins de Duplessis 1991-1999.” Bulletin d’histoire politique 7, 3 (1999): 97-107.
Paré, Nikolas, John J. Sigal, J. Christopher Perry, Sophie Boucher, Marie Claude Ouimet. “Les expériences vécues par les enfants de Duplessis institutionnalisés: Les conséquences après plus de 50 ans.” Santé mentale au Québec 35, 1 (2010): 85-109. This article describes in detail the abuse and provides two personal narrative case studies.
Roy, Bruno. Mémoir d’asile (Boréal, 1994).
Turenne, Martine. “La veritable histoire des Orphelins de Duplessis.” L’actualité 22, 11 (July 1997): 51-58. The article makes reference to specific institutions including Mont-Providence.
1964 – Jean-Guy Labrosse publishes Ma Chienne de vie about his experience as one of Duplessis’ children.
1965 – Noël Flavien founds the Association des Orphelins du Québec d’avant 1964.
1989 – Jeannette Bertrand’s episode on Duplessis’ orphans.
1991 – Pauline Gill published L'histoire vraie d'Alice Quinton.
1992 – Formation of the Duplessis Orphan’s Committee (Comité des orphelins de Duplessis)
1994 – Bruno Roy publishes Mémoir d’asile.
1995 – Attorney General announces that there is insufficient evidence to proceed with criminal complaints against church members.
1997 – Quebec Ombudsman report The "Children of Duplessis"
1999 – Quebec government apologizes and offers $3 million in compensation
1999 – Catholic Church rejects demand for an apology or compensation
2001 – Quebec government offers an apology and individual compensation of $10,000 plus $1000 for each year spent in an asylum. The Duplessis Orphan’s Committee accepts the offer.
2006 – Quebec government provides an additional $26 million in compensation with the caveat that individuals have to agree to not pursue legal action against the government or the church.
2010 – Bruno Roy dies on January 5.