Quebec Offers Support for Abused Duplessis Orphans Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Beginning during the mid-1930’s, thousands of children in the care of Roman Catholic orphanages were labeled mentally deficient and sent to psychiatric hospitals, where they suffered years of abuse and neglect. Adult survivors organized as the Duplessis Orphans’ Committee and demanded an official investigation, apology, and compensation. In 1999, the Quebec government and Church officials separately created funds to support the orphans’ efforts at rehabilitation, but both institutions refused to compensate the orphans individually for their suffering.

Summary of Event

In 1999, the premier of the Canadian province of Quebec, Lucien Bouchard, announced that his administration would establish a fund to provide social services to the surviving children of Duplessis, also known as the Duplessis orphans. Thousands of children in Quebec, in the state’s care because they had been born out of wedlock or into poverty, were wrongly diagnosed and institutionalized in Catholic hospitals, raised in Church-run orphanages, and educated in Church schools. [kw]Duplessis Orphans, Quebec Offers Support for Abused (Mar. 4, 1999) Roman Catholic Church;and orphans[orphans] Duplessis orphans Quebec;Duplessis orphans Orphans;Duplessis Bouchard, Lucien Duplessis, Maurice Turcotte, Jean-Claude Roman Catholic Church;and orphans[orphans] Duplessis orphans Quebec;Duplessis orphans Orphans;Duplessis Bouchard, Lucien Duplessis, Maurice Turcotte, Jean-Claude [g]Canada;Mar. 4, 1999: Quebec Offers Support for Abused Duplessis Orphans[02930] [c]Government;Mar. 4, 1999: Quebec Offers Support for Abused Duplessis Orphans[02930] [c]Families and children;Mar. 4, 1999: Quebec Offers Support for Abused Duplessis Orphans[02930] [c]Psychology and psychiatry;Mar. 4, 1999: Quebec Offers Support for Abused Duplessis Orphans[02930] [c]Human rights;Mar. 4, 1999: Quebec Offers Support for Abused Duplessis Orphans[02930] [c]Corruption;Mar. 4, 1999: Quebec Offers Support for Abused Duplessis Orphans[02930] [c]Religion;Mar. 4, 1999: Quebec Offers Support for Abused Duplessis Orphans[02930] Morissette, Pierre

The children were victims of a scheme devised under the administration of Premier Maurice Duplessis beginning during the mid-1930’s to label the children as mentally disabled so that they could be moved into psychiatric hospitals. Duplessis’s administration saved millions of dollars by shifting the cost of the children’s care to the Church, and the Church, in turn, received twice as much federal funding for institutionalizing children who were classified as mental patients rather than as orphans. The children were released from care by 1964.

Religious orders received subsidies from the Canadian government for the care and education of children in need. Given that the subsidy for mental patients was more than double that for healthy children, the Duplessis government persuaded Catholic organizations to declare children mentally deficient or psychotic and move them to psychiatric institutions. Some orphanages and schools were converted suddenly to psychiatric hospitals, and the children were classed as mental patients literally overnight. The Church received more federal funds for running hospitals than for orphanages and schools, while Quebec province saved millions of dollars that would have gone toward childcare and education.

Maurice Duplessis in 1937.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Investigations beginning during the early 1960’s revealed that thousands of children had been diagnosed improperly and that the orphans were unprepared for life outside institutional settings. The orphans reported they were used as slave Slavery;and orphans[orphans] labor in hospitals and on local farms. Nuns and other hospital employees routinely placed them in straitjackets and subjected them to beatings and sexual abuse. They were not educated and many remained illiterate, and some had become unstable after years of living among true mental patients. They had no families or support systems outside the institutions, lacked basic skills for living in society, and received no job training. They did not have their original birth certificates and struggled to establish legal identities, and their medical records indicated they were mentally deficient or ill.

During the late 1990’s, approximately three thousand survivors organized the group Duplessis Orphans’ Committee, calling for an official investigation and compensation from the government of Quebec and the Church. The orphans also were seeking formal apologies. In March, 1997, Premier Bouchard said his government would examine the orphans’ claims and respond within a month to their demands. A year passed without further word from Bouchard. His representatives later said Quebec might apologize, but there would be no compensation and the government could do nothing to correct the orphans’ medical records.

On March 4, 1999, the Quebec government announced the establishment of a three-million-dollar fund—about one thousand dollars per surviving orphan—to support survivors’ efforts to correct their medical records, obtain their original birth certificates, and seek job training. Bouchard apologized for how they were treated but said Quebec would not conduct a public inquiry nor compensate individuals for their suffering. Also, the government did not intend to hold anyone legally responsible. Bouchard indicated Catholic nuns and others had taken on a thankless task in raising large numbers of unwanted children, and they should not be blamed if the results were not always ideal.

Unsurprisingly, the Duplessis Orphans rejected Bouchard’s offer. They had not been informed in advance of his announcement, found his comments insulting, and took the limited plan for financial assistance as a further attempt to dismiss their claims. Speaking for Quebec’s Liberal Party opposition, Madeline Boulanger suggested the Duplessis Orphans should instead be known as “the orphans of Lucien Bouchard.”

In September, 1999, Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte and Bishop Pierre Morissette, president of the Assembly of Quebec Catholic Bishops, publicly refused to apologize to the orphans or to compensate them. The Church, they said, would provide counseling and social support to the orphans. Turcotte indicated the Duplessis orphans should be thankful to have been housed during their childhoods, as they would have been homeless without the Church. Morissette added that the Church “has already given a lot” to the orphans “and continues to give generally.” In response to the official Church statement, the orphans called upon Catholics to stop tithing at church and instead give their money to Centraide, a charity serving the Montreal area.

In 2004, the Duplessis orphans came forward with new allegations that they had been given Experiments;medical experimental drugs and shock treatments and were subjected to lobotomies. They called for the exhumation of orphans who had died in psychiatric institutions and were still buried in unmarked graves. Surviving orphans believed autopsies and forensic testing on these bodies would confirm many deaths resulted from medical experimentation.

Impact

Bouchard’s refusal to compensate individual orphans and his qualified apology made headlines in the United States, tarnishing Canada’s image in the national press. Bouchard’s response was considered inadequate and lacking in compassion, considering the Duplessis administration’s horrifying and deliberate mistreatment of thousands of children for its financial gain.

Following Bouchard’s resignation, Quebec premier Bernard Landry and his Parti Québécois established the National Program of Reconciliation with the Duplessis Orphans. On June 30, 2001, the Duplessis Orphans’ Committee, on behalf of the approximately fifteen hundred orphans who qualified for compensation, accepted the government’s newest apology and agreed to individual “fault-free” payments of ten thousand dollars plus one thousand dollars for each year spent in institutions. The totals averaged twenty-five thousand dollars per person. On December 21, 2006, under Premier Jean Charest, the government announced it would increase the orphans’ compensation to twenty-six million dollars, provided the orphans waive any legal action against the Catholic Church. The Church, in turn, refused once again to apologize to the orphans.

Also in 2006, an estimated seventeen hundred people received twenty-five thousand dollars each in compensation under the National Reconciliation Program for Duplessis Orphans Who Were Residents of Certain Institutions. These survivors, called forgotten orphans, had not been declared mentally disabled but had suffered abuses similar to that of the Duplessis Orphans in nonpsychiatric institutions. In return for compensation, they agreed to make no further claims against Quebec or the Church.

The indifference of the Church to the suffering of children further damaged its already tarnished public image. The Church’s once-pervasive influence over life in Quebec had been fading for years. The shocking alliance of the government with Church authorities and the medical profession to use children as a means of revenue forever linked Bouchard with the memory of Duplessis’s administration, nicknamed La Grande Noirceur, or Great Darkness. Roman Catholic Church;and orphans[orphans] Duplessis orphans Quebec;Duplessis orphans Orphans;Duplessis Bouchard, Lucien Duplessis, Maurice Turcotte, Jean-Claude

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Black, Conrad. Render unto Caesar: The Life and Legacy of Maurice Duplessis. Toronto, Ont.: Key Porter Books, 1998. Considered the definitive biography of Duplessis. Balances his controversial political style with the long-term positive impact of his policies in Quebec.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DePalma, Anthony. “Orphans Who Weren’t Recall Care That Wasn’t.” The New York Times, March 5, 1999. Looks at the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the Duplessis orphans’ scandal in the context of the Church’s waning influence throughout Quebec.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pearlstein, Steven. “Abandoned and Abused: Children Locked Up in Quebec Mental Wards Now Seek Redress for Suffering, Decades Lost.” The Washington Post, April 7, 2000. Two surviving Duplessis orphans recount the abuse they suffered while institutionalized. Physician Denis Lazure explains the hospital conditions that may have led to abuse. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perry, J. Christopher et al. “Seven Institutionalized Children and Their Adaptation in Late Adulthood: The Children of Duplessis (Les Enfants de Duplessis).” Psychiatry 69, no. 4 (Winter, 2006): 283-301. A study of several Duplessis orphans that examined their ability or inability to adapt to society as adults, primarily older adults. Presents seven life studies. For advanced readers.

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