DUPLESSIS' ORPHANS

Copied from The Los Angeles Times

February 10, 2000


Mental Illness by Mandate

MAGGIE FARLEY,
Times Staff Writer

In 1950s Quebec, the Catholic Church turned orphanages into psychiatric hospitals overnight--purely for economic reasons. To the now-middle-aged victims, it amounted to nothing less than selling their souls.

MONTREAL--Herve Bertrand remembers the day when his life at a Quebec orphanage turned inside out.
     "On March 18, 1954, the nuns came in and said, 'From today, you are all crazy.' Everyone started to cry, even the nuns. Then everything changed: Our lessons stopped, and work--they called it therapy--began. I saw the bars go on the windows, the fences go up around the compound. I saw the autobuses pull up full of psychiatric patients--our new roommates. It was like a prison. And that's where I spent a quarter of my life."
     Bertrand, 57, was among more than 3,000 children living in 12 Quebec orphanages that the Roman Catholic Church transformed--some virtually overnight--into mental hospitals in the 1940s and '50s to reap more generous government subsidies. A policy ordained by Quebec's then-premier, Maurice Duplessis, granted the institutions more than three times the amount of money to care for a mental patient as they received for orphans. So, in order that the children would qualify, their medical records were altered to declare them mentally unstable or retarded.
     But that was not just a change of labels, say the now-middle-aged orphans: The church sold their souls. Many were treated like mental patients, with unnecessary drugs and straightjackets.
     It took the orphans nearly 40 years to organize and ask the church and state for redress. They finally got an answer last year. Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard apologized for his predecessor's mistakes and offered nominal compensation. But he also praised the "great deal of devotion" of the nuns who cared for the children.
     Church officials were less contrite. "They don't deserve an apology," said Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, adding that real responsibility lay not with the religious community, but with the parents for their wayward lifestyles.
     While the government and the church resist confronting the past, members of this damaged generation are still trying to find closure and compensation for the childhood they will never recover.
     Montreal is a city of churches, a riverside capital where the skyline is crowded with steeples, a place, it is said, where you can't throw a rock without breaking a stained-glass window. Until the last few decades, the Catholic Church held sway here just as surely as the government did. It ran not only orphanages but schools and hospitals, and it handled most social services.
     Duplessis, for his part, ran the province with an iron hand, forsaking civil liberties for a strong state. Today, his intermittent reign between 1936 and 1959 is referred to as "the Great Darkness." The children affected by his decree--now in their 50s and 60s--have become known as "the orphans of Duplessis."
     Not all the children were orphans. Many, like Bertrand, had been born out of wedlock and were viewed by the church as children of sin. Others came from families too poor to care for them who were urged to put them in the hands of nuns for a proper religious upbringing.
     But the sisters were overwhelmed--a single nun was typically in charge of 50 children, say people who were familiar with the institutions at the time. They were women with no child-rearing experience, undertrained and overworked. They transferred their culture of penitence and self-discipline to children who didn't understand. In an institutional setting, this could quickly turn into abuse, and few of the children had family visitors who could intervene.



     A Dark Memory of Cells and Straitjackets


     St.-Julien Hospital was one of the earliest psychiatric institutions to take orphans, starting in the 1940s. Alice Quinton, 62, was born of an incestuous relationship and transferred to St.-Julien from an orphanage in 1945. On her admission form, the reason for her entry is written in a nun's precise cursive: "Cause of scandal."
     That year, when Quinton was 7, the nuns told Alice that her parents were dead, and in turn reported to her mother that Alice had died. And in a way, Quinton says, she did die that year. Her childhood, spent amid 500 other orphans and 900 mentally ill adults, is a dark memory of cells, tranquilizers and straitjackets. She says she was punished for asking questions, for wetting her bed, for not doing her work fast enough.
     "I asked, 'Why am I here?' No one ever had an answer. I thought to myself: 'Am I going crazy? Am I going to grow up to be like these mental patients?' "
     Today, Quinton carries a binder of grievances, a catalog of injustice. She opens it to show an architectural diagram of St.-Julien, featuring the layout of her ward and the location of the bed where she says she was strapped in a straitjacket on the cold metal springs for three weeks. She presents childlike drawings of "the humiliation chair," depicting a girl in a straitjacket strapped onto a potty chair, with a gag in her mouth and tears springing from her eyes in dotted lines. The detail is precise, down to the number of fasteners on the straitjacket, as clear in Quinton's mind as her memory of a nun's knee in her back, lacing her into the jacket as if into an old corset.
     "None of it made sense," she says, her eyes brimming. "But I never thought I was insane. I never believed I was retarded."
     In the summer of 1960, a Montreal psychiatric team began a series of investigations that would prove her right. At one of the institutions, Mont Providence, an examination of about 500 boys and girls aged 4 through 12 revealed that most were of normal intelligence but being impaired by institutionalization.
     "One of the conclusions of the report was that many children were perfectly intelligent but perfectly ignorant," says Dr. Jean Gaudreau, one of six doctors who evaluated the children. "In one of the tests, we showed the children objects--keys, a flag, a stove, a refrigerator. Many of the children couldn't name them, not because of a lack of intelligence but because they had never seen one."
     Gaudreau, now a psychology professor at the University of Montreal, recalls his shock at the pervasive stench of urine, at seeing a 5-year-old boy in a straitjacket, tied to a drainpipe, and teenagers drugged with tranquilizers.
     "Most of them were not retarded when they went in," he says. "Some of them were by the time they got out."



     Government Ordered Children's Release


     That investigation was the beginning of the end of the program. After psychiatrist Denis Lazure headed a wider investigation in 1962, inspecting 15 of the province's hospitals, a new government declared that the children did not belong in institutions and released them that year. The younger ones went to other orphanages or foster homes. The older ones were on their own.
     "Contrary to the popular belief of some, there is no exaggeration in the accounts of the sufferings of the Duplessis orphans," says Lazure, who became the Quebec health minister after the study. "If anything, they've been understated."
     But though the orphans were released, their trauma was not over. For people who had lived for years within walls, with no education, whose social circle was mental patients, who didn't recognize a refrigerator, the freedom of the outside world was no freedom at all. What's more, their records still classified them as mentally deficient, which made it difficult for them to later find jobs.
     "All I could do for a year after I got out was to huddle quietly and hope I wouldn't get hit," says Clarina Duguay, 63, who was interned in St.-Julien when she was 11 after her mother fell ill with tuberculosis. "It took a long time to build up the confidence to walk down the street, or to find a job."
     Today, Duguay is married and has six children, though she didn't tell any of them until a few years ago that she was one of the Duplessis orphans, who were beginning to get national attention.
     "I always wanted to be a flight attendant," she says. "Any one of the kids there could have been anything. Today, too many of them are nothing. Their lives were stolen from them."
     Bertrand, now a plumber, is frustrated by the religious orders' denials, then and now. He describes repeated sexual abuse: When the nuns went to church, a guard would come and get him, strap him in a straitjacket and sodomize him.
     "I told the nuns," he says, "but they didn't believe me."
     His hospital records from Mont Providence describe rectal damage so severe that surgery was recommended.
     Even today, nuns who ran the orphanages refuse to comment on what happened in that era. Last February, Cardinal Turcotte, a senior representative of the Catholic Church in Canada, said, "I wholeheartedly defend the devoted religious women who gave 40 to 50 years of their lives working in the institutions."
     Turcotte called the orphans "victims of life," and declared, "They don't deserve an apology."
     While some Quebeckers agree that the issue is nearly half a century old and should be left behind, Bertrand emphasizes that the orphans' entire lives, not just their childhoods, were affected. When his children were born, he says, he re-encountered the shadows of his youth.
     "I was not a good father. I was too aggressive. I slapped the children because I did not know how to discipline them kindly. I thought I could leave the past behind, but I still have all that in my head."
     Bruno Roy, 56, who was in Mont Providence with Bertrand, is one who has reclaimed his life. Born out of wedlock, he lived in another orphanage until he was transferred to Mont Providence at age 7. Before the institution converted to a psychiatric facility, his medical chart read: "This child demonstrates normal intelligence and is capable of being educated--he is fairly well adapted and has achieved the emotional maturity of children his age." After Mont Providence's status changed, his record declared him "severely mentally retarded."
     Today, Roy has a doctorate in French literature and teaches at a Quebec college. A burly man whose black beard is stippled with gray, he has written 12 books on poetry and literature--and one about his childhood experiences that brought attention to the whole issue.
     "Yes, it's true. I'm a mental defective," he says, leaning back in a chair and laughing.
     Roy has become an effective spokesman for the rest of the orphans, many of whom he describes matter-of-factly as "damaged goods."
     He was saved, he says, by one kind nun who recognized his spark and put him in a vocational training program when he was 15, just to get him outside the compound's walls. He worked in a cardboard box factory and tried to make up for lost time. He realized he had no vocabulary for the outside world.
     "In the years inside Mont Providence, I saw the violence and absurdity, yet I didn't see it, because to me it was normal. I didn't have anything to compare it to," he says.
     At first, he says, it was easier to bury his experience. For 30 years, while he became a successful scholar, he did not talk about his past.
     "Then one day, one of my [Mont Providence] classmates called and said: 'You made it, but we're still less than human. Won't you help defend us?'
     "I went to a meeting and saw the faces of people who were totally destroyed. These were my old playmates, who were normal when we were kids. Now they are broken. They had no voice. They had no credibility. No one would believe their horrible stories."
     In 1994 he wrote a book, "My Memories From the Asylum," to document what had happened to them all.
     "I became a writer because of one sentence by our national poet, Gaston Miron: 'One day I will have said yes to my birth.' "
     It was a turning point not only for Roy but for other Duplessis orphans. But though their case began to receive national attention, justice continued to elude them.
     A class-action lawsuit was rejected by a provincial court in 1995 on the grounds that it would be too difficult to determine individual damages in the hundreds of different cases. Later that year, a police investigation of 321 complaints, including Bertrand's accusation of rape backed up by medical documents, concluded that the evidence of abuse was too old and unreliable.
     So in 1997, the Duplessis orphans tried a different tactic. They formed a committee to ask for a public inquiry, plus compensation and apologies from the church and government.
     The government assigned an ombudsman, Daniel Jacoby, to examine the matter. In March 1997, extrapolating from settlements in similar cases in other provinces, Jacoby suggested a compensation package equal to $56 million in U.S. currency--about $700 for each patient for each year he or she spent in an institution as a result of a wrongful diagnosis, and an additional indemnity for those who were physically or sexually abused.
     "It's a violation of human rights, and as a democracy we have an obligation to compensate for any harm we caused," Jacoby says. Although the government accepts about nine out of 10 of his proposals, he says, it rejected this one, and he remains puzzled by the sudden parsimony.
     "I won't abandon this dossier," he promised in December, "because it is a matter of fairness, a matter of humanity and a matter of moral obligation."
     Last March, Premier Bouchard did apologize on behalf of the Quebec government and offered a fund equivalent to $2.1 million to provide social services for the orphans who need them--about $700 total per victim. But the offer included no direct compensation for individuals or acknowledgment of pain and suffering. The orphans committee declared it an insult.
     "Although they had to endure that situation, many of them are still quite well off, so we decided to put our limited resources this way," says Dominique Olivier, a spokeswoman for the Office of Citizen Relations. "We do not plan to look into it again."
     Msgr. Pierre Morissette, head of the Assembly of Quebec Bishops, told a news conference in September that an apology by the church "would betray the work of those who dedicated their lives to the poorest in society."
     A spokeswoman for the assembly, Rolande Parrot, said in a December interview that the church does not take any responsibility for the transfer of children to psychiatric hospitals and does not consider the religious community to have done anything wrong. She dismissed the orphans committee's protests and its vows that it will pursue the matter all the way to the Vatican.
     "There are no plans to reopen the case," Parrot said. "They will probably never be satisfied."
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