DUPLESSIS' ORPHANS

Copied from The Boston Globe


By Colin Nickerson, Globe Staff, 3/28/2000

They were Quebec's ''children of sin,'' most of them given up by teenage girls at a time when unwed parenthood carried deep social stigma. Others were progeny of rape or incest. Others still were from families too poor to feed another mouth.

They were castoffs, in any event, children wanted by nobody, but dutifully taken in by the Roman Catholic Church, which ran nearly all of the province's charitable institutions, as well as public schools and hospitals, during the 1940s and '50s.

Today they are called the ''orphans of Duplessis,'' named after Maurice Duplessis, the iron-willed provincial premier who, in close alliance with bishops and priests, dominated Quebec for nearly a quarter-century, until his death in 1959. Because of his ferocious opposition to social change, Quebecers still refer to that era as the ''long darkness.''

In that darkness, the sad tale of the Duplessis orphans begins. It is a story that can be summarized with one chilling statistic: Starting in the mid-1940s, roughly 3,000 abandoned Quebec youngsters of normal intelligence were arbitrarily pronounced ''severely retarded'' or ''psychotic'' so that church-run orphanages could qualify for heftier government payments. Institutions treating disturbed youngsters received three times as much funding as orphanages that merely provided shelter and education.

Now hundreds of middle-aged Duplessis orphans are demanding apologies from the church and financial redress from the province for what they describe as childhoods of systematic abuse. They contend, and the province quietly concedes, that their young lives were horribly transformed in facilities where straitjackets, solitary cells, and heavy doses of tranquilizing medicines were used regularly to control unruly children.

''This is North America's largest case of institutional abuse,'' said Carlo Tarini, a spokesman for the orphans.

One former patient is Alice Quinton, a child of incest but otherwise just a normally feisty 7-year-old, who was abruptly transferred from a church home for abandoned youngsters to a locked facility, run by the Sisters of Charity of Quebec, that housed 900 severely disturbed adult mental patients - and, from that day, scores of terrified little girls.

''October 23, 1945 - that's the date the gates of hell opened for me,'' Quinton recalled in an interview. ''I lived behind the grated windows at St.-Julien Hospital until I was 23 years old.''

The tragedy has drawn international attention, and, last year, an apology from Quebec's current premier, Lucien Bouchard.

But it was qualified remorse. Bouchard acknowledged that serious injustices occurred and that the province deserved some blame, but said that it would be difficult to pursue civil or criminal action after so many decades because of incomplete records and other lost evidence. He offered the equivalent of $2.1 million to provide counseling and advocacy services for surviving orphans, many of whom live in poverty and unhappiness.

''There is genuine compassion for the orphans, and the desire to restore their dignity - for example, by revising their medical records to show the truth,'' said Dominique Ollivier, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Citizen Relations. ''But it is simply not within our power to undo history.''

The offer of a fund was rejected by a committee of orphans. They demand a total of $56 million in individual reparations as well as an unambiguous apology from the church.

Montreal's archbishop, Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, is adamant that the church did not intentionally mistreat the children. He has insisted that to render apologies for mistakes made inadvertently would sully the name of nuns who dedicated their lives to bringing up youngsters abandoned by their parents.

In a public statement that stunned many, Turcotte recently declared that the orphans ''don't deserve an apology ... [They are] victims of life.''

Church officials did not respond to requests for an interview.

Turcotte's hard-line view is not universal in Quebec's Catholic hierarchy. Last week, 64 nuns and other followers of religious callings issued a letter condemning Turcotte's ''cold'' stance.

The fate that befell Alice Quinton at St.-Julien Hospital was repeated at roughly a dozen other institutions throughout Quebec as abandoned children were either herded into mental asylums or found their orphanages reclassified as ''mental hospitals'' to secure increased funding from the government.

Life in these settings was occasionally marked by appalling cruelties, with children tied to bedsprings, bound in straitjackets, or placed in reeking isolation cells. The harshest abuses appear to have been aberrant acts by a few cruel nuns, not standard procedure. Beatings also occurred, but this was a time when a hard slap in the face or strap across the bottom were considered routine forms of discipline in Quebec schools.

There were also instances of sexual assaults by custodians and other male staff. Cases of rape appear to have been rare.

In the end, the most searing injustice seems to have been the collusion of doctors, church officials, and government leaders in falsely diagnosing the most defenseless wards of the province as severely retarded or hopelessly insane simply to boost the flow of funding to needy institutions.

In the words of Quebec's ombudsman, Daniel Jacoby: ''Normal children from foundling homes and orphanages ended up in psychiatric institutions along with the mentally handicapped and the mentally ill.''

Indeed, a recent government report estimated that during the Duplessis era, nearly 30 percent of the residents at provincial asylums were not mentally ill at all, just unwanted children.

''As `children of sin,' we were unpleasant reminders of the weakness of human flesh,'' said Bruno Roy, 57, born out of wedlock and surrendered to an orphange called Mount Providence, on the eastern outskirts of Montreal.

''After all, `normal' children have families to defend them and love them,'' he said. ''So by the most basic definition, we were `abnormal.' It wasn't such a big leap to treat us as subhuman.''

Roy was 11 when Mount Providence was abruptly transformed from orphan home to mental asylum in 1954.

''It happened almost overnight,'' said Roy, a retired professor of French literature and one of the few Duplessis orphans to have achieved a normal life. ''Bars were put on the windows, a fence was raised around the orphanage, and four busloads of crazies - adults, some drooling, some catatonic, some dangerous - were brought to live among us. Our education was suspended; no more classes. Instead, we were set to work washing the backs and bed linen of insane old men.''

Nonetheless, Roy counts himself lucky. One of the nuns recognized the gleam of his intelligence, despite the diagnosis of ''severely retarded'' in his records, and had him released to a vocational school at age 15.

Alice Quinton keeps her medical records in a loose-leaf notebook together with her ''art'' - sad drawings of herself as a young girl trussed up in a straitjacket, lashed into a sort of potty chair with thick straps. It was the punishment received for talking back or giggling at St.-Julien Hospital.

''They told me I was crazy, and that I must be in an institution all my life,'' she said.

During 23 years of incarceration, Quinton said, she made just one visit to the outside world, a day trip to the nearby town of Granby: ''I saw ordinary children who walked about freely and did not appear frightened [to] laugh out loud or talk with their friends,'' she said. ''I'd never imagined such a life was possible.''

Then, in 1961, two years after the death of Duplessis, outside medical examiners entered Quebec's asylums and were stunned by what they found. Quick orders came down from Quebec City to release the orphans.

''One day, they told me I was not crazy, after all,'' said Quinton. ''So you have to leave, they said. I couldn't even cook for myself. I didn't know that to make a potato you put it in boiling water. I had never seen or touched a can opener.''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 3/28/2000.

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