DUPLESSIS' ORPHANS

Copied from The Montreal Mirror

November 23, 2000


Lobotomized by the state

by KRISTIAN GRAVENOR

I'm running my fingers through the bristly black hair of 48-year-old Paul Saint-Aubin, an illiterate hunchback sitting at a breakfast table in Joliette. My index finger feels a series of parallel grooves that run diagonally to his forehead, almost meeting the souvenirs of two other surgical incisions that stand perpendicular to his bushy eyebrows.

He's an exceptionally easygoing guy considering the journey that followed the day the Grey Nuns told his mother--a native from the Wolinak reserve--that he died as a baby. The nuns kept him in an orphanage until age 11, then sold him into farm slavery along with six other boys where, for six years, Saint-Aubin was forced to subsist on horse and pig feed. One day when he was caught eating raw eggs in the chick coop, the man of the house tossed him onto a fence, resulting, he says, in permanent damage that has caused his back to slant dramatically forward.

As a 17 year old in 1969, Saint-Aubin pulled a Barrabas against his brutal overlords. The police came, and although being of sound mind, he was deemed "profoundly retarded" and was sentenced "indefinitely" to a mental hospital. Although effectively mute at the time, he was offered no legal representation before being sent away.

Once inside the cuckoo bin, he was doped with dozens of different medications, including Largatil, known as "the liquid straitjacket," suffered electroshock, isolation, sexual abuse and experimental brain surgery. "I was forced into straitjackets and they made me sleep in the worst section of the hospital, full of piss and shit," he says.

In 1987, after 18 years inside, his mother, who ran a pet grooming operation in Laval, used new access to information laws to find out about her long-dead son. She discovered that the nuns had lied about his fate. The two were reunited for just three years before she died of cancer in 1990.

The heart-wrenching saga might merit a skeptical ear were it not for the immaculately documented records kept by his friend, Rod Vienneau. In the last three years, the middle-aged Joliette native has doggedly researched and written a thousand letters to elected officials around the world publicizing the cause of Saint-Aubin and of other so-called Duplessis Orphans that up until the mid-'70s were tossed into psych wards with no justification.

"The province would give the nuns 75 cents a day per child in the orphanage, but they gave $2.75 a day if they were in psychiatric hospitals," says Vienneau. A UQÀM report from last year estimates that the Catholic Church made $70-million (in 1999 dollars) from the manoeuvre.

Vienneau points out that parallel victims, such as Mount Cashel or natives sterilized in Alberta were compensated for their sufferings, yet in June of this year, Premier Bouchard declared the Duplessis Orphan issue closed. "Premier Bouchard is in a clear conflict of interest," says Vienneau. "He represented the Church in court in 1961 and several members of his family are important members of the Quebec clergy."

Sitting calmly at the table is Vienneau's wife--and mother of his six children--who recounts how, after her mother died of tuberculosis, she too was forced into six years in a Catholic-run insane asylum. She tells of the ice-baths, nights spent on a bare-spring mattress, sexual abuse and other memories of her own private hell. She was sprung after her younger sister escaped to tell her father of the shocking turn of events. Amazingly, the nuns wrote to the village priest to have the sisters recommitted.

Saint-Aubin, and the thousands of others whose lives were shattered at the hands of the Church seem no closer to the compensation that they are so rightly due. Saint-Aubin, who now works inserting rubber rings inside twist-off caps, shyly makes a last sad request. "If you could ask your readers, I don't have a television and I'd really like to have one."

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