DUPLESSIS' ORPHANS

Copied from The Gazette

Monday 5 June 2000


Orphaned by Quebec City

Premier Lucien Bouchard said once again last week that he has no intention of increasing the government's inadequate compensation offer to the Duplessis orphans. Even so, a remark by Deputy Premier Bernard Landry left the impression that the cabinet is not unanimous on the subject. Despite all of Mr. Landry's subsequent public backpedaling and protestations of cabinet solidarity, one hopes that a more vigorous debate might indeed be going on behind closed doors.

And it's encouraging to see that two high-profile political figures, former Parti Quebecois cabinet minister Denis Lazure (a psychiatrist by profession) and Liberal Senator Jacques Hebert, are among those who have taken up the case.

The orphans deserve better than what the government has offered them so far, a $3-million group compensation fund. The orphans quickly spurned it as hopelessly inadequate, which it is. By contrast, a report by Quebec ombudsman Daniel Jacoby in 1997 recommended indemnities to individual victims totaling $60 million to $100 million, with the amount varying according to the length of institutionalization and the severity of the abuse suffered.

One can argue that no amount of money could ever compensate for the ruined lives of those 1,500 young wards of the state in the 1940s and 1950s who were wrongly classified as mentally deficient or mentally ill and put in inappropriate institutions for the sake of getting higher public subsidies for their care. Those wrongly classified were deprived of education. Some received inappropriate treatments, such as electroshock therapy or lobotomies. Some suffered physical or sexual abuse. All had to live with stigma and self-doubt.

Still, individual compensation would be tangible recognition of the grievous harm done to individuals, and could help the orphans, most of whom live in modest circumstances, enjoy what years they have left.

In making his offer last year, Mr. Bouchard at least apologized, which was a good start. The Roman Catholic Church, which in those days ran most of the province's social-service and health-care institutions, has, disappointingly, failed to do even that much.

Last week, there were encouraging indications that the church at least is starting to show more sympathy for the orphans, and might be considering some form of compensation. To apologize for what happened would in no way detract from the often generous and selfless work carried out by the church and its religious orders. But it seems the church is concerned that such an apology could leave it open to lawsuits.

The orphans deserve better than what they have been offered so far. What is needed is not, as Mr. Bouchard puts it, to reopen the dossiers of history. The dossier is still open, and it will not really be closed so long as the injustice continues.

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