Copied from The Montreal Gazette

Wednesday May 31, 2000

Orphans' compensation splits PQ

The Gazette

A rare split appeared yesterday between Premier Lucien Bouchard and Deputy Premier Bernard Landry over the thorny question of whether the government should increase the compensation it has offered an estimated 1,500 Duplessis orphans.

Minutes after Bouchard once again closed the door on more money during question period in the National Assembly, out in the corridors, Landry opened a window.

Chatting with members of the orphans' support committee led by former PQ cabinet minister Denis Lazure, as journalists crowded around, Landry indicated the question of compensation for the Duplessis orphans is far from closed and he is willing to consider a proposal for a more substantial compensation fund.

"You have to be narrow-minded to not think about it," said Landry, adding that he doesn't plan to look at the matter simply from the perspective of a finance minister.

Nodding gravely in agreement as members of the support committee made their case, Landry also volunteered that he has two sisters who were adopted from one of the same institutions in which many of the Duplessis orphans were born.

Last night, however, Landry attempted to distance himself from his earlier comments, saying his statement was mistakenly interpreted as an opening to the orphans' claim.

Yesterday's exchange is one more sign of a growing split within the ranks of the ruling Parti Quebecois over how the government should deal with one of the darkest periods in Quebec's history.

Between 1930 and 1960, at least 1,500 children born out of wedlock or to parents too poor to support them were wrongly labeled as mentally ill or mentally retarded and interned in psychiatric institutions.

At the time, subsidies for psychiatric institutions were triple those for orphanages.

In 1997, Quebec's ombudsman recommended a series of measures to correct the wrong done to the orphans, including individual compensation of $30,000 each. But while Bouchard offered an apology last year on behalf of the government, he offered a compensation package of only about $3 million - about $2,000 per victim.

Since then, a high-profile non-partisan support committee headed by PQ stalwart Lazure and seconded by Liberal Senator Jacques Hebert has begun to lobby on behalf of the orphans.

The orphans' plight has attracted international coverage in prominent newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and France's Le Monde.

A SOM poll for Radio Canada in April found 64 per cent of respondents believe the orphans should be compensated for their ordeal.

Yesterday, the plight of the Duplessis orphans was at the forefront at the National Assembly after Roger Paquin, PQ MNA for the South Shore riding of Saint-Jean, tabled a 21,000-name petition calling on the government to individually compensate the orphans.

Paquin has suggested the government create a "compassion fund," and set an example by making the first contribution. Other groups involved such as the Catholic church and the College of Physicians could also contribute, as could philanthropists and members of the public.

Lazure said the orphans have the support of about a dozen PQ MNAs.

Yesterday, the orphans received support from both sides of the house; Paquin tabled the petition while Liberal leader Jean Charest and MNA Monique Gagnon-Tremblay followed up with questions.

Lazure argued the support committee has also made it easier for the government to compensate the orphans by limiting the claim to the estimated 1,500 people who were falsely labeled as mentally ill or retarded and illegally interned rather than anyone who was abused while in the care of church-run institutions of the time.

Lazure said the support committee met Monday with Citizens' Relations Minister Robert Perreault, the minister responsible for the file, and came away with the impression that Perreault left more open to their cause than in the past.

But while Bouchard treated the question solemnly yesterday, pointing out his government was the first to apologize for the period, he put the emphasis on the "self-sacrifice and generosity" of Quebec's religious orders, rather than the calls for compensating the orphans.

"We have analyzed the entire situation and I think, Mr. Speaker, that we cannot, and I repeat, we cannot reopen all of the dossiers of history. Somewhere we have to repair what we can repair but that there are limits and we have reached those limits.''