Copied from The Toronto Star

September 14, 2000

Shameful treatment of Duplessis orphans must be resolved now

Ellie Tesher

A SHAMEFUL ERA in Canada's history that robbed thousands of children of normal life, continues unresolved, its victims still labelled by lies.

Clarina Duguay was one of those children. When I met her in Montreal recently, I was struck by the gulf of difference between the manipulative Survivor participants that TV audiences followed so voyeuristically, and this quietly dignified survivor of horrors who has been ignored by her province, country and church.

Her story will soon be told internationally through a Hollywood documentary. Hopefully, embarrassment over how she and others remain mistreated will move Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard and the Roman Catholic Church to finally erase the stain on the Enfants Duplessis.

They are some 3,000 children whose parents handed them into the care of Catholic orphanages during the 1940s and '50s. The babies were born out of wedlock or from poor families who needed help for awhile. When some later tried to retrieve their children, they were told the youngsters had died.

Instead, the children had been falsely declared mentally retarded by colluding physicians, and moved to psychiatric hospitals. The Quebec government under Maurice Duplessis received federal funding for their care, and the church got a higher subsidy than from provincial dollars.

At 63, Duguay is one of the few lucky ones. Through a younger sister who escaped, her family learned her whereabouts and she was released at 17. She worked in a factory, married Rod Vienneau, a carpenter and musician, and raised six children while working as a babysitter and cleaning houses.

Her strength, she says, came from her early years with her mother and family on the farm in the Gaspé. But when her mother had contracted tuberculosis, her lumberjack father couldn't manage. His doctor, who was the provincial fisheries minister, along with his priest, recommended Clarina be sent to an orphanage far away ``for a good education.'' She was 9.

Two years later, she was transferred to an insane asylum more than 1,000 kilometres from her home. Her schooling stopped and she was forced to do menial labour scrubbing hospital floors. Miraculously, she always believed that someday she would get out. Some of her ward mates went mad and remained institutionalized after the province ordered a release in 1962 of the falsely interned.

She never told her husband or children of her years in a mental institution. ``I felt shame,'' she says, fighting back tears.

When a book by one of the orphans was published in Quebec in the early 1990s, she joined a group of activists seeking redress for all they suffered.

Her official records - I have seen copies and they are a litany of falsehoods and contradictions - list her as profoundly mentally retarded and all her siblings as insane. She was beaten, bound for hours by her hands, feet and a neck collar to her mattress springs, kept in a straitjacket, immersed in a freezing bath, sedated, and kept on her knees in an isolation cell. One nun insisted on bathing her and fondling her breasts. Some nuns were nice, she says, but the one in charge of her was ``like an executioner.''

She and her sister were told their mother had been psychotic, had syphilis and died of meningitis, but it was not true. Her father, still living, and her brothers attended her mother's burial after she succumbed to tuberculosis.

Duguay says her experiences and the maligning of her family have left ``permanent scars. I don't accept this. I want justice.''

Los Angeles-based, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker William Gazecki, producer/director of Waco: The Rules Of Engagement, filmed Clarina in her home outside Montreal last March for his portrayal of the orphans' story, which he calls ``as important and compelling'' as the Waco saga.

Duguay wants a public inquiry into the period of government and church-sanctioned abuse of helpless children. She believes compensation is due ``not to get rich, but because it is owed'' to all the victims. Gazecki's work may well prove her case in the court of public opinion.

But Bouchard has kept the door closed on money for individuals. And the Quebec Assembly of Bishops has refused to apologize or even meet with the Duplessis Orphans committee for a meeting.

Canada's premiers who aligned with Bouchard during health negotiations - and particularly Ontario's Mike Harris - would do well to let the Quebec leader know that he brings dishonour to all Canadians by not showing compassion.

Ellie Tesher's column appears in The Star on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She can be reached at etesher@thestar.ca