The Duplessis Orphans were the victims of a scheme in which several thousand orphaned children were falsely certified as mentally ill by the government of the province of Quebec, Canada, and confined to psychiatric institutions.
Orphanages and schools were the financial responsibility of the provincial government but funding for mental institutions was provided by the government of Canada. Beginning in the 1940s and continuing into the 1960s, Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis, in cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church which ran the orphanages, developed a scheme to obtain federal funding for thousands of children, most of whom had been orphaned through forced adoption/kidnapping from their unwed mothers. In some cases the Catholic orphanages were relabelled as health-care facilities and in other cases the children were shipped from orphanages to existing insane asylums. Years later, long after these institutions were closed, the children who had survived them and become adults began to speak out about the harsh treatment and sexual abuse they were forced to endure at the hands of the psychiatrists, Roman Catholic Church priests, nuns, and administrators.
Legal recourse in the 1990s
By the 1990s, there remained about 3,000 survivors and a large group formed to start a campaign. They called themselves the Duplessis Orphans after Maurice Duplessis, the premier of the province during that time whose government was responsible for their plight. In addition to government and Church responsibility, the College of Physicians of Quebec came under fire after some of the orphans found copies of their medical records that had been falsified. Labelled as mentally deficient, many of these children were subjected to a variety of drug testing and used in other medical experiments. Released upon reaching the legal age of maturity, they were uneducated and ill-equipped to cope with life as adults.
At first, the government of Quebec stonewalled them, but after they started gaining widespread publicity in March 1999, the Parti Québécois government made a token offer of approximately $1,000 as full compensation to each of the victims. The offer was rejected and the government was harshly criticized by the public and even the provincial Ombudsman, Daniel Jacoby, came out saying that the government’s handling of the situation had trivialized the abuse the victims alleged. Nevertheless, the government still refused to hold an inquiry. In 2001, the claimants received an increased offer from the Quebec government for a flat payment of $10,000 per person, plus an additional $1,000 for each year of wrongful confinement to a mental institution. The offer amounted to approximately $15,000 per orphan, however it was limited to each of the surviving 1,100 orphans the government had labeled as mentally deficient, but did not include any compensation for victims of sexual or other abuse.
The offer was accepted by those eligible while the remainder received nothing. The vote on the offer was taken by a show of hands in a closed-door session overseen by Committee chief, the author Bruno Roy, one of very few orphans who enjoyed a successful career following the traumatic experience of youth detention. The results of the vote were later bitterly contested by a group which believed the victims should have received more. Many believe that justice was not done and criminal wrongdoing was allowed to go unpunished. Opponents of the judgment led by Rod Vienneau of Joliette, Quebec, pointed out that bureaucrats processing the applications for compensation were in many cases being paid over $1,000 per day of work, whereas the orphans themselves received the same amount for an entire year of their childhood confined illegally to insane asylums. The actual victims received no more than $15,000 each.
Fate of the remains
In 2004, members of the “Duplessis Orphans” asked the Quebec government to unearth an abandoned cemetery in the east end of Montreal which they believed held the remains of orphans who may had been the subject of medical experiments. According to testimony by individuals who were at the Cité de St-Jean-de-Dieu insane asylum, the orphans were routinely experimented upon and many died. The group wants the government to exhume the bodies so that autopsies may be performed.