Duplessis Orphans

Under the leadership of Premier Maurice DUPLESSIS in the 1940s and 50s, the Québec government was responsible for a significant number of healthy children being diagnosed as mentally incompetent and sent to psychiatric hospitals. The children were orphans, abandoned children or "children of sin" - born out of wedlock - and living in sanctuaries. The diagnoses were made quickly and for fiscal reasons. Federal subsidies provided more funding to hospitals than to orphanages. As adults, they called themselves the Duplessis orphans, and demanded compensation, alleging that they had been wrongfully diagnosed, arbitrarily confined to psychiatric facilities, abused - sexually and physically - and subjected to lobotomies, electroshock and straitjackets.

As a group, the estimated 2000-3000 Duplessis orphans entered the public arena in 1992, united as the Duplessis Orphan's Committee (Comité des orphelins de Duplessis) and led by writer Bruno Roy. They accused religious communities, the government and the medical profession of forcing them to submit to prolonged institutionalization for essentially financial, not medical, purposes. The matter quickly found itself before the courts, but the orphans suffered failed attempts at appeal and dismissed criminal charges.

However, with the tabling of a favourable report by the Quebec Ombudsman in January 1997, the debate became more political. The orphans demanded official apologies from the 3 main groups implicated as well as personal compensation. The BOUCHARD government waited until 4 March 1999 to apologize and offered the group only $3 million with no individual compensation. The group rejected the offer and continued to wait for apologies from the CATHOLIC CHURCH and the QUEBEC COLLEGE OF PHYSICIANS.

In September 1999, Québec bishops rejected the demand for an apology and dismissed any idea of payment. Deadlocked, in the spring of 2000 after a public poll, the movement in favour of the orphans won support from a committee comprising members of the church who had been criticized for adopting the bishops' attitude and some Parti Québécois delegates, among them former senator Jacques HÉBERT and former health minister Denis Lazure, who presided over the fight. Under Premier Bernard LANDRY's government, on 30 June 2001 the Duplessis Orphan's Committee accepted an apology and "fault-free" individual compensation in the form of a lump sum of $10 000 and an additional $1000 for each year spent in an asylum, roughly $25 000 per person for the 1500 people qualified for compensation. The group initially countered the government's offer with a counter-offer of $50 000 per person, which was refused. When the settlement was reached, the orphans agreed to drop any further legal action against the church.

On 21 December 2006 the Quebec government announced it would pay a further $26 million in compensation to the Duplessis orphans. They were required to sign a waiver declaring they would not take legal action against the Catholic Church in order to receive payment. The Church did not apologize, although on 22 November 2007, Marc Cardinal Ouellet, the Catholic Church's top bishop in Québec, issued a sweeping apology for historical wrongs committed by the clergy in an attempt to attract Québecers back to Catholicism. The apology made no mention of the Duplessis orphans, prompting a spokesperson for the group to suggest that the apology lacked credibility.