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Duplessis Orphans: Reaction and response

During the reign of Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis in the 1940s and 1950s, an alarming number of healthy children living in sanctuaries were hastily diagnosed as mentally incompetent, psychotic patients. The diagnoses were always swift — the children went to bed orphans and woke up psychiatric patients. The reason? Shrewd fiscal planning; federal subsidies paid out more to hospitals than to orphanages. Some children allegedly endured lobotomies, electroshock, straitjackets and abuse. For the rest of their lives they would struggle to bring attention to their story and demand compensation. They called themselves the Duplessis Orphans.

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Sister Gisèle Fortier admits in this CBC Television report that while her colleagues may have been strict, they undoubtedly had the best of intentions. Orphans who were once under their care disagree. Now adults, the Duplessis Orphans describe childhoods marked by abuse and imprisonment. Nuns in the province are calling for a full investigation into these fresh and dark allegations. They insist that their good names must and will be cleared. 
• Many of the Duplessis Orphans recalled being pulled from their studies and forced into farm labour or hospital maintenance. The orphans said that this action rendered them completely unprepared to cope in the outside world once they were released from the hospitals.

• University of Montreal sociologist Nicole Laurin argued that withdrawing children from school was not uncommon in Quebec during that era. For example, she indicated that many farm children during the 1940s never attended class and stayed at home to help labor in the fields.

• Laurin defended the religious community. "The nuns gave their lives to Quebec society. For decades. They were paid nothing. And now we are turning around to blame them. I find it odious," she said in an interview with the Gazette, Nov. 22, 1992.

• Daniel Simard disagrees with Laurin's claims. He was a social worker in 1951 and recalls the uncaring atmosphere of the Quebec orphanages. "What struck me the most when I visited the orphanages was the lack of love," he told the Gazette. "The nuns showed no kindness or affection to the children. It was as though they were making the children expiate the sin of being born illegitimate." - in the Gazette, Nov. 22, 1992

• In 1992, the Comité des orphelins et orphelines institutionnalisés de Duplessis (COOID) was created to head their legal battle.
Medium: Television
Program: Newswatch
Broadcast Date: Aug. 21, 1992
Guest(s): Gisèle Fortier
Reporter: Rosemary Thompson
Duration: 2:00

Last updated: July 16, 2013

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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