'We were innocent': How one survivor hopes to get justice for Duplessis Orphans

Marc Boudreau, now 62, is trying to take seven Catholic organizations, along with the federal and provincial governments, to court for the abuse he said he suffered as a child.

Montrealer is filing motion to launch class action

'I've watched horror films and that's nothing compared to what we lived through, endured and suffered," said Marc Boudreau, who recently discovered he may be one of the Duplessis Orphans. (Maxime Rousseau/CBC News)

Now 62 years old, Marc Boudreau has come to accept that he will likely never find peace, or be able to live a normal life, after a childhood spent in institutions.

Many days are a struggle for Boudreau, who still finds it difficult to talk about his past.

"It was a stolen childhood, because we were children and we were innocent," he said. "We were defenceless."

In a motion to be authorized to launch a class action lawsuit, Boudreau alleges that his mother handed him over to a Catholic-run organization as an infant. After some time in foster care, Boudreau spent most of his early years in orphanages and psychiatric hospitals in Quebec.

In the motion, he claims that physical and sexual abuse in those institutions left him with long-term scars — both physical and emotional — and that prevented him from forming stable relationships or finding steady work.

"I didn't have comfort, affection, love or tenderness," he said.

During the 1940s and '50s, Quebec children born to unmarried women were often given up to Catholic-run orphanages and psychiatric institutions. (Congrégation des Soeurs de la Charité de Québec/Patrimoine immatériel religieux du Québec)

Boudreau kept his past a secret until a couple of years ago, when he opened up to friends. He said that's when he first heard about the Duplessis Orphans — and realized that he may be one of them.

Deemed 'illegitimate children'

The orphans were born in the 1940s and '50s and take their name from the Quebec premier at the time, Maurice Duplessis. 

Most of them were born to unmarried women, deemed "illegitimate" children and handed over to Catholic-run organizations.

Since psychiatric hospitals at the time earned more from federal subsidies than orphanages, the children were falsely labelled as mentally deficient and institutionalized.

Boudreau's motion alleges a story that would be familiar to many of the Duplessis Orphans: He claims he was made to work, left in isolation, drugged and forced to undergo experimental electroshock therapy. 

The motion alleges extreme beatings, which he said left him with permanent damage in his left eye and contributed to a disease that causes plaque build-up in his arteries.

"It's worse than a nightmare. I've watched horror films and that's nothing compared to what we lived through, endured and suffered," he said.

According to court documents, Boudreau was falsely labelled as mentally deficient and forced to spend part of his childhood at the Mont Providence psychiatric hospital in Montreal. (Archives de la Ville de Montréal)

Boudreau recently filed a motion asking a Superior Court judge to authorize a class action against seven Catholic institutions, as well as the Quebec and Canadian governments. 

The Quebec government made a public apology years ago and compensated some of the survivors, but Boudreau said it's not enough.

The government offered each survivor between $15,000 and $30,000. Boudreau is asking for $875,000.

That would cover damages, agony and stress due to suffering, as well as compensation for future therapy.

Boudreau's motion has not been heard in court and the allegations have not been proven. The defendants have not filed a defence and will be contesting the motion.

Montreal lawyer Alan Stein, who represents Boudreau, said more than 100 survivors are interested in joining the lawsuit if it gets the judge's authorization.

"I feel that this is a case where there has been a very serious miscarriage of justice," Stein said. 

Montreal lawyer Alan Stein, who is representing Boudreau, said more than 100 survivors are interested in joining the lawsuit if it goes ahead. (Maxime Rousseau/CBC)

"His story is a very sad story, and I am hopeful that when I present this motion, the court will be very sympathetic to Mr. Boudreau's treatment and history as a Duplessis Orphan."

Because the case is before the courts, the provincial and federal governments, as well as three of the Catholic organizations, would not comment.

Pierre Baribeau, who represents the four other Catholic organizations named in the motion, said the legal action came as a surprise to the congregations. He said his clients will be contesting the suit.

"We think that this is now history," he said. "But someone is trying to revive this matter, so we will be respectful of his rights and we will see."

While the Church might feel the matter is history, Boudreau said for him and other survivors, the pain remains a part of their daily lives.

Boudreau said if he and fellow survivors are able to win financial compensation it will help. But for him, it's more about getting justice and reclaiming his dignity.

"The money will help us. It will ease our pain, but it won't remove the scars," he said. "It won't remove the torture or the atrocities that we suffered."

About the Author

Jaela Bernstien

Jaela Bernstien is a national reporter based in Montreal. She's covered a wide range of news topics, ranging from criminal trials to ice age caves, and everything in between.