Current Problems

Child Welfare (1-5)

APTN Investigates: Orphans of Church and State

June 21, 2024

APTN News: Rod Vienneau reaches over and brushes away some of Paul St-Aubin’s hair from his temple. The gesture seems almost tender until Vienneau’s hand reveals what lies underneath St-Aubin’s thick head of hair… a grid of scars.

“Here on this side of his head as well, look,” says Vienneau pointing to the other side of his head. “He has them everywhere.”

As a young man St-Aubin, now 72, was institutionalized and given lobotomies that mentally and physically scarred him.

He says he was physically abused, received electro-shock treatment and was given massive amounts of drugs.

As horrible as it sounds, St-Aubin’s story is not uncommon amongst Duplessis Orphans.

“They were just children and they had their lives stolen,” says Vienneau, who became an advocate for “Duplessis Orphans” after his wife Clarina told him she was one after nearly 30 years of marriage. “I thought I’d get into that. I want to get justice.”

An undated photo of Paul St-Aubin showing his lobotomy scars. Photo courtesy of Rod Vienneau.

Named after former Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis, the term Duplessis Orphan refers to children who in the late 1930s to mid-‘60s were moved from orphanages to psychiatric hospitals.

During that period in Quebec, the Catholic church-controlled education and social services.

In the early 1950s, Duplesiss realized that federal subsidies paid $2.25 a day for mental patients versus .70 cents a day for orphans. He shortly thereafter collaborated with the church to wrongly classify thousands of orphans, in the terms of the day, as “mentally retarded.”

This decades-long collusion between church and state in Quebec is known as “La Grande Noirceur,” or the great darkness.

Among the many shocking accusations against the church during this time is that many children weren’t even orphans in the true sense of the word.

“When I met my mother, I didn’t believe it. Like how I don’t believe in God,” says St-Aubin.

St-Aubin didn’t meet his mother until he was in his 30s because the religious order that took in St-Aubin’s unwed mother so she could give birth told her that St-Aubin had died.

During the great darkness, it was considered a sin to give birth out of wedlock.

“The young girls were pregnant and they would have their babies there,” says Vienneau, referring to the Soeurs de Misericorde hospital.

Located in downtown Montreal, the now-shuttered Soeurs de Misericorde hospital is where St-Aubin was born.

After his unwed mother was allegedly told he died, St-Aubin was eventually sent to an orphanage.

At the age of 11, he was sent to work on a farm, where he says he was physically abused.

“I lived in poverty, got up early in the morning, worked all day, then got up again the next day way before everyone else,” he adds, “I worked for free.”

‘The grief and sin perpetuated by the religious orders and the government – they’re not going to heaven, they’re going to hell,’ says Paul St-Aubin. Photo: Tom Fennario/APTN.

A fight with the farmer eventually landed him in a mental hospital about an hour north of Montreal in a city called Joliette.

But his mother never truly believed he died. In the 1980s, she found St-Aubin after she did an access to information request – a form the public can file with the government to get information.

The nuns had named him Joseph Paul Forand … but kept his birthday the same. He was living in a halfway house in Joliette when his mother showed up at his door.

According to St-Aubin, once she saw his face, she knew it was him.

“I was really happy to get out of there,” says St-Aubin in French. “The religious people, they were really strict.”

Aside for a few years on the farm, St-Aubin had spent his life in institutions. More than 30 years in total.

“Free, I lived with my mother, like I wanted,” says Paul when asked what it was like to meet his mother as an adult.

It didn’t last very long … they spent three years together before she died. But before she did, she made sure Paul’s name was changed to St-Aubin, and that he got his rightful status as an Abenaki from the Wôlinak First Nation.

When asked what he remembers of his time in institutions, St-Aubin doesn’t hold back.

“The grief and sin perpetuated by the religious orders and the government – they’re not going to heaven, they’re going to hell.”

St-Aubin, Clarina Duguay and Rod Vienneau. Photo: Tom Fennario/APTN.

By coincidence, St-Aubin ended up being neighbours with Vienneau and his wife in Joliette in the late 1990s.

Along with other orphans, they organized protests, petitioned politicians, hired lawyers, and complained to the Quebec ombudsman.

The end result?

In 1999, then Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard apologized and offered the orphans three million dollars.

In 2001 the orphans came to an agreement with Quebec … $10,000 per orphan, plus $1,000 for every year spent in a mental institution.

Vienneau’s wife Clarina Duguay was paid $15,000. She and any other orphans who signed were required to waive their rights to future litigation against the religious orders and government.

“We had to buy a car, in order to get to work and stuff like that, so yeah, for sure I signed it. I didn’t have a choice,” says Duguay in French.

Perhaps most infuriating for the orphans is that the church has never apologized or offered to pay compensation to the Duplessis Orphans, despite there being other precedents.

“Over in the United States, they were all paid out,” says Vienneau.

In 2003, the Boston archdiocese paid out $85 million USD to victims of sexual abuse.

More recently in New Jersey, the archdiocese coughed up $87 million USD for hundreds of victims, a fraction of the at least 3,000 suspected Duplessis orphans.

The Boston settlement included money for counseling and the New Jersey victims also received apologies.

“No more next to nothing, no more breadcrumbs, I refuse,” says St-Aubin regarding the battle for restitution.

The now shuttered Soeurs de Miséricorde hospital, where St-Aubin was born. Photo: Tom Fennario/APTN.

In 2023, a proposed class action was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada.

But this past May saw a breakthrough. The Soeurs de la Charité and Quebec City’s health authority recently settled with orphans from the Mont d’Youville orphanage for $65 million.

Vienneau adds that over the years he has met other about 30 other Indigenous Duplessis Orphans.

Aside from St-Aubin, APTN Investigates was able to confirm three others, all Algonquin from Kitigan Zibi area north of Ottawa.

Meanwhile new information has come to light that there may be more.

“We started discovering the very intimate links between Duplessis orphans and the way that Indigenous children were also treated,” says Phillipe Blouin, an anthropologist and PhD candidate at McGill University.

Blouin’s research has turned up a list from 1964 that shows dozens of Indigenous patients were spread out all over Quebec … many in mental institutions that held Duplessis Orphans.

“We found some very compelling pieces of evidence of the transfers of children, how it happened, especially in the in the ‘50s and ‘60s while the Duplessis orphan era was ongoing,” adds Blouin.

Blouin says child protection laws were used to grab Indigenous kids who weren’t in residential or day schools. His research also shows that Indigenous children who didn’t attend school for three consecutive days could be declared juvenile delinquents and incarcerated.

“It was official policy that these children were wards of the state. They were state property. The state could do whatever they wanted with them,” says Blouin.

Blouin’s research also found a 1956 mention of 120 “difficult children” being treated with new drugs in Montreal … and being kept for observation.

He also found a 1963 study of 92 Mohawk children from Kahnawake, just south of Montreal which references a previous report that refers to Mohawk children as “a social problem,” and its findings come to a similar conclusion, calling Mohawk children “less ready to identify with human society” and therefore a “social risk.”

Phillipe Blouin speaking at a press conference in support of Duplessis Orphans. Photo: Tom Fennario/APTN.

Blouin also provided a 1953 letter a Mi’gmaq woman wrote to a social worker asking for her daughter to be sent home.

“I am dropping you a few lines to let you know that I want my daughter, to take her out from that prison place,” reads the letter.

The mother’s request is refused.

Blouin says the letter is an example of the inherent ethno-centrism of Canada and how it made the institutionalization of Indigenous children not only acceptable, but desirable.

“So this intersected with current searches in Quebec, for Indigenous children who were lost in the health care system,” adds Blouin, referring to the ongoing investigation into Quebec’s “ghost babies.”

“Ghost babies” is the colloquial name for at least 199 Indigenous children who went missing after being placed in a Quebec institution before 1992.

The search is aided by a provincial law passed in 2021 loosening access to information laws for Indigenous families looking for missing kids.

But the law has its limitations, especially if you happen to be an orphan.

“The problem with the current legislation is that children who don’t have an immediate family, their records cannot be accessed by anyone,” says Blouin. “In the United States, records become available after 50 years [after death], in Canada, many records, it takes a hundred years. So it’s really after no one is alive anymore and no one can be prosecuted.”

Back in Joliette, Vienneau, Duguay, and St-Aubin are waiting on what’s likely their final legal attempt to hold Catholic religious orders accountable.

Vienneau wants financial restitution for the orphans before it’s too late.

“They would live their lives and have a bit of happiness before passing away,” says Vienneau, who’s in his 80s.

APTN reached out to several religious orders mentioned in this story, none responded to our request for interview.

As for St-Aubin, he’s takes life day by day.

He likes to ride his bike and is proud that despite it all, he looks young for his 72 years.

“The trick to not aging, it’s to go to bed early in the evening. At 4:30 pm, 5:00 pm, I go to bed,” says St-Aubin.

St-Aubin may be aiming to live a long life, but will he … or any Duplessis Orphan … live long enough to hear an apology from the Catholic church?

God only knows.

Investigates Podcast Banner
Contribute Button
Continue Reading

Tungasuvvigat Inuit fills Ottawa park for National Indigenous Peoples Day


Tom Fennario,