I was born in 1936; we lived in a small village in Quebec, Cap d’Espoir. My mother died of tuberculosis when I was nine and the village doctor and priest persuaded my father that it would be best for me and my sister Simone to be adopted by nuns. There were five of us and my father couldn’t keep us all. He worked as a lumberjack and was away in the forest for up to six months at a time.
So my father kept my brother Lionel, who was 12 and able to work; my brother Joseph, who was two and a half, was taken in by my aunt. My baby sister Marie was adopted in another village. Simone and I were sent to the Sœurs de la Charité orphanage in Rimouski. My father couldn’t read and write; he thought he was doing the right thing.
When we arrived at the convent we cried but the nuns said we were disturbing the other children. Simone was only seven.
They used to duck us in baths of freezing water and put us in straitjackets. They gave us medicine to keep us quiet and we were made to clean and clean and clean.
When I was 11, the nuns picked out me and about 10 other girls and said that, as we had been so good, we could go out. We all got in a bus but it kept travelling and travelling. When it stopped in front of a building we thought this was the place we’d come to visit, and we got in line, two by two. The nuns grabbed us by the ears and pulled us through a big iron door. It was the St Julien psychiatric hospital. There was more cold water and later I was strapped on to a bed of steel springs with no mattress, with a collar on my neck and my hands and feet tied. Overnight I had become a psychiatric patient.
I was given tests, including one for syphilis. The nuns had to justify transferring me to a psychiatric hospital; their statement said my brothers and sisters were mentally retarded, that I had an alcoholic grandfather and that my mother had died of syphilis and was buried at another psychiatric hospital. This was a complete lie. When the doctor saw those papers I was certified as profoundly retarded and classified as dangerous and incurable. I still live with that false label though it could be easily erased if the government wanted to do it.
After two years, Simone came to the hospital too. About a year later she was sent out to work in a small convent – and one day she escaped. She managed to hide on a train and travel the 500 miles back home. My maternal uncle wrote to the hospital about me and I was let out. I was signed off as “amélioré” – improved! A miracle!
My father and brothers had no idea we had been sent to the hospital. I went to live with my uncle but I was scared even to get in the bath because I thought my head would be pushed under the water. When I got my confidence back, all I knew was house cleaning so that’s what I did. When I was 19, I left for Montreal.
I found a job in a factory, and met my husband: we have five surviving children. I didn’t tell him about my experiences until 1992, when other orphans and adopted children started to come forward. I suffered for six and a half years. We only understood afterwards that these things were done to us for financial gain.
There was very little state money for orphans but the federal government would pay fees for children in psychiatric hospitals. Orphanages and crèches started emptying children into hospitals to collect federal subsidies. Some children were given lobotomies and electric shocks.
We are now known as the Duplessis Orphans: Maurice Duplessis was provincial premier at the time and his government made the policy. We have fought for years for recognition and compensation. A small amount of money was allocated to each surviving orphan but the documentation calls it financial aid, not compensation or reparation. Our case is a national shame and the government just wants to bury it. Still no one wants to listen to us.
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