The Worst of Times
How Psychiatry Used Quebec’s Orphans as Guinea Pigs

By Christine Hahn
Special to Freedom

For many people, sitting near a body of water is a relaxing experience. For Clarina Duguay, it inspires terrifying memories from her childhood—memories so painful she can scarcely find words to express them more than 50 years later.

The shy, soft-spoken, 65-year-old Duguay is one of Quebec’s infamous Duplessis Orphans, a group of more than 5,000 children whose parents handed them over to Catholic orphanages during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, promised their children would receive a “good education.”

Instead, psychiatrists falsely declared them mentally ill or severely retarded and warehoused them in psychiatric hospitals, enabling the Quebec government under former Premier Maurice Duplessis to receive a bounty of federal funding for their care.

To date, investigations into the Duplessis Orphans have focused primarily on actions of Catholic Church officials who managed the orphanages and psychiatric hospitals.

But in an apparent move to stymie any further probing into past crimes or misconduct and those responsible, on September 26, 2001, the Quebec government passed legislation to bar Orphans from taking legal action against the Quebec government or Catholic Church officials, in exchange for a paltry settlement of $10,000 per person. If an Orphan refuses to sign the agreement, he forfeits his right to even that compensation.

As a result, Orphans say, one key group never held accountable for its fundamental role in their abuse may now get away with it too: the psychiatrists who signed bogus orders labeling them “mentally ill”, committing them to a living hell.

Human Guinea Pigs?

The need for further inquiry into the case of the Orphans is apparent, as an investigation supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism in Washington, D.C., has revealed something even more sinister on the part of psychiatrists than signing away the lives of normal, healthy children as mental misfits—invoking the specter of psychiatric programs under the Nazi regime in Germany.

The Orphans’ medical records and recollections of the Orphans themselves suggest the children were exploited as human guinea pigs for a new drug, chlorpromazine.

Chlorpromazine—known today by its trade names of Largactil in Canada and Thorazine in the United States—was synthesized in France before World War II for use as an anesthetic. In the years since, it has been invested with such epithets as the “chemical billy club” or “chemical lobotomy” because of its mental and physical consequences—including a “complication” known as tardive dyskinesia, a central nervous system disorder that includes involuntary, grotesque facial and body movements.

For the children, the drug submerged them in a nightmare from which they could never awaken. The purpose for the drugging and the extent and consequences of testing, including deaths, are continuing to be investigated by Freedom.

Some of the Orphans interned at St. Jean-de-Dieu Hospital remember being treated by Ewen Cameron, the psychiatrist who conducted appalling and inhuman experiments on human subjects at Allan Memorial Institute of McGill University as part of the notorious “mind-control” programs of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency from the late 1940s through the early- to mid-1960s.

Bruno Roy, president of the Duplessis Orphans Committee, examined records of hundreds of Orphans, and said that Cameron’s name, indeed, showed up in children’s records.

Cameron was known to use chlorpromazine in his experiments, combining drugs, electric shock, lobotomies and other savage incursions on patients.

His associate Heinz Lehmann, who did undergraduate and postgraduate teaching at McGill and became clinical director at Allan Memorial in 1958, is regarded as the psychiatrist who discovered the use of chlorpromazine on psychiatric patients in 1953 (see accompanying story).

Yet today, evidence reveals the Duplessis Orphans, railroaded into psychiatric hospitals as retarded and mentally ill, were being administered the powerful drug as early as 1947 with debilitating effects.

As defenseless children, unaware of their rights and without a voice, the horrifying truth about their experiences were hidden from public view.

Wasted Lives

Two years after arriving at her orphanage in 1946, Clarina Duguay was transferred to St. Julien Hospital, an insane asylum more than 1,000 kilometers from her home.

Duguay experienced appalling treatment at St. Julien.

“They would plunge our heads into ice-cold water if we did something wrong,” she said, adding that to this day, water terrifies her. She described being tied to a bed with a collar, and having to scrub floors seemingly without end.

Duguay was told by the nuns that her mother had become psychotic and had died as a patient in another psychiatric hospital. In fact, her mother died of tuberculosis two years after the nuns claimed she had passed away.

Two weeks after arriving at St. Julien, Duguay vividly recalls being given medicine that the nuns said would make her sleep. The medicine, however, did much more than that.

“It made me into a zombie,” she said. “I had no energy, I was always feeling sleepy, had a hard time getting up. I was getting the drug every night. I have a hard time remembering, which I think is because of the drug.”

Duguay and other Orphans say that while the province failed to provide them with records from their first years at their institutions, the drug they received was the same one all along, identified as chlorpromazine in later records.

Francois Lantagne was a frightened, 9-year-old boy in 1946 when he was sent to St. Michel Archange psychiatric hospital. Born out of wedlock, his mother did not have enough money to raise him.

Lantagne was regularly placed in a straitjacket and subjected to ice-cold showers. Like Duguay, he received chlorpromazine every night at bedtime.

Today, Lantagne has been on welfare for 35 years.

“They have wasted my life,” he said.

Joseph Martin was only 5 1/2 years old in 1938 when his parents placed him in Montreal’s Buisonnet Institute. Shortly after that, he was transferred to St. Jean-De-Dieu Hospital, where he remained until 1956. Martin said he was given a variety of “purple and pink pills” and chlorpromazine.

Alice Quinton said she started to receive chlorpromazine when she was 13—three times a day by pill and injection.

“I felt sleepy all the time, like when you get operated on,” she said. “When I woke up, I did not know where I was. I was having nightmares and my heart was always beating fast. I felt anxious.”

The drugging continued behind the walls of St. Julien until Quinton was 23.

Justice Sought

Rod Vienneau, Clarina Duguay’s husband, investigated his wife’s past and said that from the early 1990s, when the Orphans began fighting for justice, they all told the same story: from the time they arrived at the psychiatric facilities until they left, they received chlorpromazine.

When they requested their medical records, the early ones—during the period the drug would have been undergoing testing—were not provided to them, said Vienneau.

However, he said, “every one of the Orphans has told the same story. They all say that the drug was the same one they were given all along. They have no reason to lie. Three thousand people cannot all be lying.”

Vienneau said the Orphans have demanded that the psychiatrists involved—some of whom are still living—be charged with crimes against humanity.

“We would like to see real justice for the thousands of innocent young children and survivors who day after day had to endure unimaginable torture, being used as guinea pigs for experimental drugs at the hands of criminal psychiatrists and religious orders,” said Vienneau.

Hundreds of Unexplained Deaths

Vienneau compared the cold water plunges and the drug use to experiments performed on children in Nazi-run concentration camps in Europe.

“This has been a conspiracy of silence from the beginning,” he said. “The province of Quebec was just another Auschwitz.”

Michel Lebel, a former Montreal police officer who specialized in investigating cases against children, said the crimes against the Orphans went far beyond drugging and physical abuse. Lebel has discovered unexplained deaths of hundreds of Orphans and many examples of bogus paperwork in their cases.

When children died, he explained, as yet unidentified persons within the psychiatric system simply came up with phony new identities, fabricating records to replace those deceased so funding could continue. “Some of these kids died and were reborn 10 times,” said Lebel, now a freelance journalist.

Compounding such deception in cases of those who died, he said, is the longtime maltreatment of survivors. According to Lebel, “This was an organized crime against humanity.”

What Vienneau, Lebel and others point to are parallels between occurrences in Canada and Germany, where orphans were warehoused in psychiatric facilities and victimized as experimental subjects. The parallel is drawn not to Nazi atrocities, but rather to the crimes of German psychiatrists in their institutions. As it is now widely known, the eugenics theories in vogue in Nazi-run Germany were not limited to that country.

The practice of removing “undesirables” from Canadian society was already firmly in place before the Duplessis Orphans. In Alberta, starting in 1928, close to 3,000 youth deemed “mentally unfit” were surgically altered without their knowledge or consent under the Sexual Sterilization Act. The sterilizations stopped and the law was repealed in 1972 after the atrocities were exposed by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights of Canada.

Peter Breggin, psychiatrist, author and founder of the Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology in Bethesda, Maryland, said that “medical murder” found support at the highest levels of Canadian and American psychiatry. He points to examples like influential psychiatrist Foster Kennedy, who at the 1941 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association called for the extermination of retarded children over the age of five.

Breggin said Kennedy’s goal was to relieve the “utterly unfit” and “nature’s mistakes” of the “agony of living” and to save their parents and the state the cost of caring for them.

These speciously compassionate phrases were virtually the same ones used to describe the Orphans, said Michel Lebel.

A Call for Open Records

University of British Columbia Professor Emeritus Sally Rogow wrote in Hitler’s Unwanted Children that although it has been widely held that Hitler’s regime killed children with actual disabilities, in fact thousands of healthy orphans in Germany were murdered or used for drug experiments.

In both Quebec and Germany, the truth behind what happened to the children was covered up with phony paperwork and bogus reports to parents by psychiatrists. Children were moved without informing families.

In Germany, wrote Rogow, “Children who were transferred to state institutions from religious homes and schools were moved from place to place without informing their families where they were located. Many parents could not keep track of their children.”

Clarina Duguay’s father, who lived in Cape D’Espoir, Quebec, was not even aware his daughter had been transferred from the orphanage to St. Julien Hospital, a psychiatric facility 1,000 kilometers away, until she escaped several years later.

Rogow also reported that German children were used as guinea pigs in drug experiments.

“Many a doctoral dissertation was based on the experiments performed on living, conscious children. ... Children were injected with drugs, sugar and other chemicals to test their reactions. Generous research grants were given to support this kind of research,” she wrote.

The Duplessis Orphans were given chlorpromazine starting in the late 1940s and continuing into the 1960s, as well as other drugs.

In Germany, when children died in the euthanasia institutions, grief-stricken parents tried to bring legal action against them. In response, the Nazi government issued a legal decree in 1941 preventing them from doing so.

So the passage of legislation in Quebec on September 26 brings yet another chilling analogy.

“Enforced secrecy is contrary to democracy and the spirit of freedom,” said Bob Dobson-Smith of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights.

In the case of the Duplessis Orphans, he noted, those whom secrecy benefits most are the psychiatrists accountable for confining and treating the Orphans. “What is needed,” he said, “is to open all records and find out what happened, who was responsible, who knew about any mistreatment or crimes, and when they knew it. Only then can we bring appropriate parties to justice and finally close this chapter in our history.”



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