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
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
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
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
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
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,”
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
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
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.”