Joanna Goodman’s Home for Unwanted Girls Exposes Human Rights Abuses in 1950s Canada
The historical backdrop of Joanna Goodman’s bitingly realistic novel The Home of Unwanted Girls is one of Quebec’s darkest scandals. In the 1950s and 1960s, more than 20,000 orphans at multiple orphanages were falsely labeled as mentally ill when their orphanages were turned into psychiatric hospitals at the behest of the Canadian government. Most of these children – who were in no way mentally ill – were actually not orphans at all, but abandoned by unwed mothers who could not take care of them. Their only “sin” was being born on the wrong side of a marriage contract, but it would be held over their heads for the rest of their lives and be the justification for horrible abuse that has been compared to that of Nazi concentration camps.
Victims of Greed, Politics and Religion
As such atrocities usually are, the Duplessis Orphans scandal was closely linked with politics, which was in turn intertwined with money and religion – in this case, the all-powerful Catholic Church. Premier Maurice Duplessis was a staunch Catholic who trusted the Church to oversee the hospitals when he signed an order for their “change of vocation” from orphanages into insane asylums in order to reap the increase in government subsidies. According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, the government paid only $0.75/day for orphans, but $2.35/day for those who were mentally ill. The New York Times lists the figures as $1.25/day for orphans and $2.75/day for psychiatric patients. Regardless of the exact amount, a 1999 report showed the mutual benefit of this arrangement: it is estimated the Catholic Church made at least $70 million in subsidies, while at the same time the government saved $37 million per orphanage.
The reason this was allowed was a loophole in the Lunatic Asylum Act, which allowed people to be incarcerated in order to maintain social order without defining what fell under the category of “disruption to social order.” Therefore, doctors could say a child had whatever condition they pleased with impunity, regardless of the child’s real physical or mental state. The label of “mentally retarded” remains on many children’s permanent health records to this day.
When children were admitted, they were used as caretakers for the truly insane as well as a source of cheap labor for cleaning and other back-breaking chores. No education was provided, and they were frequently physically, mentally and sexually abused, both by the nuns and lay workers. Those who complained were severely punished – often by being forced into straightjackets and subjected to ice baths, electroshock, drug experiments and other testing. Others were isolated or sent to local reform schools. Some died.
Goodman brings these abuses to horrific light in her novel through the plight of a young illegitimate girl named Elodie and her friends, who are routinely drugged and are punished for offenses as banal as asking questions and wetting the bed by beatings and confinement in wards with truly dangerous patients. One girl is rumored to have been subjected to a lobotomy, a procedure from which she later dies.
In the early 1960s, a commission found that one-third of the patients in these hospitals were there under false diagnoses. When they were finally removed from these places of horror, many victims had trouble adjusting and suffered for their rest of their lives from the abuse, unable to form close relationships, hold jobs or act normally in social settings.
Anyone familiar with the Magdalene laundry scandal of the Sisters of Mercy – in which they allegedly abused “fallen” women they had taken in under the auspices of reform – will not be surprised to learn that the Sisters of Mercy were one of seven religious orders accused of committing the abuse in these hospitals. The others were the Sisters of Providence, the Gray Nuns of Montreal, the Sisters of Charity of Quebec, the Little Franciscans of Mary, the Brothers of Notre-Dame-de-la-Misericorde, and the Brothers of Charity.
If the victims are to be believed, the Duplessis Orphans scandal appears to be only one in line of abuse perpetrated by Catholic religious orders. It seems that the “children of sin” and the “fallen women” who birthed them were both easy victims. In addition to the Mercy laundries, maternity homes for unwed mothers in Ireland, known as Mother and Baby Homes, run by the Sisters of Bon Secours, were also notorious for abuse, so much so that The Guardian called them “punishment hostels.”
Much of this had to do with the Catholic Church’s stance on illegitimate children, which not only labeled them as inherently sinful, but deprived them of many legal, social and religious rights. As in Ireland and the United States, contraception and abortion were both illegal, so it was “not uncommon for unwed mothers to be shamed into surrendering their children to the church.” Families often pressured young women or out and out forced them to go to homes for unwed mothers to have their babies, where they were both often abused. According to The New York Times, “under the morality of the times the nuns ‘thought they had the right to judge and punish illegitimate children as if those children were guilty of the sins of their parents.’”
In Quebec, during the Duplessis administrations (1936 to1939 and 1944 to 1959) – called by contemporary critics “The Great Darkness” – the Catholic Church had total domination over French-language schools and social institutions. According to customs of the time, children born to unwed mothers were given up to nurseries run by nuns and then transferred to orphanages when they reached school age. The change of orphanages to insane asylums offered a convenient way for both the Church and the government to hide those considered social outcasts.
The real-life victims who have spoken out have noted that those who were born out of wedlock were treated as lower than other orphans, not being allowed visitors when other the children were, which meant that there was no one to witness – or question – the abuse. Some have even accused the Church of murder and have demanded exhumation and autopsy on the remains of victims buried in hospital cemeteries. One CBC News article claims “nuns running the orphanages were also allowed to sell unclaimed bodies to medical schools for $10. No one knows how many orphans ended up on the dissection tables for medical students.”
Goodman does a masterful job of showing the cruelty on the part of these religious women who were supposed to guide and care for the children, as well as the feelings of helplessness experienced by a few nuns who wanted to help but felt that they could not, either out of religious obedience or fear. The head nun, Sister Ignatia, is straight out of every Catholic schoolchild’s nightmares, inflicting abuse and intolerable cruelty as casually as breathing, while kinder nuns like Sister Tata and Sister Camille are refreshing bursts of humanity in a dark and gloomy story.
The Catholic Church has publically denied being part of the scandal, offering no apology to the victims and accusing the authors of the 1999 financial report of false accusations. When asked about the victims’ claims, a representative of the religious orders offered excuses, saying the claims were “very much sensationalized and need to be put into context.” Another noted that the rigors of institutional life could have driven some children to genuine madness and went on to say that perhaps a few nuns lost their patience, but it was “unthinkable” that the victims really experienced what they alleged.
In 1999, the Archbishop of Montreal demanded “case-by-case proof that the orphans were abused while they were in the care of religious orders,” documentation that the victims promptly supplied, but yet, no apology was forthcoming. Earlier this year, Pierre Baribeau, a representative some of the Catholic organizations accused, was surprised by a new lawsuit. He said that “we [the Catholic Church] think that this is now history.”
That history will never be over for the victims. For more than 50 years they have been demanding both an apology from the Catholic Church and justice from the Canadian government through the Duplessis Orphans’ Committee. In the 1990s, “a Quebec Superior Court rejected the committee’s petition for a class-action lawsuit, and it failed in its efforts to have criminal charges brought against the monks and nuns who were accused of abuse (many of the hospital files had been lost or destroyed).”
The government did apologize in 1999 and 2001. After the 1999 financial report, the government offered a small compensation to each of the living victims, but the offer was refused and the government strongly criticized for underestimating the value of the orphans’ suffering. In 2001, another offer was made, giving $10,000 to each victim, plus an additional $1,000 for each year they were confined. But it only applied to 1,500 orphans, didn’t include compensation for victims of abuse, and required them to drop any ongoing charges against the Catholic Church. The Duplessis Orphans’ Committee accepted this offer and the government provided an additional $26 million in 2006. But the committee did not speak for all of the victims and many continued to push for justice. Even as recently as February 2018, some victims were still trying to sue both institutions.
Although Home for Unwanted Girls is sad and very hard to read, it is an important book. For one, it puts a human face on the victims and allows readers who may never have heard of this tragedy to experience it to a degree, which engenders compassion, sympathy and perhaps a desire to take action on behalf of the victims. Moreover, it helps ensure the memory of those dark days is not forgotten, and that, God willing, the like is never repeated.
Barrier, Gerri. “Duplessis Orphans Challenge the Church.” CBC News, March 1, 1999. http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/duplessis-orphans-challenging-the-church.
Bernstien, Jaela. “Children of sin: Quebec and Irish orphans share stories of abuse under care of Catholic Church.” CBC News. June 3, 2017. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/duplessis-orphans-meet-irish-mother-baby-homes-1.4142930
—– “Duplessis Orphans Find Connections Overseas.” CBC News, June 3, 2017. http://www.cbc.ca/news/thenational/duplessis-orphans-find-connections-overseas-1.4145241
—– “’We Were Innocent:’How One Survivor Hopes to Get Justice for the Duplessis Orphans.” CBC News, February 17, 2018. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/duplessis-orphans-class-action-1.4537218
“Duplessis Orphans.” Canada’s Human Rights History. https://historyofrights.ca/encyclopaedia/main-events/duplessis-orphans/
“Duplessis Orphans Seek Proof of Medical Experiments.” CBC News, June 18, 2004. https://web.archive.org/web/20100409014034/http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2004/06/18/duplessis_cemetery040618.html.
Farnsworth, Clyde. “Orphans of the 1950’s, Telling of Abuse, Sue Quebec.” The New York Times, May 21, 1993. https://www.nytimes.com/1993/05/21/world/orphans-of-the-1950-s-telling-of-abuse-sue-quebec.html?pagewanted=2&pagewanted=all
Gold, Tanya. “Surivors of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Scandal Deserve Justice.” The Guardian, March 9, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/09/survivors-ireland-mother-baby-scandal-justice-tuam
Godbout, Michel. “Apology and Amends at Last for Duplessis Orphans.” CBC News, July 3, 2001. http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/duplessis-orphans-apology-and-amends
“Orphans Sue Catholic Orders Over Mistreatment.” The Prescott Courier, May 21, 1993, 10A.
“Protesters in Straightjackets Demand Inquiry of Duplessis Orphans Era.” The Spokesman-Review, February 19, 1999, A12.
Swardson, Anne. “Ugly Secret Surfacing in Quebec,” Sarasota Herald Tribune, April 2, 1993, 1A and 17A.
About the contributor: Nicole Evelina is a historical fiction and women’s fiction author, as well as a book reviewer for HNS, Historical Honey and Sirens. She can be found online here.