Neyihaw writer Suzanne Methot’s new book Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing examines the impact of colonialism on the health of Indigenous peoples in Canada, who suffer disproportionately high rates of addiction, diabates, and other chronic illnesses. Methot explores these issues by looking to her own past and family history. In this excerpt, Methot learns about her father’s traumatic childhood at an orphanage in Quebec.

My father never talks about his past, but my mother tells me three things. One: he grew up in an orphanage in Montreal. Two: the nuns at the orphanage would pull on the little boys’ penises, laugh, and make disparaging remarks. The nuns also laughed and pointed at the boys when they were naked in the shower. Three: my father remembers the day he arrives at the orphanage with his older brother. They are holding hands, and he sees light coming through a window. He hasn’t started school yet, so he’s about four years old.

My father is born in 1938 to a single mother. In the 1940s and 1950s, under Le Grande Noirceur (The Great Darkness) of Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis’s rule, thousands of children born to young unmarried women are rounded up and sent to orphanages run by the Catholic Church. These “children of sin,” as they are called — many living in poverty and some, like my father, who are not pure laine (of purely French-Canadian ancestry) — are improperly diagnosed as mentally incompetent or psychotic, so that the priests and nuns running the orphanages receive bigger subsidies from the federal government. Many of the Duplessis orphans have their names changed and identities erased, so that their mothers cannot search for them and families can never reunite.

The Duplessis orphans endure forced lobotomies, electroshock, straitjackets, experimental psychiatric drugs, and physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional abuse. Some children are sent out to work with farmers, while other children do the maintenance and janitorial work that enable the orphanages to function. They are treated as slave labour and receive harsh discipline if they refuse orders. As Hervé Bertrand, a Duplessis orphan, tells the Toronto Star in 1992, “I was beaten, I was tied up, I was made to work.”

The Duplessis orphans are also victims of medical experiments performed at the St. Jean de Dieu insane asylum, which is now known as the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal. Albert Sylvio, a Duplessis orphan who lived at St. Jean de Dieu in the 1950s, tells the National Post in 2004 that he transported more than 60 bodies of fellow orphans from the operating rooms to the basement morgue: “I undressed them and washed them and prepared them for burial. We put them in cardboard boxes. Some of them were children.” He says the bodies were taken to the cemetery and buried in unmarked graves. One government registry indicates that there are about 2,000 bodies buried at the St. Jean de Dieu cemetery; at least 42 are children.

In an interview in the Montreal Gazette in 1992, social worker Daniel Simard, who worked in the Duplessis orphanages in the 1950s, recalls the atmosphere: “What struck me the most when I visited the orphanages was the lack of love. The nuns showed no kindness or affection to the children. It was as though they were making the children expiate the sin of being born illegitimate.”

After an abusive childhood during which they are not educated — because “hospitals,” unlike orphanages, are not required to provide any schooling — the Duplessis orphans leave the orphanages completely unprepared to cope in the outside world. They cannot hold down jobs, do not know how to create successful friendships or marriages, and are unable to form relationships with or be parents to their own children. Some Duplessis orphans leave the orphanages as young as 10 years old, to live on the streets of Montreal.

My father meets my mother in Vancouver. She is in a laundromat, he asks for her telephone number, and then he barrages her with calls until she relents. They are married in August 1965. My brother Paul is stillborn in 1966, and I arrive in 1968, when my two half-siblings from my mother’s first marriage are nine and seven. The verbal abuse begins when she is pregnant with me, when my father starts to say things like, “Be careful you don’t kill this one like you killed the last one.” 

The physical abuse will come later.

By 1971, my mother has embarked on a campaign to fix the man she has married. She convinces my father to open a business based on his skills repairing televisions, radios, and other electronic devices. She also asks her friends — including a pastor and a police officer — to write letters of support and secures him a federal pardon, which means my father’s criminal record is wiped clean.

My father is 17 or 18 years old in 1956 when he is convicted of the offence of theft. In 1957, he is convicted of escaping lawful custody and theft, and in 1958 he is convicted of breaking and entering with intent. He is in and out of jail in a cycle of short sentences and even shorter periods of freedom stretching over several years, returning to crime soon after being released (or escaping custody), then being convicted and sentenced again. He would have left the Duplessis orphanage only a few years before, without any formal education, no family to rely on, and with a history of abuse that has negatively affected his development, his sense of self-worth and his interpersonal skills. By 1958, his career as a petty criminal comes to an end, when he commits an indictable offence and is sentenced to the big house: Oakalla Prison Farm in Burnaby, B.C.

Oakalla has been described as “decrepit” by Dr. Guy Richmond, who was senior medical officer of the B.C. Corrections Branch in the 1950s and 1960s. The prison — which executed 44 prisoners between 1919 and 1959, when the death penalty was abolished — was originally designed to house a maximum of 500 prisoners but holds almost triple that number by 1963. Steam pipes make living conditions in some cells intolerable. There are fire hazards, and the prison is infested with rats. Prisoners lack adequate supervision, which results in frequent riots and no fewer than 890 prisoner escapes over 40 years. There are also dozens of suicides and thousands of suicide attempts. Despite these issues, Oakalla is the first institution in B.C. to offer a range of work programs, which are meant to rehabilitate offenders and ease their reintegration into society. So my father stays put this time and learns a trade: repairing small electronics.

My father writes captions on the bottom of every photograph for the family album. He always shows me what he writes, and I assume he writes in English because my mother and I do not understand French. Two decades later, as I uncover bits and pieces of the little-known and relatively undocumented history of the Duplessis orphans, I make a sudden realization: never educated as a Duplessis orphan, my father can’t read or write in his native French. He reads and writes in English only, because he learned while he was in prison.

It is these a-ha moments that give me a way to make sense of the situations in which I am enveloped as a child. Now I understand why he wouldn’t help his stepchildren with their French homework. Now I understand the ongoing tension and the arguments over a grade 10 textbook. My mother and other family members think my father is an asshole. In truth, he is covering up the fact that he cannot read or write in French, ashamed to admit that he is the ignorant savage the nuns told him he was.

Excerpted from Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing by Suzanne Methot. © 2019 by Suzanne Methot. All rights reserved. Published by ECW Press Ltd. 

Image: Nadya Kwandibens

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