The 'Duplessis orphans'. A Historical, Political And Literary Approach

Textbook, 2015

64 Pages


Table of contents

1. Orphans in English-speaking Literature
2. The Orphan
3. Orphans in Canadian Literature
II. Historical Background
1. The French Colonization of Canada
2. British Colonial Rule
3. The Importance of the Catholic Church in Canada’s History
4. The Role of the Catholic Church in Quebec
5. The Specific Position of Quebec in Canada’s Past and Present
6. The Man Duplessis

III. The Duplessis Scandal
7. Physical, Mental and Sexual Abuse of Children – A Short Introduction
8. The Duplessis Orphanages and Their Treatment of Children and Teenagers
9. Consequences of the Scandal
10. Film Coverage: The Boys of St. Vincent
11. Short Story: Mavis Gallant: Orphan’s Progress (1965)
12. Chosen Novels: Eleanor H. Porter: Pollyanna (1913)

IV. Literary Coverage of the Topic Canadian Orphans
13. Constance Horne: The Accidental Orphan (1999)
14. Joan Weir: The Brideship (1999)
15. Beryl Young: Charlie: A Home Child’s Life in Canada (2011)

V. Consequences for Teaching this Subject at School or University


This book is strictly speaking a product of the cooperation between the Marburg Center for Canadian Studies and its readiness to work with schools in Hessen . The aim of this joint venture is to link the ( sometimes) vast gap between university and school with the common basis of Canadian literature. lt goes without saying that this readiness and openness of Professor Kuester and his team around Dr. Langwald is outstanding and deserves more attention than in the past. And to bring in the side of the school representatives from Gelnhausen (Mrs. Battenberg from the Berufliche Schulen and myself) I here simply take the liberty of saying thank you for this offer and possibilty to reach a wider audience.

The exchange of information and teaching methods, the meeting of pupils and students in seminars alike has shown that both sides participate in their attempts to narrow the gap between university and school.

The idea to write a book on the Canadian issue of 'The Duplessis Orphans' is - as far as the Grimmelshausen Gymnasium in Gelnhausen is concerned - the second literary product of this cooperation. The first was a publication on Louise Penny's novel Bury Your Dead (2011) which Professor Kuester kindly incorporated into one of his seminars.

This book, however, has been given another chance to reach a wider audience. The talk here is about its presentation at the Canadian Studies Day 2015 in Marburg, an event which has magnificently been organized as far as the topics and their representatives are concerned. Here Canada has been perfectly presented.

My students and I are extremely thankful for the possibility to present our reflection of this controversial Canadian matter (which unfortunately can be found all over the world as well) to a wider audience thus hoping to reflect a topic which seems to show the darker side of the relationship between adults and children.

So one more time many thanks to Professor Kuester and his team hoping that this well working cooperation between the Marburg Center for Candian Studies and schools in Hessen might continue in favour of the common aims Canada and Candian literature.


'The Duplessis Orphans' – A Historical, Political and Literary Approach

The manifold topics related to what is commonly known as the catchphrase ‘Duplessis orphans’ have shocked (and still do shock) many Canadians.1 Fact is that scientists of different research fields talk about a dark spot of contemporary Canadian history, which until today has left many questions unanswered.

To tackle the subject of physical, mental and sexual abuse, along with students, at a German modern secondary school and to present the finding at university first seemed to be a difficult task to master. However, the present discussion of sexual abuse of children and teenagers in church-run institutions in Ireland or Germany hint at the importance of this matter. German students have already encountered this problem in connection with Australia, where ‘The Stolen Generation’ is a matter in form 9.

In order to give an objective (but critical) reflection of this topic, an interdisciplinary approach seems advisable, since we regard a problem which originates in many different backgrounds. Students can thus use historical, sociological, religious and psychological information to better understand the practice of child abuse in the widest sense.

The topic is also close to the students’ own life experience, and an in-depth analysis of the Canadian example enables them to work on a specific example with the possibility to better understand this complex matter.

The Canadian background which geographically centers around the Quebec area also teaches them a lot about Canada and helps them see how closely related the Duplessis orphans are to Canada’s past and present.

The shocking fact that child abuse has been tolerated for such a long time also shows that Canada – like all former colonies of France and Great Britain – has been a victim of colonization that exercised the so-called ‘four Cs’ (conquest, civilization, commerce and, above all, Christianity) to deal with their colonies.

‘The Duplessis Orphans,’ a Historical, Political and Literary Approach, stands for one of the darkest spots of recent Canadian history. The physical, mental and sexual abuse of orphans in state and church institutions has only recently been discussed and reflected publicly. It would, however, be wrong to blame this on certain individuals such as the above mentioned politician Maurice Duplessis, the active role of the Catholic church, a located phenomenon in the Quebec area, or even a national problem. This Canadian scandal does not only embody the (negative) climax of a development that started out with British orphans being shipped to Canada in the middle of the 19th century and that only ended in the late 1970s; it stands for a widespread practice that can be found everywhere in the world. To focus on the Canadian background does not only help understand what’s specifically Canadian about this matter, it also highlights this problem from a general point of view, since child abuse is still common practice all over the world.

The idea to reflect the different kinds of child abuse from a historical, political and literary perspective also helps get a deeper insight into Canada’s recent past. This becomes clear by the mere fact that the official number of about 100,000 orphans sent over from Britain within a century is considered to be one of the driving forces behind Canada’s development into a nation. As a consequence of this, more than 4 million Canadians trace their roots back to these children. Apart from a critical reflection of the historical and political background of this topic, it is the literary side that is worth reflecting, too.

Orphans and their stories are familiar to students, since they are part of all national literatures in the world. This particularly goes for the students of my school, because its namesake, Christopher Grimmelshausen, described his life as an orphan in his novel, Simplicius Simplicissimus (1668). The English-speaking literature is also abundant in these stories, and orphans seem to have helped advance this type of novel about orphans, in general, and the Bildungsroman, in particular. To work on this literary aspect also helps better understand the (still ongoing) scandal of child abuse, since most children are described as seeking their way while pushing aside obstacles and avoiding the dangers of the adult world. Thus, a short survey of orphans, ranging from Huck Finn or David Copperfield to Harry Potter, helps highlight their importance in English literature.

The short introduction into stories about Canadian orphans is an ideal way to connect historical and political with literary elements, thereby enabling students and teachers alike to better understand the scandal and the full consequences of the so-called ‘Duplessis Orphans.’ This approach is done with the help of one short story and three novels, one of which (Charlie: A Home Child’s Life in Canada) will be discussed and analyzed in detail to see how orphan stories can help reflect Canada’s past and present.


Le sujet mentionné ci-dessus 'Les orphelins de Duplessis' - un sujet historique, politique et littéraire­re présente une tâche noire dans l'histoire récente du Canada.

L'abus physique, mental et sexuel des orphelins dans les établissements dirigés par l'État et l'Église a été récemment discuté et réfléchi en public.

Il serait certainement faux de blâmer des personnes singulières comme le politicien Duplessis mentionné ci-dessus, mais aussi de minimiser le rôle actif de l'Église Catholique ou un phénomène national dans la région québecoise ou peut-être un probleme nationale.

Ce scandale au Canada ne souligne pas seulement le paroxysme (négatif) d'un développement qui a commencé par envoyer des orphelins britanniques au Canada au milieu du 19 ième siècle et qui s'est terminé à la fin des années 70 au siècle dernier; mais ce scandale représente un phénomène répandu dans le monde entier.

Focaliser sur ce sujet en travaillant sur le fond canadien n'aide pas seulemnt à comprendre cet élément spécifiquement canadien, mais aussi à mettre en évidence ce probléme général, car l'abus des enfants est malgré tout une pratique courante dans le monde entier.

L'idée d'analyser et de discuter les différentes formes d'abus des enfants dans un contexte historique, politique et littéraire permet aussi d'obtenir une connaissance plus profonde de l'histoire récente du Canada.

Cela devient évident en regardant le chiffre officiel de 100.000 orphelins qui ont été envoyés de la Grande Bretagne au Canada au cours d'un siècle, et que ce nombre était une force directrice pour construire la nation canadienne.

Par conséquent, aujourd'hui plus de 4 millions de Canadiens trouvent leurs racines parmi ces enfants.

A partir d'une réflexion critique du fond historique et politique de ce sujet, il vaut la peine de prendre en considération le côté littéraire.

L'existence des orphelins dans la littérature et des récits sur des orphelins sont connus par des étudiants car ils font partie de la littérature nationale partout dans le monde.

C'est le cas particulier pour les élèves de mon lycée dont le nom "Grimmelshausen Gymnasium" réfère á l'écrivain Christopher Grimmelshausen qui a décrit la vie d'un orphelin dans son roman Simplicius Simplicissimus (1668).

La littérature anglophone est pleine de récit d'orphelins et étant orphelin, cela a contribué au développement des romans et des récits sur des orphelins et au Bildungsroman en particulier.

Travailler sur cet aspect littéraire aide à mieux comprendre le scandale actuel de l'abus des enfants partout dans le monde, car la plupart de ces enfants sont décrits par l'acte de repousser les obstacles et dangers venant du monde des adultes .

Ainsi, une étude courte sur les orphelins littéraires allant de Huckleberry Finn ou David Copperfield jusqu'à Harry Potter aide à souligner leur importance dans la littérature anglophone.

La courte introduction dans les récits sur les orphelins canadiens est un début idéal pour relier des éléments historiques avec des éléments littéraires.

Ainsi les étudiants et les professeurs peuvent mieux comprendre le scandale mentionné ci-dessus et les conséquences à tirer de l'affaire 'Les Orphelins de Duplessis'.

Cette approche est le fruit d'une étude d' un court récit (short story) et de trois romans dont un (Charlie: A Home Child' s Life in Canada) sera discuté et analysé en detail pour voir comment la littérature sur les orphelins aide à réfléchir sur le passé et le présent du Canada.

The students of my advanced course (‘Leistungskurs’) English will therefore be working on different matters, in most cases individually or in groups of two. The papers to be handed in should be around 2 to 4 pages . The structure of the presentation is as follows:


I. Literary Background (Matthias Dickert)

1. Orphans in English-speaking Literature

Adults and children alike are familiar with orphan stories since they are vital parts of all kinds of national literatures. Orphans and orphan stories seem indeed to be deeply rooted there and dispose of a long history in all kinds of literatures. This definitely also goes for the English speaking literature where orphans do have a fixed place which shows that they are also embedded there.

So what are the reasons for the popularity of orphans and orphan stories? A closer look at this question definitely reveals one central element which lies in the (emotional) closeness of orphan and reader which includes the option for readers to find themselves in orphan stories because they tend to accompany their life.

It thus tends to be a fact that throughout our 1ives, we move from one story to the next, and writer, reader and listener alike know that “we live our lives immersed in stories” (Simpkinson/Simpkinson, 1993:1). It is here where from many stories we encounter in our lives one of the most influential and powerfu1 ones is the orphan as hero.

Other than the gods, no single persona is more dominant as a hero symbol in literature than the orphan figure. Kimball (1999) writes: “Orphan characters in folktales and literature symbolize our isolation from one another and from society [...], orphans are clearly marked as being different from the rest of society. They are the eternal other” (p. 559). Here it is more prevalent than in fiction, from its classical contributions to its more modern popular cultural forms of literature. Orphans prevail in ancient poetry, folktales, fairy tales, older literary tales, modern stories, novels, television shows, movies, and comic books. In her article, “From Folktales to Fiction: Orphan Characters in Children’s Literature,” Kimball explains the ascendancy of orphan characters in children’s literature: “They embody the hope that whatever the present situation, it can change for the better” (ibid.: 573).

Orphans are implanted in the heroic landscape, but what is the nature of these invented characters? Paying special attention to both folktales and conventional fiction, Kimball suggests eleven patterns, 1.) orphans in folktales, 2.) gender, 3.) characters, 4.) helpers and other characters, 5.) mistreatment, 6.) quests, 7.) obstacles, 8.) surmounting obstacles, 9.) rewards, 10.) punishment of those who oppose orphans, and 11.) orphans in children’s literature, for comparing orphan-related stories. Using these patterns, Kimball compares orphan stories across time and genres and shows how themes found their way into literature.

According to Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary: Unabridged (McKechnie, 1983), the term “orphan” defined in its precise and narrowest sense is “a child whose father and mother are dead: sometimes applied to a child who has lost only one parent by death” (p. 1263). Yet, in both a narrative and a literary sense, this definition fails to capture the many dimensions of childhood abandonment. Webster’s disregards the countless number of foster children living away from their biological parents, the multitude of abandoned or 'throw-away-kids' who are unwanted or uncared for by parents, and an extensive network of children offered for adoption by their parents, all of whom have parents, yet still live as orphans. These children are no less abandoned, or experience any lesser sense of loss because they are cared for by foster parents.

Orphan literature parallels reality. Orphan figures in literature, such as Moses, Oedipus, and Quasimodo, all have living parents, but parental existence is secondary due to the lack of parental presence. These fictional characters, and others like them, are no less exposed, because one or both parents live somewhere in the text, or because the hero is cared for by a kindly old couple, a mystical wizard, a childless king and queen, or a mythical god. These characters are orphaned, not in the precise, literal sense but in a figurative sense, because the child is severed from its parents (or at least, birth-mother).

The absent parents, the away-from-birth-home experience is the subject of this research, and this paper considers the many characters, real or imagined, who in their childhood are left without their birth parents. Of course, this is a broad interpretation of the term ‘orphan,’ but the English language offers no better expressions. Some literary terms, fictional and nonfictional, used in the past are: adopted, abandoned, black market baby, exposed, foster-child, foundling, illegitimate, indentured, parentless, ward, bastard, guttersnipe, stray, street kid, urchin, waif, whoreson, and so forth, but none seems to accurately capture the essence of the abandonment issues like the term ‘orphan.’ In addition, precise definitions of the other terms misrepresent this study’s target group as well. Therefore, since inadvertent injustice must be done to an expression for this study, let that term be ‘orphan.’ With such a broad definition of orphan, the vast and ever growing supply of orphan-related fictional stories for analysis is endless.

Orphans have a long tradition in the English-speaking novel, and they have accompanied its development since its early days.2 This is due to many reasons, among which the pure fact of their presence in society is the most important one. It was, of course, the 19th century that concentrated on them, because the political and social background of this time formed the ideal scenery for a literary incorporation into the novel. However, orphans and orphanage have kept this position ever since the early days of the novel, simply because they were perfect elements for plot, character, description, speech and the reception of books. However, another strong attraction towards the incorporation of orphans into novels was the fact that their (classical) description was closely attached to a mystical background and (in most cases) to a positive ending.

This does no go for the 'Duplessis Orphans' who obtain a key position, since they represent reality and a negative ending. The (sad but true) background of these orphans does, of course, not hold for the Canadian situation, since we do also find positive and idealistic presentations of orphans. However, one can say that, on the whole, the literary description of orphans in English-speaking literature involves a negative structure that too often can be connected to the fact that orphans lack a family background and thus reflect the more negative sides of life.

2. The Orphan

The orphan is, above all, a character out of place, forced to make his or her home in an often hostile world. The novel itself grew up as a genre representing the attempts of an ordinary individual to negotiate the dangers of life. The orphan is, therefore, an essentially novelistic character, pushed away from established customs and conventions to face a world of endless dangers and possibilities. It is the orphan himself/herself who takes the reader by the hand to lead him/her through a maze of experiences, manifold threats and opportunities. Being at the center of the narration, this figure often functions as some sort of naive mirror of the qualities of others and thus also disposes of a moral quality.

These – one could call them solitary pilgrims or wayward souls – were useful in the development of individual narratives and helped pave the way for the development of the novel as the upcoming genre of the 19th century and for one of its central types, the Bildungsroman.


1 Maurice Duplessis is one of the most controversial persons of recent Canadian history (Dyck, 1993: 113), and he ranges from an icon of social welfare to a ruthless politician (ibid. 167). His party, The Union Nationale (founded in 1935), is considered as ultraconservative. The time when he served as prime minister (1935–1939; 1944–1959) was a period when “cultural undertakings seemed to die” (Handler, 1988: 88) and when Quebec was considered to be the incarnation of Canadian “backwardness” (ibid.: 88). However, one reason for the development of this strong conservatism lies in the juxtaposition of the two different European sides of Canada herself, since critics often distinguish between “French spirituality and Anglo-Saxon materialism” (ibid.: 101), which radically met in Quebec.

2 For the students of this advanced cource, it is, of course, Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus (1668). It is interesting to note that Grimmelshausen’s novel – the German equivalent to Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) ̶ is also well-known among English-speaking critics for topics like war, children and trauma.

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The 'Duplessis orphans'. A Historical, Political And Literary Approach
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Matthias Dickert et al. (Author), 2015, The 'Duplessis orphans'. A Historical, Political And Literary Approach, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 4/26/2015

    This work draws attention to a crime that many never have heard of before. Whoever reads this book is shocked by the facts he/she is confronted with. I couldn't believe that the Canadian government and the Catholic church in Quebéc are to blame for such horrible things that happened not long ago! I feel for the victims and hope that many people read this book and get to know the story of the 'Duplessis Orphans'.

  • guest on 4/27/2015

    A diversity of topics, conecting Canadas historical background with one of its darkest spots and takes up the role of social outsiders in the Canadian literature.
    Overall a very interesting and informing book.

  • guest on 4/27/2015

    The importance of this topic which has had a huge impact on the society back then is presented quite well. I am amazed by how much can be said about that issue and the large number of perspective from which you can look at it. This book is definitely worth being read by those who are interested in Canadian history.

  • guest on 5/13/2015

    Well written and easy to understand.
    This book gives you all information you need, so I highly recommend it to all people who want to know more about Canada's past.

  • guest on 5/19/2015

    Well written essay which gives the reader all informations about Canada's past as well as lots of different perspectives of the orphan scandal.

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