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When heritage is a rebuke


By MARIAN SCOTT, The Gazette November 6, 2010


Yvon Lamothe, former maintenance foreman at St. Julien Hospital, says the vast building where many Duplessis orphans lived and suffered is a landmark that should be saved.


Yvon Lamothe cho kes up with emotion when he talks about the vast mental hospital that has loomed over this lakeside village for 138 years.


"We had certificates for being the cleanest hospital in Quebec. The hallways shone like a mirror," says Lamothe, 69, a former maintenance foreman at St. Julien Hospital, 200 kilometres east of Montreal, near Thetford Mines.


In its heyday from 1940-1970, as many as 1,500 mental patients lived in the red brick asylum that stretches the length of three football fields along the main street.


Now, the village of 2,000 is facing a future without the landmark, which closed in 2003.


In the next few weeks, the Quebec government will issue a call for tenders to strip out asbestos and demolish the sprawling complex, including a 500-seat auditorium and chapel featuring multi-coloured interior brickwork, hand-forged copper medallions and soaring stained-glass windows.


"You can't tear down this building," says Lamothe, who knows every inch of the sprawling complex built between 1917 and 1953 by the Sisters of Charity of Quebec. A previous structure dating to 1872 burned down in 1916.


"This is a source of pride in a small place like here," he says.


"You could have housing in this building. You could have a university."


But Alice Quinton, 72, a patient at St. Julien Hospital from age seven to 23, welcomes the prospect of seeing it demolished.


Quinton, who entered the hospital in 1945, was one of thousands of normal children falsely diagnosed as mentally retarded and confined to mental institutions under the reign of Premier Maurice Duplessis from 1936 to 1939 and 1944 to 1959.


Advocates for the Duplessis orphans say doctors and religious orders helped perpetrate the fraud to collect federal subsidies for their care.


Quinton endured beatings, being tied to metal bedsprings for weeks at a time and given anti-psychotic medications in the hospital for mentally-retarded women.


"We were marked for life," says Quinton, now a 72-year-old grandmother in Longueuil whose ordeal is chronicled in a 1991 book by Pauline Gill that brought the orphans' plight to public attention, Les enfants de Duplessis (Editions Libre Expression).


In 2004, Quinton received $27,575 under a $58.7-million program to compensate 3,191 Duplessis orphans who endured abuse in mental hospitals and orphanages.


But nothing can make up for stolen childhoods in institutions where electroshock, beatings and solitary confinement were routinely meted out as punishment, says Quinton.


"That hospital was a curse," she says.


But Rod Vienneau of Joliette, a tireless advocate for the Duplessis orphans, suggested that tearing down the hospital will not help their cause.


"Once it is torn down and they build apartment blocks, nobody will remember," says Vienneau, who would rather see the building remain as a monument to the orphans.


The debate over St. Julien Hospital illustrates how, half a century after Duplessis's death, Quebecers remain conflicted over the legacy of an era when Roman Catholic orders took charge of education, health care and social services.


For some, the nuns and brothers who founded schools, orphanages, hospitals and other institutions in every corner of the province were unpaid heroes who succoured society's rejects: the poor, homeless, sick and disabled.


For others, they were the foot soldiers of a politico-religious hierarchy that jealously guarded its privileges and punished those who strayed -notably, unwed mothers and their babies.


Wherever one stands on that controversy, many people would just as soon erasethememoryof placeslikeSt. Julien Hospital.


"I'm very attached to heritage," says Andre Garant, 64, a retired history teacher and prolific author on the history of the neighbouring Beauce region.


"But personally, if a building like St. Ferdinand disappears from the map, it wouldn't bother me. It's a black page in the history of Quebec."


In 1872, six nuns from the Sisters of Charity of Quebec arrivedinthehamletof St. Ferdinand at the invitation of the local cure, Julien Bernier. They founded a hospice and girls' school, and within a year, 20 patients with intellectual disabilities -then considered an illness -were on their way from the overcrowded provincial asylum in Beauport.


By the 1940s, nearly 1,000 patients filled St. Julien's 84-bed dormitories, each overseen by one or two nuns.


J.P. Lamontagne, a tall, stern family doctor who practised in St. Ferdinand for 60 years, was medical director at the hospital, which had no psychiatrist.


On June 6, 1937, a school bus deposited eight-year-old Albertine Allard at St. Julien. She would not see the outside world again until she was nearly 40.


"When I got there, I cried and cried. I shed a lot of tears. After that, I got used to it," says Allard, 82, who now lives with two other former patients in a pleasant foster home overlooking Lake William.


Allard believes she was born in Quebec City but doesn't know who her parents were or where they came from.


"It was tough at the beginning. If you were bad, they put you in a cell to calm your nerves. I'll tell you the truth, Madame. I was very naughty. You can write that down."


Allard's brown eyes dance as she recalls how she and some other children shut a hospital worker in a cupboard. But they become sombre when she remembers the punishments for misbehaving.


"There are things we don't like to talk about," says Allard. "I was tied to some springs. No mattress. And then they put a bucket under the springs."


Tied on their backs on coil bedsprings, their arms wrapped in a straitjacket, inmates urinated and defecated on the bed. Meals consisted of gruel administered by spoon. The punishment lasted a week or more.


"When you get out of there, you have no more courage to play tricks," Allard says.


Despite such horrors, she is not bitter. "Sometimes the nuns had to be strict because we were pretty rough," she says.


"But I appreciated the nuns because they taught us to work. If we learned to work, it was thanks to them."


Those inmates who were able to work scrubbed and waxed floors, darned garments, knit slippers and fed and washed other patients who were unable to care for themselves.


Allard sewed mattresses from recycled felt hats, helped out in the electroshock room by helping to hold down subjects and bathed dead bodies.


"I told myself, a dead person is less mean than one who's alive," says Allard, demonstrating how she was taught to glue corpses' eyes shut by inserting a folded piece of newspaper under the eyelid.


But Myriam Kelly, 77, remains bitter over the abuse she suffered at St. Julien, including electroshock, injections of anti-psychotic drugs, beatings with chains, solitary confinement and ice-water baths followed by beatings with a scrubbing brush.


Born to an anglophone family in Quebec City, Kelly lost most of her English after her mother placed her in an orphanage at age three. At six, she was transferred to St. Ferdinand until she was released at age 21 in 1954.


"My mother was Protestant, so I came from the devil," says Kelly, the youngest of 12 children whose father died when she was two.


Once, she heard a nun batter a small child to death for crying.


"I was really martyred," said Kelly, now a Drummondville resident who recounts her sufferings in a book, Memoire desertee (deserted memory), written with Ginette Girard (Feuille-T-on, 2003).


In his 2002 memoir Docteur et citoyen (Boreale), late Quebec cabinet minister Denis Lazure, who died in 2008, recalled his days as a young psychiatrist in Quebec asylums where generous use of tranquillizers, straitjackets, isolation cells and electroshock without medication were routine. Doctors injected patients with insulin to induce diabetic comas, from which some never awoke, Lazure wrote.


During the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, lay staff replaced nuns in key positions and employment boomed.


When Luc Allaire became a cook at the hospital in 1960, about 150 employees, including 60 nuns, cared for more than 1,400 patients. Within 20 years, the ration of workers to patients had risen to nearly one-on-one.


High-functioning patients, like Allard, moved out to rooms in the village but returned to the hospital every day to work and take part in activities.


"We were like savages when we left the hospital," says Allard. "People didn't accept us, because they knew we came from St. Julien Hospital. We were the crazies."


A 1984 wildcat strike by 717 orderlies caused bitter tensions and a successful class-action suit against the strikers on behalf of patients.


The re-drawing of administrative regions in 1993 amputated most of the territory the hospital had formerly served, says Jacques Faucher, 66, a retired social worker who was in charge of deinstitutionalization at the hospital from 1973-1993. "Circumstances worked against us," he says.


Patients were transferred to foster homes and other facilities in Thetford Mines and Victoriaville, and the hospital emptied.


"When the ministry said the hospital no longer has a health-care vocation, I think they signed the death warrant for the hospital," says Faucher.


Behind its low stone wall topped by a wrought iron fence, St. Julien Hospital looks as if it could spring to life at a moment's notice.


"You could move in tomorrow," says Annmarie Adams, William C. Macdonald professor of architecture at McGill University.


The hospital's monumental facade reads like an inventory of Quebec architecture, Adams notes, from the 1917 convent with its silver cupola at one end to the streamlined 1953 hospital wing at the other.


"I think it's a fabulous illustration of the changing history of hospital design in the 20th century. You can almost read it as a timeline from the '20s through to the '50s," Adams says.


Razing St. Julien Hospital would be a wasteful blunder, says Adams, who notes that many former asylums elsewhere in North America and in Europe have been recycled as condos, colleges, seniors' complexes and hotels.


St. Julien Hospital is in near-perfect condition, Adams notes, in contrast to many of those structures, such as Buffalo's Richardson Olmsted Complex, a former state asylum.


"It's like yanking the heart out of the town," Adams said of the demolition plan.


But Danielle Dussault, a spokesperson for the Corporation d'hebergement du Quebec (CHQ), the real-estate arm of the province's health and social services ministry, said the agency was unable to find a qualified buyer when it advertised the building in 2008. The government was prepared to give the building away for a dollar if the buyer assumed all costs related to upkeep and was entirely self-financing, she says.


"Just the cost of heating and maintaining it is $1.2 million a year -and it's empty," says Dussault.


She would not provide estimates on the cost of the multimillion-dollar demolition, which will be spread over three years.


Filmmaker Serge Gagne wasamongagroupof St. Ferdinand residents who submitted a bid to acquire the former hospital in 2008. The Cooperative de developpement local de St. Ferdinand (COSODE-LO) proposed to convert the property for housing, cultural activities, a rural research centre and greenhouses.


"This is a jewel for the village," says Gagne, who bemoaned that municipal and provincial politicians did little to save the building. "The COSODELO was a social project that would have benefitted people here."


The CHQ rejected the proposal from because the project would have required government subsidies.


In the rear of the hospital, row after row of grim, caged balconies and a prison-like catwalk stare out over a fenced pool and playground with rusting swings. A peeling summer pavilion strikes a mournful note under a lowering sky.


"All is sadness. The vibrations are very powerful," says Andre Bourassa, president of the Quebec Order of Architects and a longtime advocate for saving the hospital.


"It is a major social point of reference, a (former) local industry and an architectural landmark," says Bourassa.


Negative associations with the Duplessis era are one reason buildings like St. Julien Hospital are underappreciated, says Tania Martin, a Canada Research Chair in Built Religious Heritage and associate professor at of architecture at Universite Laval.


"It's the backlash of the Quiet Revolution," she says.


Martin says it is senseless to sacrifice the hospital, which is ideal for a large institution like a university or for other purposes like housing or a hotel.


"Can't we be more imaginative? Is there a need that this building can respond to?" she asks.


"If we're going to look at it from the point of view of sustainable development, the greenest building is the one that is already built," Martin adds.


Gagne continues to hope for an 11th-hour reprieve.


"Here in Quebec, we say, 'Je me souviens,' but we demolish everything.


"This is a witness to our history. To destroy it would be to eliminate part of our history and we don't have the right."


[email protected]


© Copyright © The Montreal Gazette


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Il y a certains souvenirs dont on ne veut garder aucune trace, et je crois que ce dicton s'applique bien ici.


En plus, aucun promoteur ne peut se permettre les coûts de désamiantage du bâtiment, qui, je vous le rappelle, est situé dans la région de l'amiante. Celle-ci a été utilisé avec exagération lors de la constructions des multiples phases de cet établissement.

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