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Les voleurs d'enfance

October 6, 2005 permalink

A new documentary exposes child protection in Quebec.



The Montreal Gazette

Paul Arcand takes on Quebec's 'dark secret'

Jonathan Montpetit
Canadian Press

Thursday, October 06, 2005

MONTREAL -- Stuck in Quebec's youth-protection system after years of torment by his abusive father and neglect from relatives, the former victim sees only one way out.

"I wish I could plant a bomb and make it all disappear," he says of his past in a powerful documentary, called Les voleurs d'enfance (The Childhood Thieves).

The documentary features personal accounts of abuse and puts the spotlight on problems in Quebec's provincially run youth-protection system, which Premier Jean Charest's Liberal government plans to overhaul.

The film opens Friday in 50 Quebec theatres, a commercial release usually unheard of for a documentary. A version of the film with English subtitles will open in mid-October.

It was made by well-known Quebec broadcast journalist Paul Arcand, but was produced by Denise Robert, who with her husband Denys Arcand made the Oscar-winning film, The Barbarian Invasions.

Robert had recently made Aurore, the story of a horrific child-abuse case in rural Quebec during the First World War, and was prompted to ask Paul Arcand to look into how children are treated in Quebec's youth-protection system.

"When I was preparing to do Aurore, I got a lot of calls from people saying, `Don't do Aurore, it's a story that happened 100 years ago," Robert said at the film's recent premiere.

"There are far more pertinent stories that are happening today that you should look at," she said.

The documentary is as much about the frustration and confusion felt by the victims of child abuse who often find themselves no better off when entrusted to provincial care, bouncing from foster home to treatment centre and back. Some 30,000 Quebec kids are in the youth-protection system.

It turns explosive when the focus shifts from personal experiences to how the youth-protection system deals with some troubled youngsters.

Paul Arcand makes it clear the childhood thieves are not simply those who abuse or those who do nothing to stop it, but the government-run institutions as well.

"When you make a film like this you want it to have an impact," said Arcand at the film's premiere.

The film's premiere was attended by a veritable who's who in Quebec politics, including Health Minister Philippe Couillard, interim Parti Quebecois leader Louise Harel and former premier Lucien Bouchard.

It prompted discussions on news and talk shows in the province and numerous newspaper articles and opinion columns.

Arcand is unapologetic about the way his documentary treats Quebec's youth-protection services.

He said the province has a long history of mistreating vulnerable children.

He called it a "dark secret," one the province hasn't always been willing to face.

"It's my point of view. It's not perfect, but it's not an anecdote," Arcand says of his film.

Arcand has no shortage of blame to heap on the system: It's overly bureaucratic, it neglects children's psychological and emotional needs, and it over-medicates even basic behavioural problems.

But Jean-Marc Potvin, head of the youth protection system in Montreal, said the documentary showed those working in the system as insensitive.

"We don't need a knock-out punch," Potvin told a news conference in response to the film. "We need a helping hand. We need solidarity."

But Arcand says don't blame him if the film questions the provincial youth-protection system.

"My job is just taking pictures of reality and putting them in the movie."

But some of his most damaging allegations concern the use of isolation cells in the province's youth-protection centres.

Margaret Delisle, provincial youth protection minister, tells Arcand in the documentary the cells are used only in "exceptional circumstances," and for short periods of time to deal with certain children.

Her comments are contradicted by Quebec's human rights commissioner who maintains in the film that many children are placed in the cells "not for hours, but days," against established legal guidelines.

In a bit of filmmaking that recalls the in-your-face style of U.S. filmmaker Michael Moore, Arcand and Delisle are locked in one of the isolation rooms, which resembles a solitary confinement cell in a prison.

A visibly upset Delisle insists on opening the door after only one minute and 15 seconds.

Health Minister Couillard criticized Arcand's lack of nuance in treating the system's shortcomings.

"While what it showed was real, there is another reality to the Centre jeunesses (youth centres), all the effort that social workers give the kids," he said after the film's premiere. "There are little miracles that are happening everywhere everyday so that a lot of lives are saved."

Source: Montreal Gazette