The prisoner of Bordeaux


Peter Gzowski October 22 1960

The prisoner of Bordeaux


Peter Gzowski October 22 1960

The prisoner of Bordeaux


Robert Sauvé, a troubled but normal French Canadian, was arrested at 20 on a charge that might have brought him a short jail sentence. Instead he was locked up for 41 months, with neither trial nor treatment, in the mental wing of Montreal’s Bordeaux Jail. The most damnable fact in a damning record: there may be others like him still inside

Peter Gzowski

MONTREAL PRISON AT BORDEAUX, more commonly called Bordeaux Jail, is a hulking four-story grey building shaped like a six-pointed asterisk, on the west side of Montreal Island. One wing, stretching outward almost to the brooding concrete walls, makes Bordeaux unlike any other prison in Canada. That wing is, in theory, not a prison at all. It is a mental institution. In it, six hundred and fifty men (the number has gone as high as twelve hundred) await mental examination, mental treatment or, all too often, death from old age or by their own hand.

The ugliest fact about this ugly institution is that a man may be imprisoned in it without committing a crime, and without being tried by a court. A young French Canadian named Robert Sauvé was released from Bordeaux’s mental wing this summer after fortyone months of confinement. He had been convicted of no crime and had been found guilty by no court. No court in fact had seen him at all after March 12, 1957, the day he pleaded not guilty to a charge of intimidation, for which the maximum sentence, rarely imposed, would have been two years. Sauvé simply disappeared for three years. The sole reason for his detention was the certificate of a psychiatrist who had previously found him sane, and whose change of mind was prompted by a report from one of the men Sauvé was accused of intimidating. During his nearly three and a half years in Bordeaux, Sauvé received no pill, no physical treatment and nothing that could be described in the most generous terms as psychotherapy.

There is evidence that there are others like him still inside. Sauvé himself speaks of “dozens,” many of them orphans or illegitimate children who have no one interested in their release. He describes one boy,

now eighteen, who has been in Bordeaux since he was fourteen, when he set a fire in his parents' barn, and who has since been visited only by a friendly priest.

One former guard told me there were a hundred sane men inside. Another said fifty. An ex-prisoner agreed with that figure. A third former guard told me calmly and seriously that a third of the prisoners appeared sane to him. Whatever the estimate, all the men of good faith whom I asked are convinced there are some sane persons in Bordeaux’s mental wing.

These two cases have cropped up within the past year:

• Last fall, a 19-year-old philosophy student from a college classique in the Gaspé collapsed on a Montreal street with a mild attack of an epileptic nature. He was charged with obstructing the passage of pedestrians and taken to the mental wing at Bordeaux. He regained consciousness in a back ward, so crowded with forty-eight patients that the inmates were not allowed to leave their beds. On one side of him was a man charged with murder, incoherent and drooling. On the other, an inmate with no control over his bowels, constantly fouling the bed. Across the crowded aisle was a patient incessantly masturbating. After ten days, the orderly in the boy’s ward, a homosexual, took a fancy to the student and appointed him his helper. The boy’s shoes were given back to him, and he was allowed to feed the drooling murderer, to clean the fouled sheets of his other neighbor. Fortunately, before the boy was forced to "pay” for this favor, the homosexual orderly was transferred, and his replacement allowed the boy to reach a telephone. He called a professor at his college and was released.

• In August of this year, a middle-aged Romanian-


born salesman named Alexandre Ciobotaru had a squabble with his wife and was taken to Bordeaux on a charge of intimidation. A mental examination was requested. After fifteen days, his lawyer obtained a court order for his release. When Ciobotaru didn’t get in touch with his employer, the employer grew worried. He called the jail and was told that Ciobotaru had been released. When he still couldn’t locate Ciobotaru, the employer called Bordeaux’s assistant governor at home and was told the same thing. The next day, six days after his freedom had been ordered, the jail office finally discovered that Ciobotaru was still in the mental wing. He was released. “A slip,” said the assistant governor, “These things happen.”

The place where they happen is not readily accessible to the press. I was not allowed past the office. But from the testimony of men who have been inside as guards or prisoners, a priest who has visited prisoners and a journalist who went in disguised as a prisoner’s relative, it was possible to arrive at a fairly complete picture.

In spite of several recent improvements, Bordeaux’s mental wing still crawls with cockroaches. A guard told me his footsteps crunched in the back corridors. At night, according to another guard, you can hear rats screaming. Prisoners in the basement dungeons— punishment cells—beg to have their lights left on to keep the rats away. Guards need, or did need under the Union Nationale, letters from their local MLAs to be hired; they start at $2,800 a year, and get no prior training. Recently a former army NCO, taken on to improve discipline in the wing, started a twoweek series of hour-long on-the-job classes. Fortyeight guards enrolled; thirteen “graduated.” One alumnus told me that the lesson he remembered most vividly was on how to untie the knot around the neck of a man who had hanged himself.

In one four-month spell early in 1957, four prisoners, all under twenty-one, committed suicide. No one will say how many others have done so since. In June of this year, more than a hundred mental-wing prisoners rioted. Four of them are still in punishment cells as this report is written. Two of them tried to injure themselves—in order to be moved to a real hospital—by eating steel bedsprings. Perhaps a quarter of the prisoners (that is as low an estimate as I was given), and certainly some of the guards, are homosexuals. Unspeakable acts are practised openly. There is no attempt to separate homosexuals from other prisoners, or old from young. Unruly prisoners are beaten into submission with fists, which sometimes axe clenched around jagged, protruding burrs of keys, and with the metal-tipped straps of straitjackets. But no testimony is more damning than the story of Robert Sauvé. To be fully understood, that story must go back to the boy’s beginnings.

Joseph Robert Sauvé was baptized the day he was found, newborn and abandoned, by the nuns of a Montreal crèche, September 23, 1936. At six, they sent him to an orphanage school, and he became a ward of the privately supported Société d’Adoption et de Protection de l’Enfance. In 1948, at the age of eleven, he was put up for adoption. No one wanted him. The same year he was—in fact if not in formal

terminology—rented out as indentured labor to the first of a dozen farmers he was to live with over the next few years. The farmers paid from $25 to $40 a month to the adoption society. Sauvé got about a dollar a month as spending money. He received some home tutoring, but was hopelessly behind his contemporaries. He was not a bright boy and, in his own words, “all they taught us at the orphanage was the catechism.”

In 1949, he left the first farmer and the adoption society placed him with another. These events were repeated, with varying but always limited success, until Robert was seventeen. In 1954, he was working as a hired hand for his twelfth farmer. This man, whom Sauvé has since described grimly as a cochon, worked him harder than any of the others. “I had always been in misery,” Robert said years later, “and when I fell into that place it was just an insult.” By this time, he was no longer formally a ward of the society and he got his full pay: $25 a month.

On December 12 of that year, Robert shot the farmer in the leg with a .22 calibre rifle he had bought for hunting. Then he went to the adoption society and confessed what he’d done. He was charged with attempted murder and taken to Bordeaux to await trial. The crown requested a mental examination. In February 1955, following two interviews, reports of which fill six and a half typewritten pages, and a WechslerBellevue intelligence test, Dr. J. Arthur Huard, superintendent of the Bordeaux mental wing, wrote to the sheriff of Montreal:

“. . . Sauvé presented no delusions, no psychosis . . . He is well oriented in time and place . . . His behavior in prison shows nothing abnormal . . . His intelligence level is a little below normal, but not to the point of preventing him from distinguishing right from wrong. I have not found the elements that would make me consider Joseph Robert Sauvé mentally ill . . . From the psychological point of view, it is well to remember that the accused is an illegitimate child . . .” In May—six months after he was originally confined —the charge was reduced to discharging a firearm with intent to wound. Sauvé was sentenced to two years and taken to St. Vincent-de-Paul penitentiary, whence he was shortly transferred to the Federal Training Centre at Laval, where young offenders may be treated separately from hardened criminals.

Sauvé was released on January 1 1, 1957. He was twenty. He made his way to Montreal, to the home of Paulin Benoit. Benoit, the first man Sauvé had worked for, on whose farm he stayed from July 1948 until October 1949, had since quit farming and moved to an apartment in eastern Montreal. He was the closest thing to a family Sauvé had known.

When the boy arrived at Benoit’s, he had only the suit he was given on release from prison and a few dollars. Everything else he owned, a change of clothes, a few comic books, a hunting knife, was in a valise that had been taken from him when he went to the penitentiary. When he was released, the valise had disappeared. Benoit found him a room in a boarding house and helped him get a job in the kitchen of a Montreal hospital.

Two weeks after his reCONTINUED ON PAGE 83


The prisoner of Bordeaux continued from page 17

The social worker accused Sauvé of saying;

4I don’t know why I didn’t knock you off’

lease, on the evening of January 25, Robert visited the Benoit apartment and complained, as he had on earlier occasions, about his missing valise. Paulin Benoit suggested he telephone Joseph Daoust, a social worker with the Société dAdoption et de Protection de l’Enfance. Daoust had been close to Sauvé’s case in earlier years, finding him the positions on farms and acting as a sort of liaison between Robert’s employers and the agency. Sauvé called Daoust at home. Daoust told him to call the provincial police, if he thought his valise had been stolen. Robert argued.

The precise relationship between young Sauvé and the social worker is difficult to establish. There is no formal record available. Daoust flatly refuses to talk about it. So does Canon Paul Contant, who was head of the agency in 1957. and Abbé Pierre Hurteau, who is head of it now. In Abbé Hurteau’s words, “the society cannot use its confidential material even to defend itself." In their conversation of January 25, according to Daoust, Robert accused him of having

treated him wrongly all through their relationship. Robert, frustrated by his inability to get satisfaction on the valise matter, said he would "like to meet Daoust in an alley some time.”

Two weeks later, on the seventh of February, Sauvé telephoned Daoust again. Again he asked for help in getting bis valise back. Again Daoust said it wasn't his responsibility. Sauvé mentioned that he had lost his job at the hospital. He said he didn't want to go to Daoust’s office. He also said, according to Daoust: “In any case you won’t live long enough to hear me talked about.” Two similar telephone conversations took place in the ensuing week.

Daoust did not hear further from the boy for two weeks. On the twenty-seventh, Robert appeared at his home. This is how Daoust has described that visit: "He refused to take off his coat and . . . kept his hat on ... he refused to sit down and had a threatening attitude but without clearly making any threats . . . with the exception of one time, when it was a question of coming to the office to see the director. He answered: ‘Oh him! If there is anyone out to stall me and do me harm it is him. He won’t for long.’ . . . He reproached us for not coming to see him in prison. His mien was not reassuring ... He left without saying bonsoir.”

On March 7, Robert telephoned again. He asked, Daoust said, for a job. (Sauvé denies this.) Then, according to Daoust, the boy said: “Do you know that I have always dreamed of taking someone with me when I die? I don't know why I didn’t knock you off when 1 was at

your place, because I regretted it as soon as I left.”

Shortly before that telephone call, Robert had got both a new job and his old valise. The job was at a drugstore in Outremont as a delivery boy. The valise

was obtained through the provincial police.

On Monday, March 11, two sergeants of detectives of the Quebec Provincial Police arrested Sauvé at the drugstore. On Tuesday, March 12, he was charged

with threatening Daoust and Canon Contant. On the same day he pleaded not guilty in summary conviction court, and his trial was postponed for eight days. The crown attorney suggested a mental examination. A letter from the sheriff’s

office to Dr. J. A. Huard at Bordeaux asked that he examine Sauvé. On March 15, the boy was transferred from the prison to the mental wing.

It is the common practice of psychiatrists, when making such an examination, to seek as much background on the patient as they can. Usually, this information comes from a member of the family. Sauvé had no family. Huard called the Société d'Adoption et de Protection de l’Enfance. He spoke to Joseph Daoust. It was agreed that Daoust would prepare a case history of Robert Sauvé.

This seven-page document gives, with names and dates, a tidy record of Sauvé’s early life and leads up to a detailed account of Sauvé’s five telephone calls and one visit—the substance of the grounds for the intimidation charges.

The version of the calls and visit used in this report is taken from Daoust’s case history. It has been called the accuser’s version. Technically, it may not be that, as Daoust categorically denies having laid the charge. (There is some doubt as to who called the police; Canon Contant also denies it.) But it is certainly the version of one of the “victims.”

At the time of Sauvé’s second arrest, Jacques Hébert, a writer whose easy personal manner disguises a crusader’s zeal, was editor and publisher of a newspaper called Vrai, a weekly tabloid with a flamboyant style and a passion for defending underdogs. Hébert had met Sauvé when the boy was first in Bordeaux, awaiting trial on the shooting charge. He read of the second arrest and renewed his interest.

The file was “borrowed”

That interest was evident in Vrai for more than a year. Hébert trumpeted regularly for the boy’s freedom. In 1958 he got an important assist. Sauvé’s complete file was “borrowed” overnight from Huard's office — v/ithout Hébert's connivance — and Hébert came into possession of photostatic copies of every document in it.

Included in the file was Daoust’s case history, a chronological account of virtually everything Sauvé had done. Hébert didn’t believe it. Over the next few months, Hébert spent his weekends in the country, tracking down the farmers with whom Sauvé had lived and neighbors who remembered the boy. The deeper he dug, the more he became convinced that the case history was unjust. From Hébert’s interviews emerged the picture of a gentle, retiring youth, often smiling, often wrapped in daydreams, a willing if somewhat slow worker whose deepest pleasure was in hunting, who found it difficult to reach out and make friends. One man recalled how Robert, taunted by a neighbor’s children, had sought and discovered his own anonymous origins. Heartbroken, he had hidden for days behind a mask of laughter.

This impression Hébert compared with a paragraph from Daoust's report entitled “aspects of the personal history”:

“Robert Sauvé has never been able to adapt himself to any family and seemed continually to live on the edge of reality . He never made friends his own age . . His aggressiveness sometimes led him to be cruel to animals (no farmer and no neighbor could recall any such incident for Hébert) . He suspected his companions of being out to get him and equipped himself with a knife of the dagger type, saying it was to protect himself ... His behavior suddenly became strange without apparent reason ... He is sulky, spiteful, irritable . . . The very act of advising him was sometimes enough to put

him off his work, even his food . . He

imagined that everyone • laughed at him . . .” There is more. It is all in the same tone.

One statement in Daoust's document plays a vital role in the eventual outcome of the case. “At the time of his last arrest, in March 1957,” Daoust wrote, "Robert was found in possession of a dagger-like knife, according to the declarations of the police.” In fact, the police found Robert’s knife in his boarding house, locked in his valise. Daoust's choice of words is important to note. He calls the knife “an couteau-poignard,” which is the precise equivalent of its English translation, “a knife-dagger,” in that it is awkward, redundant and almost never heard.

That is the background. On March 15, Robert was given a “preliminary examination” by Dr. Marius Denis. Aside from the briefest of physical descriptions ("normal build”) it consists of sixteen words that translate as: “Lucid, oriented, calm, but morals doubtful. A bit strange. Bravado. Smiles without great motive.”

On March 18, Huard himself examined Sauvé. His notes—a sort of clinical shorthand — take twenty typewritten lines. They speak of Sauvé’s term at the Federal Training Centre and of the two jobs he’d had since his release “It is felt now that he threatened (Daoust) to force him to find him a better job,” The rest of Huard’s notes deal with Paulin Benoit, and with the fact that Sauvé didn’t ask the police why they were arresting him.

It was after this examination that Huard asked for background material— from Daoust. On March 25. Daoust's case history^Ävas sent to the hospital

On April 2, Huard examined the boy again. This time, the notes occupy nineteen typewritten lines. They are io the same vein as the report of the March 18 interview. Two days later, Huard filled out a form that served to commit Sauvé to the mental wing of Bordeaux.

Meanwhile, Sauvé’s trial, begun on March 19, had been brought up and postponed again on March 26, April 2 and April 9. On April 16, Judge Irenée Lagarde of the summary conviction court ruled that the court had no further jurisdiction. The grounds for Judge Lagarde’s ruling, as he has since explained it, were that the Criminal Code of Canada forbids a judge or magistrate from postponing a trial in the absence of the accused — and therefore without his consent — unless the court issues a bench warrant. This had been done three times in Sauvé’s absence. The effect of Judge Lagarde’s ruling, in his own words, was to signify that “there was no charge outstanding against the accused.”

The form Huard filled out was in accordance with the province’s Act Respecting Lunatic Asylums. Only one doctor—it is usually the superintendent of the institution—needs to testify. Most of the information Huard wrote in the space labeled “actual illness” is a curt resumé of events from 1955 on. Two weeks after his liberation, says the form, .he threatened those who had helped him Periiaps the most significant sentence in this form is the last one. “At the time of his arrest in March 1957,” Huard wrote, “Robert Sauvé was found in possession of un couteau-poignard, according to the declarations of the police.” Except for one word, “last,” that is precisely the way the sentence appears in Daoust’s report, even to the awkward and unusual term “knife-dagger.”

On April 9, the deputy minister of health, signing for the minister, issued an ordinance directing that Sauvé be kept

“Sometimes we have to fmd a charge to lay against a dangerous man

in hospital “so he may be treated as a confined patient.”

There is no record of further examination of or treatment for Robert Sauvé until September of the same year — five months after he was committed. Other than routine blood and urine test reports, in fact, there is no document at all dated earlier than September 23. That is the date of a letter from Abbé Rodolphe Paquin, a priest who had known Sauvé since visiting him at the Federal Training Centre and had read about his recent arrest in Hébert's paper. Abbé Paquin’s letter talks of the “strange circumstances" that led to the arrest of the boy. Almost immediately after that letter was received, and before it was acknowledged, Sauvé was interviewed by three psychiatrists, including Huard. Again, the boy’s past was brought up. Again, the matter of the knife was raised, briefly. Then the conversation seems to have been steered to the subject of Abbé Paquin. The boy said he had known him for two years, that the Abbé had visited him during his trial and that he had had a formal attitude toward him. There is no record of further examination or treatment until May 6, 1958, when Huard interviewed the boy again and noted that he was working in Wing A, helping other patients, that he had now been in Bordeaux fourteen months and that he had affirmed once more that he had not threatened Joseph Daoust.

The next document is a “patient’s history,” dated September 1, 1958, nearly four months later. It says Robert has chestnut hair, that he is twenty-one, that he has a scar at the back of his scalp and no infirmities, that he answers questions willingly, that he is neither loquacious nor incoherent, that he had earlier made an attempt at murder, that he has no tendency to suicide but does have to violence, and that his most urgent need is a bath.

But no document is more revealing, or better sums up the tragedy of Robert Sauvé, than the five-line report of a mental examination conducted by Dr. Lucien Panaccio and dated September 26, 1958. Panaccio’s notes describe the patient as lucid, well oriented, with “intellectual weakness.” Again, it is pointed out that Sauvé spent two years in the Federal Training Centre. Then, say the notes: “Prognosis bad, if it is judged by the case history."

That was the last document in the file at the time Hébert obtained photostats of it.

It was enough. The weekly, Vrai, on the pages of which Hébert had crusaded for Sauvé’s freedom almost continuously since the second arrest, collapsed from lack of funds in 1958. But now, with the file of photostats and his interviews with Sauvé and people who had known him, Hébert was more than ever convinced the boy should be free. Hébert wrote a book called Scandale à Bordeaux in the fall of 1959. Georges-Emile Lapalme, now Quebec attorney-general but at that time an opposition MLA. made a speech about the case in the legislature. His questions were summarily dismissed by the government.

Ed Sommer, a Montrealer who has fought so hard for twenty-five years trying to establish his claim to a family estate that he has become learned in the law himself, telephoned Hébert last winter to suggest that an application for a writ of habeas corpus might be used to free Sauvé. Hébert went to work. He recruited a committee of nine lawyers,

carefully drawn from the ranks of Liberal, Conservative and CCF supporters to avoid any suggestion of party politics, and including such well-known figures as McGill professor Frank Scott, civil lawyer Benno Cohen and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, an editor of Cité Libre. Hébert and Sommer sat in. For nearly six months, they threshed out the difficult points of law. On July 6, accompanied by an affidavit signed by Sauvé, a petition for the writ was served. It was set for hearing on August 4. That day the hearing was postponed for a week. On August 10, Sauvé was released from Bordeaux. Since then, he has been living with Abbé Paquin. One of his first acts as a free man was to write a brief note of thanks to each of the committee members. The chore took him most of a day. He has found a job in the kitchen of a Montreal hospital. Next summer, he hopes to work in the Quebec bush.

While the lawyers—and perhaps other men—work for the freedom of the unjustly imprisoned, there is evidence now of improved conditions for those who must remain inside.

One reason for the improvements has been the appointment, in 1958, of Lt.Col. C. E. Gernaey as governor. Gernaey left his army post to take the job, and he has done much for sanitary conditions. Prisoners now get a clean sheet a week, and toothbrushes are distributed regularly. Many of these improvements have carried over into the mental wing. Another reason, though the authorities deny it, has been Hébert’s book. It is no longer possible, I have been told, to bribe a guard to put a fellow patient into a straitjacket. With the change in government, there will undoubtedly be more changes. The political strings attached to guards’ jobs are being cut, though there has been no talk of raising their pay.

Nor has there been talk of changing the statutes that made the Sauvé case possible. Perhaps the greatest legal problem involved is one pointed out a few years ago by the Royal Commission on Insanity as a Defense in Criminal Cases: There are some provinces where the provincial mental health act legislates at cross-purposes with the federal Criminal Code.

Under the Code, there is no way an arrested man’s freedom can be taken away from him on grounds of insanity unless the court hears authoritative evidence that he is insane. In Quebec, the signature of only one “duly qualified medical practitioner” can have a man who has been arrested committed indefinitely. Persons who have not been arrested, or charged with a crime, cannot be committed to a mental institution without the signature of two doctors, who have examined the patient separately.

But the real travesty in the Sauvé case lay not so much in the absence of safeguards as in the abuse of those that exist. Dr. Arthur Huard told me over his desk in Bordeaux: “Sometimes we have to find a technical charge to lay if someone is dangerous — just to get him in here, just to protect him from himself.”

How many others are being “protected from themselves” — unjustly? In spite of all the testimony that can be gathered from the outside, there is no way to answer that question precisely until every case in Bordeaux’s mental wing is reviewed. That is exactly what Quebec’s new government would like to and probably will do. There has already been an announcement of a projected probe of Bordeaux’s mental cases by the Quebec department of health. But, as AttorneyGeneral Lapalme said this fall: “That is not the only scandal we have to attack.

It will take a long time.”