ROBERT FULFORD September 21 1963


ROBERT FULFORD September 21 1963


Léopold Dion spent twenty years in our prisons for sex crimes. We gave him no psychiatric treatment, but we did give him his freedom —to kill four boys


What we can learn from

IN A COURTROOM at Quebec City on July 25, a paroled convict named Léopold Dion confessed that he had in recent weeks murdered four little boys. He had committed the most shocking series of sex crimes in Canada in this generation, and he described them now in detail for a coroner’s jury. As he spoke, an occasional sob or gasp broke through the stillness from the back of the room; the parents and relatives of the dead boys were there, along with the policemen and the reporters, to try to find out what had happened to their children, and why.

Since that day in July a few other people have also tried to understand why those children were killed, and as a result it now seems possible that the crimes of Leopold Dion will lead eventually to a change in the way Canadian prisons treat mentally sick criminals. For the fact is that long before Dion committed murder the federal government of Canada had a chance to treat his illness, or at least a chance to know how sick he was. This opportunity, it now seems apparent, was not seized.

At the same time, the Dion case may lead to a re-evaluation of the work of the National Parole Board. Dion had three times been convicted of sex crimes before he was paroled last September from Kingston penitentiary, and a judge who sentenced him once told federal parole officials that Dion should never be released. Dion was paroled under a system which began in 1959 when the newly organized National Parole Board took over the functions of the Department of Justice remissions service. Since then paroles have become much easier to get and the number of convicts paroled each year from penitentiaries has about doubled: it was 522 in 1958, 994 in 1959, and 1,005 in 1961 (about one in ten of them violate parole and return to the penitentiary).

Dr. Guy Marcoux, the Social Credit MP for Quebec-Montmorency, summed up one reaction to the killing of the four boys when he spoke in Parliament four days after Dion's confession: “Considering that sexual perverts are mentally sick, probably the criminal code should be amended so as to provide complete and adequate therapy for such people before they are eligible for parole.” This is just exactly what everybody who pretends to understand the subject has been saying for a generation: two royal commissions have said it. and so have dozens of psychiatrists and penologists. But this kind of therapy has never been provided in Canada, partly because various prison officials have always decided that something else had a better claim on the money available. As a result, the penitentiary service is peculiarly vulnerable in the Dion case, and it can reasonably be argued that those four children in Quebec were the victims not only

of a personality that was monstrously warped but also of a public policy that was — and is — seriously flawed. Dion’s case is far from typical, and no one will try to generalize from it. But it is the sort of extraordinary case that illuminates ordinary cases, throwing into relief everyday methods of operation and accepted habits of mind. What it illuminates, mainly, is a society that is still unable to follow its experts’ best advice and its own best instincts in the treatment of convicted criminals.

Dion was sentenced to prison for life in 1940 on a rape conviction. In 1956 he was paroled, but while on parole was convicted of a gross indecency involving a homosexual act with a fifteen-year-old. He was then returned to prison and kept there till last September, when the parole board decided once again that he should be set free. This combination of circumstances, and Dion's confession, aroused a furious public controversy. The deputy attorney-general of Quebec stepped out of his usual civil servant's anonymity long enough to condemn the National Parole Board for releasing Dion. The village council in Pont-Rouge, about twenty miles west of Quebec, where Dion lived when he committed the crimes, formally adopted a resolution stating that municipal officials had opposed Dion’s parole and furthermore that “Dion did not originate in Pont-Rouge but rather the city of Quebec.” Dr. Marcoux demanded a royal commission to investigate the parole board decision that freed Dion. Justice Minister Lionel Chevrier appointed a two - man board — a lawyer and a psychiatrist — to examine the case and report on the parole board’s actions.


For its part, the board maintained that correct procedures had been followed. Benoit Godbout, the executive director, said: “The board honestly believed, after examining many reports, that the man was ready and would probably do well on parole.” Mary Louise Lynch, a member of the board, told a Maclean’s reporter: “Well, we let him out in September and he didn’t go astray until recently. We released him after a very considerable examination.” The board refused to defend its decision in detail: the reports it had received were confidential and would remain so.

The decision to parole Dion will be debated for months, but the parole itself may turn out to be far less important than the things that happened to Dion before he was let loose. Psychiatrists have usually admitted that there is nothing easy about the treatment of sex criminals; there is no guarantee, in fact, that even the most intelligent psychotherapy will work, and the word “cure” is always shunned by psychiatrists working in this field. In

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In the pen Dion was a trusted prisoner who worked hard. He was not known as a homosexual

1958 the Royal Commission on the Criminal Law Relating to Criminal Sexual Psychopaths, under Mr. Justice J. C. Mc Ruer, heard expert testimony on the question of whether such criminals could be so treated that they could return to human society and live normal lives. The answer, the commission decided, was in doubt. But the commission came eventually to the conclusion that most civilized men have reached in modern times — the state should try. In the case of Leopold Dion, it can he argued, the state did not try very hard . . .

A HUGE MAN sobbing in the witness box, handcuffed on cither side to a policeman, Dion told the Quebec City coroner’s jury how he had picked up the four boys — one on April 20, two of them together on May 5, another on May 26 — in a car, taken them to isolated places in the country, and strangled them when they resisted his attempts to use them sexually. The first time, Dion said, he killed out of fear: ”1 didn’t want him to tell anybody because I would have to go back to the penitentiary.” The remaining three boys he apparently expected to kill, for he seems to have made some preparations.

After he told his story, the jury judged Dion criminally responsible, and the following day he was charged with murder. Dion is now in the hands of an institution, the prison at Quebec. For him this is not unusual; of his forty-three years, he has already spent more than thirty in various institutions.

He was horn in 1920, the son of a Canadian army sergeant, and he contracted tuberculosis as an infant. He was placed in a hospital staffed by nuns, and there he spent much of his childhood, being visited once a week by his parents. When he was eleven he was told he had grown strong and could go home, and he arrived just in time for Christmas. He found his brother, Rolland — the only other child — a stranger, but that was still as close to a happy Christmas as anything he could remember. His happiness ended just four days after it started; his father and mother had decided to separate and put their sons in an orphanage. Again Dion was placed in the care of nuns, and he stayed with them till he was fourteen, when they sent him home to his mother. Immediately he was sent to another orphanage, this one run by religious brothers. Rolland Dion recalls now that his brother’s one desire in those years was to get away from institutions; finally, Leopold persuaded his father to take him home, and at sixteen he left the orphanage. He was strong; he worked with his father in a rock quarry from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.. and he grew stronger. Rolland and Léopold occasionally saw their mother in this period, bv bicycling thirty miles to her home.

The record shows that it was on Aug. 31, 1937, at the age of seventeen, that Dion first came into contact with the law. He was convicted of gross indecency and sent to jail for four months. Two years later, in 1939, shortly after he joined the army, he was charged with an offense far more serious: the attempted murder of a prostitute. He was acquitted on this charge, hut the judge who heard the case later wrote that "he escaped justice. by lack of evidence, when he was clearly guilty ...” Then in April 1940, he and his brother Rolland were charged with the rape of a young woman on a lonely stretch of railroad track near Pont-Rouge. Rolland had a rifle, Léopold a knife. They threatened the woman, raped her, and threatened to kill her if she went to the police. She testified against them and Léopold received a life sentence and the lash, Rolland ten years in the penitentiary. (Rolland was notin trouble again: today he has a wife and children and a steady job.)

From that point until 1956, the federal government of Canada had Léopold Dion in its care in the St. Vincent de Paul penitentiary at Montreal.

Dion was in some ways a model prisoner. He kept to himself, worked hard, learned something of the tinsmith’s craft, and for some time was in charge of stores in the metalwork shop. He was trusted to handle tools that could have been dangerous in the hands of a dangerous man, but there is no record that he misused them. He was never involved in a serious incident with any other prisoner, and people who were in the prison at the time claim that he was not known as a homosexual. Prisoners usually dislike sex criminals and keep away from them, and apparently most of the convicts at St. Vincent kept away from Dion.

In these years, Dion and his fellow prisoners in the Canadian penitentiaries were the subject of some significant public debates. In the 1930s the new science of penology was making its influence felt in Canada, and penal reform was an issue in parliament. Agnes Macphail, the Toronto CCF member, among others, was demanding that the prison system he radically revised. In 1936 the government set up a Royal Commission to Investigate the Penal System of Canada, under

Mr. Justice Joseph Archambault. The commission uncovered a prison system which was antiquated and incompetently run. which offered convicts few opportunities for reform, and which relied heavily on brutality. The commission recommended that Canada stop emphasizing punishment of prisoners and instead try to reform as many of them as possible. One of the Archambault commission's discoveries was that there were no psychiatrists attached to Canadian penitentiaries, and on this point, following the most humane advice of the time, the commission made its feelings clear:

“It is now generally recognized that the services of a psychiatrist are also essential if a thorough examination is to be made and proper treatment is to be given to each individual prisoner . . .

“From that point of view it is necessary that a full-time . . . psychiatrist should be provided for the larger institutions, and, at least, a part-time . . . psychiatrist for the smaller ones."

One psychiatrist for 1,200 men

When Leopold Dion arrived at St. Vincent de Paul in 1940 there was no full-time psychiatrist. When he left there in 1956, on his first parole, there was still no full-time psychiatrist. There is none today.

While Dion was there, however, St. Vincent dc Paul had one part-time psychiatrist (five half-days a week) to deal with whatever psychiatric problems might arise among twelve hundred men. Dr. Bruno Cormier of McCiill University held the part-time position at St. Vincent de Paul in 1956, and holds it still. He saw Dion. But he did not give him anything that could be called psychotherapy, and Dr. Cormier would be the last man to claim he did.

“With that many prisoners," Dr. Cormier said recently, “you have to he acutely ill to be treated. We provide for emergencies, that's ail we can do. You may have thirty patients hospitalized, you have to make reports to the parole board, and that takes up most of your time." A prisoner who can function — who can walk around

and look normal, as Dion did — rarely gets to see the psychiatrist, no matter what his crime may have been. Today Dr. Cormier says:

“If someone can give me the name of one penitentiary prisoner in Canada w'ho has received proper psychotherapy, I w'ould be very interested in knowing the name of the institution involved."

Dion was paroled from St. Vincent de Paul in 1956. The following year he was in trouble again, when his sec-

ond conviction for gross indecency sent him back to jail. He was transferred to Kingston Penitentiary in 1958.

That was the year Mr. Justice McRuer's commission reported on the law relating to sexual psychopaths. The published report included a statement from Dr. J. M. O'Connor, who was at that time spending five halfdays a week as a psychiatrist at Kingston. When asked about possible treatment of those sentenced as criminal

sexual psychopaths, he stated:

“To put it very bluntly. 1 am not making any effort to treat anyone so convicted in Kingston Penitentiary, because the attendant difficulties to therapy are so great as to make it very questionable if I am not wasting my time . . . The pressure from the mentally sick in the prison and those who are actually disturbed is so great that 1 can scarcely keep up with it, let alone try long-term intensive therapy which is what these people would re-

quire if one is going to do anything. Seeing them once a month is useless.”

In 1962 Léopold Dion, in Kingston Penitentiary, was seeing the psychiatrist once a month—twenty-five years after his first conviction for gross indecency, twenty-two years after his conviction for rape, and five years after his second conviction for gross indecency.

But that once-a-month appointment with the psychiatrist was an improvement on the treatment available to Dion when he entered penitentiary — not the sort of improvement likely to make much difference, but an improvement nevertheless. As A. J. MacLeod, the commissioner of penitentiaries, puts it, “It’s probably true that not everyone who can profit from psychiatric care can get it, but the amount of attention available is probably five times what it was twenty years ago.” Twenty years ago, of course, there was almost none at all.

Bad buildings and underpaid workers

The penitentiary system which MacLeod runs has, on its approved establishment, places for nineteen full-time psychologists as well as the part-time psychiatrists. Of these positions, only nine are filled at the moment because the salary, about $5,500 a year, isn’t high enough to attract the sort of skilled professional psychologist who might be of some help to the prisoners. And this is the sort of problem MacLeod has been grappling with ever since he became commissioner in 1960: the prison system is full of bad buildings and underpaid workers. The prison population increased by thirtyfive percent during the period 19571962, but the space didn’t increase nearly that much. The prisons are overcrowded, and even the ordinary prisoners, those who don’t require any highly specialized help, are not properly cared for. (Edward Murphy’s report on St. Vincent de Paul which accompanies this article, describes conditions there today.)

These considerations aren’t as remote from the more abrasive issue, Dion’s parole, as they might seem at first glance. If Dion had been involved in psychotherapy, the parole board might have had a chance to know more about him than it did know; if the penitentiary service had an adequate staff of psychologists, perhaps they would have helped to prepare more adequate assessments of Dion’s chances outside. But even within these limitations, did the parole board take

every precaution before it released Dion in 1962? That question was raised by Charles Edouard Cantin, the quiet, experienced deputy attorneygeneral of Quebec. His public statement after Dion's confession was that of an appalled and deeply disturbed public official.

Cantin had turned up in the files a letter that Judge Lucien Cannon wrote to the federal remissions service about Dion in 1941. Judge Cannon had tried Dion both for the attempted murder and the rape, and he wrote: “I maintain that he ought to remain in prison for his whole sentence (life), taking into consideration his past record and the atrocious nature of the rape of which he was found guilty. I don't think parole should ever be granted." In 1944the Quebec attorney-general's office was asked to comment on parole for Dion, and it merely supported Judge Cannon’s statement. In 1956, when parole was actually granted, the attorney-general's department was not consulted; nor was it consulted. Cantin said, before the second parole was granted, last year.

Cantin spoke to Judge T. G. Street, the chairman of the National Parole Board, after the murder of the four boys, and now he told reporters:

"To my great astonishment. Judge George Street, who admitted having signed the parole papers for Dion, said that he had never seen Judge Cannon's letter nor those of the attorneygeneral's department of Quebec.

"What is more grave. Judge Street did not recall that after Dion's parole in 1956, he was arrested and condemned for gross indecency. His memory did not seem to go farther than the examination of comportment files at Kingston and the reports of the psychologists and psychiatrists.”

On all these issues. Judge Street simply says that they are still before the courts and still before parliament, and it would be inappropriate for anyone from the board to comment on them.

“WE EMPHASIZE AGAIN." wrote Mr. Justice McRuer and his colleagues in 1958. "that responsible medical authorities do not take an optimistic view of the possibility of successful treatment of sexually perverted per-

sons. and that the public mind should be disabused of the idea that there are known ‘cures.' Nevertheless, in view of the fact that in some cases persons of this class have been helped toward recovery, every effort should be put forth both within and without penal institutions to assist those who may be helped.”

The case of Leopold Dion provides another argument in support of the McRuer Commission's findings. Psychiatrists can learn about sex criminals

only by treating them: and they must learn far more than they know now before they can find ways to prevent disastrous errors like the Dion parole. Probably the events near Quebec City last spring will move the country a step closer to the point at which the efforts the McRuer Commission described will actually be put forth. Meanwhile, Léopold Dion .has been charged on four counts of capital murder, the mandatory penalty for which is death by hanging. ★