In Montreal in the early 1920s, four different juries declined to convict Abbot Joseph-Adélard Delorme of murdering his half-brother. The abbot was a man of the cloth and this was Catholic Quebec. After a verdict of insanity at his first trial, a frustrated pathologist exhumed Raoul Delorme’s body to show a second jury his skull with the bullet lodged in it. That jury and a third both failed to reach a verdict; Delorme was finally acquitted at his fourth trial. Yet somehow his brother’s skull was never returned to the grave.
Instead it became part of a forensics collection and has been displayed multiple times over the years, most recently in 2018-19 at the Musée de la Civilisation (MCQ) in Quebec City, despite increasing debate in the international museum community about the ethics of collecting human remains. And yet, 101 years after Delorme’s murder, a researcher can’t get access to photographs of those public exhibits. Information that only a few years ago was widely available is now locked down, as the Quebec coroner’s office and the museum itself argue it shouldn’t have shown the skull in the first place.
“We aren’t seeing justice appropriately executed,” said researcher Jamie Jelinski, an art historian who has been waging a five-year-long access to information battle to see photographs of the forensics collection. “We are seeing provincial institutions that are supposed to provide honest information about the history of Quebec providing partial information … to support officially sanctioned narratives.”
The narrative that Jelinski thinks is blocking his access is the lionization of Wilfrid Derome, Quebec’s crusading pathologist and a pioneer of modern forensics. Yet if Derome is a much respected figure in Quebec – the Sûreté du Québec’s Montreal police headquarters is named for him – his methods in collecting specimens from crime victims without their families’ consent would not be permissible today. As well as an album of crime scene and autopsy photography, the collection includes the Delorme skull, the bones of a 16-year-old murdered in the 1930s and tattoos taken from the body of 1929 murder victim Mildred Brown. That was the material that first caught Jelinski’s attention in 2016 while he was writing his PhD thesis, now forthcoming from McGill-Queen’s University Press under the title Needle Work: A History of Commercial Tattooing in Canada.
“What I’m looking for now is some kind of posthumous justice for poor and working people who were not only subjected to great violence leading to their deaths, but their bodies were subjected to violence afterward by the authority who is tasked with investigating and providing justice for these people. Medical and legal norms 100 years ago were different than they are now, but I believe that Dr. Wilfrid Derome was working outside the parameters of his task as a forensic scientist. Now we have this effort by several government stakeholders in Quebec to sanitize that narrative.”
Jelinski finds himself caught in an access to information wonderland in which officials deny him documents and photographs by citing privacy concerns that their own institutions have ignored for decades. Puzzled as to why the museum would not show him material it had previously exhibited, the researcher pushed further: He has now filed more than 60 applications for information about the forensics collection and its exhibition, and more than 11 appeals of denials or redactions. The results include page after page of standard museum installation photographs where black boxes obscure the objects that were on public display.
Secret Canada, a continuing Globe and Mail investigation into the country’s access regimes, has revealed that public institutions skirt access laws, also known as freedom of information laws, by overusing redactions, failing to meet legislated timelines and claiming “no records” exist when they do. And these institutions face few – if any – consequences for ignoring the precedents set by courts and information commissioners.
The Commission d’accès à l’information du Québec has ruled against Jelinski while, in a closely related case, the Information Commissioner of Canada has ruled in his favour, but the Quebec coroner’s office has taken that ruling to Federal Court.
“It turns out that the MCQ should never have shown human remains, due to the Coroners Act,” museum press officer Agnès Dufour wrote in French in response to questions from The Globe and referring to the law that requires the coroner to protect individuals’ privacy. “The museum acted in good faith according to the practices that were agreed upon with the forensics lab,” which loaned the material to the museum for 25 years in 1997. “Since then the museum has became aware of this situation and modified its practices. Today, and in the future, this situation couldn’t be repeated.”
(The Quebec coroner’s office declined to comment on the case because of its pending court case, but did say that the human remains were returned to the forensics lab, the Sûreté's Laboratoire de sciences judiciaires et de médecine légale, in 2020. The museum said it is now negotiating the future of the rest of the collection.)
Still, the museum said it took on the collection in 1997 on the understanding it was being loaned for purposes of conservation and exhibition. The coroner’s office apparently never raised any concerns about the public display of the remains until Jelinski asked to see them; Derome’s biographer, Jacques Côté, got full access for a 2003 book about the pathologist. Meanwhile, Jelinski’s suggestion that he view items in the collection privately has produced no results while his many access to information requests work their way slowly through the system. He now plans to write a book about using access to information legislation to study cultural material, and added he is not necessarily opposed to the display of human remains, depending a lot on the context. The Derome collection, for instance, in his view, should not be shown without a full explanation of how it was collected. “What I’m trying to do, essentially,” Jelinski said, “is tell this history from the point of view of these individuals, rather than institutional and government power brokers.”
In a decision last summer, the Quebec access to information commission rejected Jelinski’s appeal of the museum’s refusal to let him see 57 photographs of the displays of human remains in four exhibitions held over a period of 14 years. Judge Marc-Aurèle Racicot argued that it was irrelevant that visitors and other researchers had previously seen the material; he sided with the coroner’s office, an intervenor in the case, arguing that because the remains could be used to identify people they represented an infringement of their privacy rights. Racicot cited a precedent showing that these rights extend beyond death.
However, experts in privacy law disagree.
“Once something has been publicly displayed the right to privacy has been extinguished,” said Halifax privacy and access to information lawyer David Fraser. “They seem to be putting a lot of effort into fighting something that just seems dumb. … Is there any incremental privacy invasion that would happen if they provided images to a researcher?”
Similarly, Mariève Lacroix, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and expert in civil liability, argues that the dead do not have the privacy rights of the living because they are no longer legal persons, and that it falls to their family or descendants to protect their personal information or their image.
“If you take the skull of my mother or my father and you put it in a museum, that causes me a harm, a prejudice. But you can’t say that you have invaded the private life of the dead because the dead can no longer exercise that right.” She also questioned whether the Quebec coroner’s law applies since the coroner’s office did not seek permission to keep the remains and so couldn’t claim to be their rightful owner.
The museum, which showed some of the Derome material in four different shows between 2005 and 2019, most recently in a 2018-19 exhibition devoted to oddities in its collections, seems to have awoken belatedly to contemporary controversy over the display of human remains. Across North America, museums are busy returning Indigenous remains that archeologists had removed from burial sites without consulting communities, while scholars debate the ethics of showing historic bodies preserved in bogs and ancient mummies. Last month, the American Museum of Natural History in New York announced that it will no longer exhibit human remains and is reviewing its collection. Critics have questioned the practices of the institution, which holds the remains of 12,000 individuals – most of whom never donated their bodies to science – including Indigenous people, enslaved people exhumed from a New York graveyard in 1903, and unclaimed bodies of poor New Yorkers given to medical schools in the 1940s.
Unlike Indigenous remains, the Derome remains are unusual because several of them can be traced to named individuals who died within the past century. The Quebec coroner’s office has stressed the confidentiality issues at stake, broadly describing the collection as one that includes the remains of identifiable people who died between 1900 and 1975, but lawyers debate how long the dead maintain any right to have personal information kept private.
“It’s a messy area,” Fraser said, pointing out that there is no consistency between federal privacy rules (which only extend the right 20 years after death) and provincial ones. There have been contradictory decisions in Jelinski’s case, which is now embroiled in a federal-provincial dispute.
Jelinski hit upon the idea of applying to a different institution to see the same material because one of the four shows, a 2005-06 exhibition about forensics entitled Autopsy of a Murder, originated at the Montreal Science Centre. Because the centre is located in the Old Port of Montreal, it falls under federal jurisdiction, like all ports. The Information Commissioner of Canada ruled in his favour and ordered the Science Centre to release information to him.
“Le Musée [de Civilisation] asserts that the photographs should be withheld out of respect for the dignity of the deceased. However, it is difficult to reconcile this assertion with the fact that these items were on display to the public in an exhibit, and that photographs of some of the remains are available online,” the commission wrote in its decision.
The information commissioner pointed out that the only three people in the collection who could actually be identified, Delorme, Mildred Brown and the 16-year-old murder victim whose bones were included, had all been dead more than 65 years. Nonetheless, the Quebec coroner’s office sued to block the decision, so the Science Centre cannot release the material until the Federal Court rules.
Meanwhile when Jelinski applied to Ingenium, the science centre in Ottawa that also hosted the Autopsy of a Murder show in 2006, information was withheld from him on several grounds, including the risk that releasing it might damage federal-provincial relations. After Jelinski lodged a complaint, the federal information commissioner is now investigating that refusal.
“My take as a privacy and access to information lawyer is that this fight is absurd and a waste of public funds,” Fraser said.