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Alberta’s Michener Centre can’t shake sordid history

Bill Lough, the head of a group of Michener Centre supporters, says his brother David received loving, stable care at the home for more than 20 years.

Jason Franson/The Globe and Mail

It is, to some, a monument of an era best forgotten – one where the developmentally disabled were shunned, shut away and even sterilized. It's a history the Michener Centre won't shake. But it's all a far cry from today.

Ninety years after its construction, the facility in Red Deer, Alta., still houses 125 adults with developmental disabilities. But it's not the institution of old. The residents, of varying high needs, live there voluntarily. Most have lived there for decades, and many walk freely around the grounds and neighbourhood. There's a public pool and curling rink, and old buildings have been converted to offices.

Advocates say it's now a top-tier care centre, and has won awards for excellence. But it is being targeted as governments across Canada rush to do away with anything even resembling an institution.

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Alberta announced this week that Michener will close next year, against the wishes of many of its residents and their families.

MLA Frank Oberle, the government's point man on persons with disabilities, said the decision was simply "about evolving models of care."

Governments everywhere prefer "community care," or group homes, for people with developmental disabilities, rather than large-scale, "institutionalized" care, which is seen as archaic.

Saskatchewan closed a similar facility last year. With Michener's closing, only Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia will still use larger-scale institutions, according to the Canadian Association for Community Living. Collectively, they have no more than 1,000 residents. Michener alone once had double that.

The decision stunned the families of residents, many of whom say the dogmatic closing of institutions will short-change those who live in the decidedly un-institutional Michener of today.

"It's actually shameful is what it is," said Peter Keohane, whose sister has lived at Michener for 46 years. "And the whole time she has been there, there's never been a fence. There's never been barbed wire. There's never been eugenics. There's never been that stuff. There's been a bunch of people who have struggled through life, trying to do the best for their families."

The Michener Centre was built in 1923 as a training school for "mental defectives," a part of the Alberta government's eugenics program, in which 2,844 people were sterilized.

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One was Leilani Muir, a Michener resident sterilized in 1959. She later fled and eventually sued the province.

In 1996, a court ruled Ms. Muir was "improperly detained" at what is now Michener, in "an atmosphere that so little respected Ms. Muir's human dignity that the community's, and the court's, sense of decency is offended."

She was awarded $740,000 and is now among those celebrating Michener's imminent demise.

"I will try to be the one there to bulldoze those buildings down," the 68-year-old said. "There's a lot of ghosts in those buildings. And they're not good. They're not good."

That era ended 40 years ago, when the province stopped the eugenics program and modernized Michener and its services. The city of about 92,000 has grown up around it. A continuing care centre next door opened three years ago with 280 assisted living spaces in one complex.

"Why is it okay to treat seniors that way, but not people with developmental disabilities?" Bill Lough, president of a group of supporters of the facility, asked this week. His brother, David, lived at Michener for 27 years before his death in 2010. Mr. Lough remains an advocate.

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"There's no isolation here. The model has become independent living," he said.

Supporters argue the institution has fallen victim to advocates of community-based care – their "professional zealotry," as Mr. Keohane phrased it, has put governments under pressure to close facilities. "For Mr. Oberle to say this idea of care is antiquated and outdated is totally wrong," Mr. Lough said.

Opposition critics warn that Alberta doesn't have sufficient group-home capacity to handle the residents. Many group homes are privately run, and critics say the care will be of lower quality.

Mr. Oberle said there is no easy answer. "I'll tell you, I take absolutely no glee in doing what I'm doing," he said, concluding that staffing a centre for what is now just 125 voluntary residents "doesn't make any sense."

About 120 more people live across the street from Michener in group homes that the government plans to keep open. Advocates see it as all the same facility.

Institutions don't allow people with developmental disabilities to flourish, said Michael Bach, executive vice-president of the Canadian Association for Community Living. Closing Michener keeps Alberta in line with other jurisdictions, he said.

"That really reflects the discussion that's been going across the country and, indeed, around the world," he said, adding that families are typically resistant to change, but then see improvement in their loved ones.

But the Michener families say the sudden decision will only hurt the residents. In 2006, they were asked whether they'd like to stay or be moved. Mr. Lough said more than 90 per cent asked to stay. The closing marks the end of a slow decline in numbers of residents for a facility with a sordid past, but one that few wanted to leave.

"It is the most ham-handed, unprofessional thing [Mr. Oberle] could have done," Mr. Keohane said. "And it affects hundreds of lives."


The Michener Centre opened in 1923 as the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives.

It was central to the province's eugenics program. Between 1928 and 1972, the Alberta government sterilized 2,844 people with the goal of preventing them from having children with similar developmental disabilities.

The election of Peter Lougheed's Progressive Conservatives brought a stop to the practice, but the Michener Centre, as it's now known, stayed open.

It was the legal battle of Leilani Muir that turned the tide. Ms. Muir, sterilized in 1959 at the age of 15, sued in 1995, and the government admitted wrongdoing – it could have had the case thrown out because so much time had passed.

A court ruled Ms. Muir was "improperly detained," her sterilization conducted "in an atmosphere that so little respected Ms. Muir's human dignity that the community's, and the court's, sense of decency is offended." Ms. Muir was awarded $740,000. Others who were sterilized later settled out of court.

Meanwhile, the centre has continued to operate.

"It certainly has a dark history. I can tell you none of the families look at the facility that way," says Frank Oberle, Alberta's associate minister for persons with developmental disabilities.

Michener has been slowly closed down. It stopped accepting new residents years ago, and all its current residents are voluntary. About 240 residents use the site, but some live in nearby group homes. The 125 living in the main facility will be moved into group-homes across the province. Advocates argue it will be unduly harsh on the residents, many of whom are senior citizens.

The fate of the rest of the grounds is unclear, although much of it has already been sold or refitted. The most notorious building – the original school, a stately, three-storey building – is now an office for provincial health bureaucrats.

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