Alberta PC leader candidate Ric McIver spoke outside the Michener Centre Thursday alongside Diane Esslinger

McIver vows to uphold promise to keep Michener open

Several down, one more to go.

Several down, one more to go.

Only Jim Prentice is holding up the line.

Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Ric McIver drove his truck into town Thursday afternoon, and declared at the entrance of Michener Centre that he would right a broken promise if he becomes premier of Alberta.

Those Michener residents who reside there now will be able to stay. Those who have been moved out, and were there when the initial promise was made that they could stay, can return if they want, he said.

The promise he is referring to is the one made by the Ed Stelmach Progressive Conservative government that residents would be able to live their lives out at Michener Centre.

But, as political promises are wont to go, the province announced last year that older buildings at Michener would close, and 120 of the centre’s most severely developmentally disabled residents would be relocated.

McIver now joins the growing list of high-profile politicians who have seen the light — pushing society’s most vulnerable citizens out of their longtime home isn’t such a smart idea.

In fact, some would argue, it’s a brutal idea. Sometimes humanity must trump fiscality. Michener Centre is one of those times.

Diane Esslinger and Joyce Tona attended McIver’s mini press conference. Both have a loved one at Michener.

Esslinger’s brother Larry, 52, has lived at Michener Centre for 50 years. He has cerebral palsy, a severe seizure disorder and a profound cognitive disorder.

Tona’s daughter Diane, 50, has been at Michener since she was six years old. She is also profoundly disabled.

They are appreciative of McIver’s stance. He joins Thomas Lukaszuk, also a PC leadership candidate, who said earlier he would stop “any closure of the centre until the best interests of residents are considered and options for additional uses of the centre are explored.”

The Liberals and NDP have also said the centre should not close.

And the Wildrose Party has joined in, saying Michener should remain open for residents who are still there.

A number of these politicians have toured Michener Centre over recent months, at the request of families and others who are fighting the closure.

One wonders if there weren’t more politicians there lately than residents.

But there’s one key politician who hasn’t made it yet.

Esslinger says several invitations have gone out to PC leadership candidate Jim Prentice. Since he’s generally viewed as the heir apparent to the PC leadership, and therefore Alberta’s next premier for an unknown period of time, his views on the future of Michener Centre are critical.

But so far he has not taken up an invitation to visit Michener, said Esslinger.

“We heard from his staffers who say that he is very, very busy . . . the other PC leadership candidates are equally busy so we hope that Mr. Prentice can also find time to visit with us, and meet Larry.”

Prentice did say in June: “I’ve made it clear that I will meet with families at Michener Centre. I will go to the centre. I will meet with representatives of families who are concerned about the issue. And I’ll speak to it once I’ve done that.”

The door continues to close on more and more of the 120 residents involved. Over 30 people have been moved, and the process continues.

There’s word that some of the residents who have been moved out have since died.

When I ask McIver about this, he says: “I have heard that. . . . I haven’t heard a lot of detail. . . . I don’t have enough information to pass judgement. . . . Were their deaths brought on more early because of their leaving? . . . I don’t know the answer to that.”

Esslinger says they’re being told that people with development disabilities do better in the community.

“Well my brother is not able to live in independently. . . . He is completely and utterly dependent on the staff here for all of his needs.”

She doesn’t believe her brother would survive if he has to leave Michener.

“All that government needs to do is wait and let these people live out the rest of their natural lives in comfort and surrounded by all that is familiar to them and cared for by people who love them.” Her voice wavers. “And eventually there will be no more need for this centre because these people will have reached the end of their lives. . . . Let these people finish their lives here.”

But by the time all is said and done, and all the politicians have come and gone, will it have been too late?

Esslinger wants an immediate halt to the evictions and a promise to keep Michener Centre open.

Meanwhile, on a summer’s hot and sunny afternoon, Michener Centre is the only place in Red Deer where you can drive or walk around and be guaranteed a friendly wave from a resident out for a stroll.

Sometimes even a free hug gets handed out.

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