Michener Centre residents can live out their lives at the place that many have called home for decades.
Premier Jim Prentice made the announcement at a news conference at Michener Centre on Friday morning.
Prentice vowed that the facility will not close on his watch. He said he will continue to protect the most vulnerable and most disadvantaged citizens in the province for as long as he is premier.
“They had a promise from previous governments and previous premiers that they will be able to live out their lives at the Michener Centre. I intend to make sure that happens,” said Prentice.
Prentice said it is extremely inhumane to relocate severely disabled Albertans from their homes in the “autumn of their lives.”
The news drew a standing ovation from the crowd of about 50 family members, politicians and local community members.
In March 2013, the government headed by former premier Alison Redford announced the gradual closure of the facility, sending shock waves across the province. Eighty-two residents were assigned to move into new group homes and seniors residences.
The closure plan triggered an outpouring of protest, with rallies in Red Deer and Edmonton.
Thousands put up lawns signs in support of Michener and Keep Michener Open supporters marched in Red Deer’s Westerner Days parade in July 2013 and 2014. A variety of public groups, including Red Deer city council, asked the province to keep the centre open.
Calls to halt the closure became more vehement after reports this summer that five Michener Centre residents died within months of their transfers.
“The families that have stood together and fought to keep Michener Centre I think they will be pleased by the decision,” said Prentice. “I think they will see this is a new Progressive Conservative government. I look forward to working with them to make sure their loved ones are taken care of properly.”
The 46 residents who have already left the facility and those who were waiting for new homes can return or stay in the new accommodations.
Part of the reason Michener Centre was slated to close was the dilapidated state of the decades-old buildings on the north site. The 13 residents who live on the north site will move to the south site. The north site will ultimately close.
In a letter to families and guardians, Naresh Bhardway, associate minister of persons with disabilities, said the government remains steadfast in its belief and commitment to community living and inclusion.
Bill Lough, Society of Friends and Family of Michener Centre president, said he is absolutely elated that the province took a firm position to keep Michener open and respect the wishes of those who wanted to remain.
“I think that has been our cry for years under the Moving Ahead report that no one would be forced to leave Michener,” said Lough. “And now this is being recognized and respected. It will bring a great amount of relief to a lot of families.”
But Lough has heard the promises before, including from former premier Ed Stelmach.
“Politicians move accordingly,” he said. “But I do feel that there is sincerity in the approach Premier Prentice has taken. … As long as we have open and honest dialogue with families at Michener, then we can move forward. There are no assurances. We know that.”
Wildrose Human Services and Seniors critic Kerry Towle called the decision a monumental victory for the families and residents of Michener Centre. She said 18 months ago the PC government made a terrible and wrong decision on all levels.
“While I am appreciate today, the victory goes to the families who fought for this,” said the Innisfail-Sylvan Lake Wildrose MLA. “The decision could have been made right so many months ago.”
Red Deer North PC MLA Mary Anne Jablonski did not hold make her emotions when she addressed media about a cause that has been close to her heart since the closure was 18 months ago.
“I am pleased,” said Jablonski. “(Premier Prentice) gets it. This is about the people. These people were promised they could live their lives out here or they could choose to leave. It’s about choice, too. Our premier understands that. What good does it do if you make this a great province but you don’t care for the vulnerable in a good way?”
Prentice said he made his decision after spending time at Michener Centre with residents and family members in August. Prentice visited residents in one of the group homes in Westlake after Friday’s news conference.
“These are people who do not have the opportunities that the rest of us have in life,” said Prentice. “The least we can do is ensure that they are comfortable, that they are in a family setting, that they are in a setting they know and where they feel at home. That’s what today’s decision is about.”
Alberta Infrastructure is working closely with the community on future site planning.
Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer said this was a good day for the families and residents in Michener Centre.
Veer also said Michener Centre is an important community resource. The city worked closely with local MLAs to fight the closure.