“This so-called closure of Michener is nothing new,” says the centre’s one-time CEO Gordon Stangier, “It’s been going on for years.”
In many ways, that is true — the Michener Centre of today is a shell of its late-1960s apex, when it served as the definitive place for Alberta’s mentally handicapped population. About 215 people reside there now; 2,365 lived there then.
But if not new, the brusqueness of the provincial government announcement one year ago that the centre’s old institutional buildings would close, forcing about 125 residents out of their homes, resulted in shocked families and galvanized an opposing force emphatic in its stance that Michener is the best possible home for those who still live there.
The debate has raged since the announcement between two camps, who appear perfectly polarized.
Talk to them, though, and a different picture emerges — community living advocates sympathize with anguished parents; those protesting endorse community living, just not for their loved ones.
Like the present, the history of the institution is rich in complexity. Former staff speak of the inhumanity of stripping residents naked en masse to wash them with scrub brushes, but also of taking them on vacations to Disneyland or having them over for birthday parties.
For Leilani O’Malley, before the pain caused by the sterilization she was subjected to at Michener nearly drove her to end her life, her entrance into the institution gave her some semblance of a normal childhood and may have saved her life in the first place. An unloving, abusive mother confined her there at age 10, but also enabled her to leave for good a decade later.
Whatever one’s opinion, the evolution of the centre named for a former governor general is undeniable. Dwellers once labelled morons, imbeciles and mental defectives are today simply residents or, to some, survivors.
Red Deer became the central point for the province’s mentally handicapped by chance, because it had a large, underused building already in place. In the nine decades since the original Provincial Training School opened, there has been no more important or enduring institution in the city.
As the government pledges to push forward with closure and families gear up for a legal challenge they hope will keep the centre open, the issue of what will happen to the last bastion of mental handicap institutionalization in Alberta is unclear.
Over the next two and a half weeks, beginning on Saturday, the Advocate will bring you Michener Centre: The Closing Doors, a series by Red Deer Advocate reporters Susan Zielinski and Myles Fish that examines the centre’s controversial past, debated present and unclear future.