Why the urgency to close Michener Centre?

When Alison Redford was gearing up for election as premier, she pledged to significantly ramp up assistance for severely disabled Albertans.

When Alison Redford was gearing up for election as premier, she pledged to significantly ramp up assistance for severely disabled Albertans.

She boosted monthly payments 34 per cent for 46,000 Albertans on Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped.

That commitment to assist people in grave need resonated with voters.

The following month, she and her Progressive Conservative colleagues were elected to a 12th consecutive majority government since 1971.

Eleven months on, with the looming closure of the Michener Centre, another group of gravely disabled Albertans face quite different treatment.

The way it’s being done is more galling than the decision itself.

It followed hard on the heels of a new provincial budget that cuts spending deeply in most areas, while ramping up borrowing and putting the province deeper in debt.

This looks like just another budgetary line item to get spending closer to balance, to assuage nervous conservative Tories and to silence the more right-wing opposition Wildrose Alliance.

The government timeline has 60 per cent of Michener Centre’s 125 residents moved into group homes and the rest to seniors’ care centres in the next 11 months.

More than half of Michener Centre’s 400 employees are expected to lose their jobs.

It should not have gone down this way.

Residents of Michener Centre are an aged group. They are comfortable with and used to routines.

Too soon for many, all that is about to change.

While they are oblivious to what’s coming down the pike, their closest loved ones are not.

One Albertan with a relative living at Michener Centre recounted a conversation with longtime Tory minister Gene Zwozdesky, who held four cabinet portfolios including Community Development and Health before becoming Legislative Speaker.

He promised the man that he would never have to worry about Michener Centre; it would always be there for his relative.

This week, the minister has no recollection of that conversation.

It was a foolish thing to say.

But it was not as foolish as the ginned up plan to shut Michener Centre down as quickly as possible.

This is not an argument for keeping the Michener Centre open forever.

Its population has been aging, dying and shrinking for generations.

Still, there’s no urgency to create such a hasty change. Michener Centre does not account for a hundredth of a percent of the provincial budget.

Before the decision was taken to shutter it, there should have been broad and deep conversations with key stakeholders — including statutory caregivers Michener Centre employees and relatives, for those lucky enough to have them – before a fait-accompli deal was dumped in their laps.

Instead, relatives got a meeting with the deal already sealed.

Employees, hearing it second hand, got a blunt shock.

The lack of consultation is egregious.

The Tory government is doing it this way precisely because it can.

The official opposition party is just about mute on this issue.

Kerry Towle, the Wildrose Alliance critic for seniors, represents Sylvan Lake, the riding next door to Red Deer.

She was quoted in one sentence in the Advocate and one in The Edmonton Journal decrying the impending closure.

Almost a week after the deal went down, there’s not a peep of outrage or concern on her blog about the looming closure, the fate of its residents or staff.

Of course, you would not expect much concern for employees from the Wildrose Alliance, most of whom will lose their jobs.

As union members, they are outside the sphere of concern for Wildrosers.

Premier Redford wants departing Michener Centre residents moved into private- or charity-operated group homes, where pay is low and staff turnover is high.

Last week in her budget, however, Premier Redford also cut millions of dollars in promised funding that was supposed to help those agencies provide better pay, working conditions and services for disabled clients.

There has been a lot of ugly history at Michener Centre, under previous names and operating structures.

The worst abuses included forced sterilization of young women and incarcerating scores of people who had no mental disability.

Children from poor or immigrant families who didn’t speak English well were held there for decades and forced to work on the farm.

But Michener Centre also did a lot of good for scores of people with mental disabilities.

Keith Manning, the son of long-time premier Ernest Manning lived there.

It continues helping mentally challenged people today.

Red Deer North MLA Mary Anne Jablonski says closing Michener Centre won’t save the government any money “in the first year.”

After that, all expect big savings.

Also expect big stress for residents and their relatives who will be forced to cope with a plan that was pushed too fast for dubious political or economic benefits.

Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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