“We look to a time when people with mental disabilities will be fully integrated into the community, about the year 2010. It will be a time of a more tolerant and, we hope, kinder society.”
So reads one of the early paragraphs of Claiming My Future, a 1989 government report that examined the state of care for the developmentally disabled in Alberta.
The report reasserted the sentiment, widely advocated since the late 1960s, that large institutions should be eschewed in favour of supporting life for the disabled in the community. Even so, the minister overseeing the review also assured concerned parents that there were no intentions to immediately close Michener Centre — at the time, home to just over 1,000 residents — and force loved ones out of their homes.
Nearly two decades later, parents, brothers and sisters had the chance to read another report that considered the viability of the long-running facility. Halfway through the first decade of the 2000s, 30 years of community integration had left the Michener population small enough that the How We Move Ahead report recommended that the centre’s north site be shuttered and all residents transferred to the south side.
The report suggested that, by 2008, the north site would be vacated and the buildings and land there turned over to Alberta Infrastructure. While it stated numerous times that operational change was necessary at Michener, the report added that “closing the facility outright would violate the principle of individual rights and choice for people who wish to stay at Michener.”
Guardians of current residents, during their campaign opposing the mass transitioning of their loved ones, have often cited a particular promise that appears three separate times in the 24-page document, that “Nobody will be forced to leave Michener.” Unfortunately for guardians, that promise did not come directly from the provincial government, but from the regional Persons with Developmental Disabilities body.
The most vocal opponents of the closure edict involved with the Society of Parents and Friends of Michener Centre say that over the years they have received numerous promises that their loved ones would be able to stay where they are at Michener. But they also acknowledge that it has always been clear that Michener’s days were numbered, and some say that is not necessarily a bad thing.
The beginning of the protracted end for Michener came in the form of the 300-plus page Mental Health in Alberta report issued in 1969. Colloquially called the Blair Report, after its director W.R.N. (Buck) Blair, head of the University of Calgary’s psychology department, the exhaustive study reviewed the province’s supports for those with intellectual disabilities and mental health issues, discovering what Blair labelled a “defective system.”
Influenced by the pioneering views of German-American psychologist and academic Wolf Wolfensberger and the concept of normalization — giving those with mental handicaps greater control of their own lives and encouraging community integration — the Blair Report noted the negative impacts caused by removing handicapped children from their homes to warehouse them in places like the Alberta School Hospital and Deerhome Institution (today known as the Michener south and north sites, respectively).
In the report, it was recommended “very strongly” that the two facilities for the “mentally retarded” in Red Deer should neither be enlarged nor duplicated elsewhere in Alberta. Regional, non-hospital care, it advised, would be more effective and economical. Phasing out the hospital-like installations for the handicapped in Red Deer, it said, would be ideal.
And over the next 20 years, much of what constituted Michener in the 1960s would be gone. As community supports were developed, many higher functioning residents left the institution, and there was a general philosophical shift that saw residents who stayed treated with more dignity.
So when Chris Whittaker and the rest of the team assigned to survey the state of services for the mentally disabled in the late 1980s toured Michener Centre, it was a more humane place, but also one tasked with caring for the most disabled Albertans. Two-thirds of the Michener population, at that time still quite young, were classified as having severe or profound disabilities.
Having travelled around the province together, the five-person committee headed by Olds-Didsbury MLA Roy Brassard that would compile the Claiming My Future report had built up a rapport by the time of the Michener visit. Whittaker remembers how they were laughing and joking together after parking their car at the centre and walking in.
“When we came out of there, it was like there were no smiles; we were shocked,” he said.
“That’s not because we found people mistreated or anything like that, it was just a huge ‘Oh my goodness me.’ These poor, poor individuals that can’t do anything, can’t feed themselves — they were the worst of the worst. I had absolutely no answer for what should happen to them at all.”
But even if it didn’t have the answers, the committee was tasked with providing recommendations, and so it did. The big one: that 20 per cent of the institutionalized population be transferred into the community each year until facilities like Michener were empty. No further admissions to Michener, the committee wrote, could be tolerated.
The report’s recommendations were actually never adopted by government, but Whittaker says the committee’s work nonetheless had a huge impact on improvements to community supports and even regarding general attitudes towards the mentally handicapped. Peppered throughout are hopeful views of a more tolerant Alberta by 2010 where the handicapped are regarded as full and participating members of society just like everyone else.
“It became, sort of unofficially, the impetus for a huge amount of change for the way people with a disability were treated. Although it didn’t shut down Michener, it drastically reduced the number of people that were there. And, in my opinion, dramatically improved the quality of life for a lot of people,” said Whittaker.
An Englishman, Whittaker came to the Olds area when his son Peter was an infant with Down syndrome. He thought his family would only stay in what he assumed was a conservative, non-inclusive province for a few years. But he says care for the disabled in Alberta is miles ahead of that offered in his home country and other jurisdictions, and it has allowed his son and others to live full lives.
“This province, if you’re blessed with a child who has a mental disability, there is no finer place in the world for that child to be supported and brought up and do well,” he said.
Now in his 40s, Peter has developed to the point where he only requires a few hours of staffing support per day. He lives independently in Olds.
Coming Friday: The Michener connection to Alberta’s defunct sterilization program.