Michener: The Closing Doors — Part 9 — Prairies home to last relics of Canada’s institutional era

In 1986, nearly two decades into the deinstitutionalization movement, there were still 10,000 Canadians with developmental disabilities living in 31 large institutions (facilities with over 100 beds) across the country. Today, there are barely 700.

In 1986, nearly two decades into the deinstitutionalization movement, there were still 10,000 Canadians with developmental disabilities living in 31 large institutions (facilities with over 100 beds) across the country.

Today, there are barely 700.

The last three major vestiges of the institutional era are found in the Prairie provinces, with two slated for closure. Similar to the Michener Centre situation, the Saskatchewan government has announced its plans to close Valley View Centre outside of Moose Jaw; only the Manitoba Developmental Centre in Portage La Prairie is not currently slated for closure.

Whereas the fight to keep Michener open is being led by family members of residents, in B.C. in the early 1980s, a group of vocal parents of institutionalized residents helped to hasten the demise of the province’s three large facilities, a goal fully realized in 1996.

The Tranquille Institution near Kamloops was the first to close, a process that was undertaken far too hastily, according to long-time community living facilitator Malerie Meeker. The next two closures, though, took place over nearly 10 years, allowing communities and government services to more gradually adapt to a changing reality and giving time for families to come around to the process.

“Early on, in the real heady times of deinstitutionalization and the development of these community-based homes, it seemed like we were working miracles. We thought we were saving people and saving lives and in some ways we have and we did. (People were) moving to a place where you can own your own things and where you can go to bed without reaching out and touching someone on either side of you, and where you were relatively safe,” says Meeker.

In each closure instance, though there was the active group of parents advocating for deinstitutionalization, there were also many parents concerned about moving their sons and daughters away from their longtime homes, says Ali Taplay, who arrived in B.C. in the midst of the later transitions. Familial concerns were heeded, she says, and parents were very involved in the transition process.

“Rather than just polarizing it and saying ‘Oh, community living’s great, you know, get on board, what’s the matter with you?’ They said, ‘Yeah, OK, you’re worried about how dental care will happen in the community for your son or daughter if they can’t handle going to a dentist’s office and being in that fairly high-stress situation. How will we make sure good dental care happens?’” says Taplay.

“Parents are right to be concerned — there are some bad community services.”

Similar to B.C., Ontario’s reliance on institutions gradually faded from the 1970s onward. However, when the government announced in 2004 that it would be closing the province’s last three big facilities, nearly 1,000 people were still housed in them.

A collective of family members of residents at one of the remaining facilities sought an injunction against that particular closure, but through a judicial review, families were told that the government could go ahead with closing the three centres by 2009. In their ruling, the panel of judges affirmed that consent must be received from the disabled individual or their guardian before a move were to take place, and if a placement could not be agreed upon, the courts could step in and force a relocation.

In the last year, two settlements amounting to $67 million have been reached — to be split among approximately 8,000 former residents of the recently-closed Ontario facilities — to compensate for the alleged abuse they suffered while housed there. In each case, a formal apology from the premier has also been demanded.

While deinstitutionalization processes have recently been accelerated in many provinces, they have stalled in Nova Scotia, which has the highest number of disabled persons in institutionalized care, with approximately 1,100 residents spread across many facilities. Earlier this year, the province’s government announced it would be shifting away from larger care centres to smaller options.

In Alberta, the collective fighting the announced closure of Michener Centre has considered filing a complaint with the provincial Human Rights Commission (HRC) claiming that the rights of disabled residents are being impeded by forcing them to move. Conversely, in Manitoba the provincial community living organization went through an HRC, claiming that institutionalizing people was discriminatory.

Five years after the complaint was filed, a settlement was reached that saw the government agreeing to move 49 people on the transition list from the Manitoba Developmental Centre into the community. While acknowledging in the 2011 compromise that community living is fundamentally a better option, the government maintained that families should have options for care, which include the Manitoba Developmental Centre.

Approximately 220 people remain at the Manitoba facility, while another 210 people with developmental disabilities reside at Winnipeg’s St. Amant Centre, run by a Catholic non-profit group.

The closure of Valley View Centre south of Moose Jaw, Sask., was announced in 2012, with the province intending to move out the nearly 200 residents still living there by 2016 (though the transition leader has said the target is unlikely to be hit). Similar to Michener Centre, the facility has effectively been closing by attrition over the course of many years and the remaining population is elderly.

Last year, the Saskatchewan government accepted all 14 recommendations provided by a transition steering committee made up of family, community living and government representatives. Among the recommendations were that group homes be dispersed evenly around communities, not clumped together, respite options be expanded, and that adequate medical, transportation and recreational services for residents be maintained after the process is complete.

The government also committed $1.2 million for the formation of a transitional home meant to be an intermedial setting between the institutional and group home living arrangements.

Despite the involvement of family representatives as part of the transition team, a campaign is still on to save what is left of Valley View for the residents who remain. In April of last year workers at the centre opposing the closure came to Red Deer to learn from the groups fighting the Michener edict.


Coming Wednesday: A look at some of the legal issues around institutional closures and the movement of people into community settings

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