The Michener Centre sits on a green space with century-old trees overlooking the city of Red Deer. It is a safe haven for people who have severe developmental disabilities, physical impairment or some combination of the above—people with the vulnerability of a child. Until recently it had 124 residents. My sister Jody, age 56, has lived there since she was six. For her Michener is a sanctuary. In March 2013 the Alberta government announced it would close the centre. This, after decades of solemn promises “that no one will be forced to leave Michener,” made by premiers including Ralph Klein, who visited the eight-time award-winning facility, which has the highest level of mental health care in the province. Alison Redford refused to visit, despite repeated invites by Michener families—none of whom were consulted in the closure decision—as did then Minister of Human Services Dave Hancock. My sister and a dwindling number of her peers spent much of the past two years being strongarmed by a transition team into a larger community that does not suit their needs. Elderly individuals with severe disabilities, who had spent their entire lives at Michener, were moved into an unfamiliar, unmodified community.
My sister lived out in the community for eight perilous years in the early 1990s, when the push to close public institutions began. The experiment did not work. Once, Jody kicked out the windshield of the truck her caregiver was driving. The truck rolled down an embankment and my sister and her caregiver had to be airlifted by STARS Air Ambulance. Jody spent six weeks in the hospital with a punctured spleen. The caregiver, also seriously injured, mended her wounds and then quit her job. Another time during my sister’s community inclusion, she dismantled a gas stove with her bare hands, the strength of 10 bears in her non-verbal frustration. It took four RCMP officers to subdue my 105-pound sister—hence her return to Michener in the late 1990s, where she settled in within a week.
After 20 months of protest and advocacy by Michener families, our government remained firm. From the shallow promise that “no one will be forced to leave Michener” to the harrowing promise that “everyone will be forced to leave Michener.” Why would we families have advocated to keep an institution open if it were the place it was in the 1950s? Perhaps we knew about something our government did not. Such as the excellent care by AUPE staff who have also been at Michener for decades. Who lead with their hearts. Who care for our disabled like their own family, who come in on days off to take them to see the kittens on their farms or for an ice cream at Dairy Queen. We knew about the recently renovated nurses’ dorm, where my sister lives with her seven roommates, her comrades. Michener has had some $6-million in renos over the past five years. We’ve seen the individualized bedrooms with purple fuzzy curtains and butterflies on the windows, my sister’s favourites. And those precious daily allotted cigarettes, neither approved nor disapproved, but above all a choice.
And then, this September 19th…? A complete reversal on Michener by our government. “All residents will be permitted to live out their remaining years in this special place,” said new premier Jim Prentice. He can’t imagine forcibly evicting people from the only home they’ve ever known. Imagine that.