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Michener Residents Just Collateral Damage to Redford Government

03/21/2013 01:45 EDT | Updated 05/21/2013 05:12 EDT

When David Lough moved into Michener Centre in Red Deer three decades ago, he was on medication, in part to control what younger brother Bill called his "white rages."

"He was a fantastic older brother," Bill says. "He was loving and fun, but you had to be able to understand him. The hardest decision we ever made was to have him leave home and live somewhere else."

David was a 200-pound man with the cognitive capacity of a three-year-old. He needed continual supervision and stimulation, but in the mid-1980s programs for developmentally disabled adults were few and far between. David was frequently bored and frustrated, and if people around him didn't understand his behavioral cues, it could quickly escalate into a full-blown tantrum. When David's father died, the family was no longer able give him the care and attention he needed.

That's where the Michener Centre came in. It's a provincial facility for developmentally disabled adults with intense behavioral or medical needs. It has high staffing levels, special equipment and facilities that provide a safe, structured environment. Unlike typical community-run group homes, the staff have been there for years and develop deep relationships with their charges.

David lived at Michener for 27 years until he passed away of natural causes three years ago.

"He was happy and safe," Bill says. "They gave him his life back."

His family frequently visited and took him on outings, but he was always eager to get back home to Michener. He no longer needed to be medicated.

Bill believes so strongly in the program that he has stayed involved and is now president of the Society of Parents and Friends of Michener Centre.

That's why he was so angry when the Redford government announced out of the blue this month that Michener will be shut down and its 125 residents shipped off to parts unknown (government officials admitted they were still working out the details of the "transition," like which communities and group homes the residents would be sent to).

Frank Oberle, Redford's Associate Minister of Services for People with Disabilities, insisted that evicting the residents, many of whom are seniors citizens who've lived at Michener for decades, will somehow give them more dignity.

"Dignity" is one of the government's primary talking points on the Michener evictions, and it's been repeated on an almost Pavlovian scale by the media and a few special interest groups. But in truth, it's a deceitful and manipulative diversion from the real issues.

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Highlights Of The Alberta 2013-14 Budget

In the early to mid-20th Century, Michener Centre was known as the Provincial Training Centre for Mental Defectives. It was the epicentre of Alberta's monstrous eugenics program, where people deemed unsuitable for the gene pool were sterilized against their wills, often without their knowledge. It was one of the most shameful chapters in Alberta history, but it ended over 40 years ago and since then, the facility has transformed into a stellar example of how to care for developmentally disabled adults with respect, compassion and yes, dignity.

Advocates for closure continually dredge up the buildings' dark history and use loaded terms like "institutionalize" to evoke images of sadistic physicians, Victorian straight jackets and scenes from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

But make no mistake about what's really going on here. The government is removing highly vulnerable people from a safe, nurturing place and thrusting them into chaos and uncertainty.

The reason? To save money and offload responsibility for the residents onto someone else.

Oberle has said again and again that this isn't about the bottom line. "That's absolutely not what it's about," he insisted to the Edmonton Journal, claiming any money saved would go back into frontline PDD services.

Yet, two years ago, the government commissioned a financial review of the PDD that urged "opportunities to reduce the reliance on direct operations (government-run facilities like Michener) as a delivery mechanism where possible."

Instead, the review urged the government to encourage more families to become their loved ones' program administrators, effectively downloading all responsibility and cost onto them.

Closing Michener Centre isn't about dignity, compassion or deinstitutionalization -- just ask the families of residents being evicted. It's about cutting the costs. It's about dumping responsibility for maintaining old buildings. Most shameful of all, it's about the Redford Tories wriggling out of their duty to care for Alberta's most vulnerable people.

In the eyes of this government, the residents are just collateral damage.

If you want to send a letter to the Redford Tories urging them to keep Michener Centre open, go to www.keepmicheneropen.com