09/19/2014 12:51 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:01 EDT

Michener Centre Will Not Close, Says Prentice

RED DEER, Alta. - Alberta's new premier has decided a care home for the developmentally disabled that was slated for closure will remain open for those who want to stay.

Following more than a year of protests about the transfer of residents out of the Michener Centre in Red Deer, Jim Prentice announced Friday that no one else will have to leave.

"We will not close this facility on my watch," Prentice told a crowd at the care centre.

"I think it is inhumane to locate severely disabled Albertans from their homes in the autumn of their lives ... All of the residents will be permitted to live out their remaining years in this special place that has long been their home."

In 2008, the Tory government promised families with relatives at the centre that they would never have to leave. Many residents are seniors and some have been there since they were children.

But in March 2013, under former premier Alison Redford, the province announced that it would close the north and south sides of the facility and shift 125 residents into the community.

Officials said people would get more personalized care in such facilities. Critics said closing the centre was about saving money on the backs of the most vulnerable in society. There were protest rallies, a petition and a judicial review set to be heard later this year in court.

In August, opposition parties called for an investigation into the deaths of five people after they were transferred from the centre.

Prentice said the fact that some Michener residents are elderly entered into his decision not to move them.

He said it will be up to residents and their families if they want to stay or live in other facilities. The 46 residents who have been transferred so far will have the option to move back.

There was some confusion Friday when a government letter was sent to residents' families saying Michener would ultimately be closing.

Kathy Telfer, a spokeswoman with Human Services, said the letter was written in error and the premier's announcement stands.

Because the north side of the facility is old, it will be closing for good, she said. The few remaining residents there will be moved to the south side, which will remain open. There have been no new residents at Michener since 2001.

Bill Lough, president of the Society of Parents and Friends of Michener, said Prentice was straightforward and made it clear the centre is indeed staying open.

"There's no in between here ... and that's just wonderful."

The union heavily involved in "the Keep Michener Open" movement also hailed the decision. About 400 employees were to lose their jobs with the closure.

"We're pleased the new premier understands the value in Michener Centre," said Jason Heistad with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.

Telfer said some workers have since opted to receive training and find other jobs and others have since retired. But there will no longer be layoffs.

The province's opposition parties said the residents and their families should be congratulated for fighting so hard to keep the centre open.

Kerry Towle, Wildrose seniors critic, said in a statement that it's too bad it took so long, since dozens have already suffered upheaval.

"It is my sincere hope that the PC government has seen the error of its ways and that this is not merely a decision made for political reasons," she said.

"It's imperative that the PCs learn why closing Michener was the wrong decision in the first place to make sure nothing like this happens again."

— By Chris Purdy in Edmonton