A story that had to be told

Their first sight of the imposing four-story brick edifice that was the main administration building at Michener Centre was etched in the memories of many children, chiseling a turning point in their lives. One woman described her experience as a 10-year-old.

‘I was told to sit down and wait in the hallway with a suitcase by my chair, and then the staff came and took my arm and my suitcase and put me in this bedroom by myself with the suitcase and shut the door. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to my mom.’

A woman who was 15 when she moved into Michener recalled having the sense she wouldn’t be going home with her family as soon as she set foot inside the building. Others remembered wondering why they were there, how long they would stay and when they could return home.

Those are among the memories 22 survivors of the Michener Centre shared with Dr. Claudia Malacrida, University of Lethbridge sociologist, for her new book titled A Special Hell: Institutional Life in Alberta’s Eugenic Years.

Malacrida first became interested in the people who had lived at the Michener Centre when she was a doctoral student working on a book project with the Alberta Association for Community Living. The book described the experiences of approximately 40 people who lived in provincial institutions. Malacrida began collecting stories and conducting interviews.

“This is just a story that has to be told,” says Malacrida. “I teach my students about this and they don’t know we had a eugenics act.”

Along with interviewing ex-staff members and a parent who relinquished two children to Michener, Malacrida scoured archival materials to provide readers with the historical context in which the Michener Centre was established and memories of what life was like on the inside. A Special Hell is an in-depth look at institutional life with a focus on the years 1928 to 1972 when Alberta’s forced sterilization program was in effect.

“Many of these people came out of the institution in the ‘70s and ‘80s through organizations like the Alberta Association for Community Living, which started with parents who really saw the conditions of the institutions and thought there had to be a better way,” says Malacrida.

Opened in 1923, the Provincial Training School, as it was known then, became a place for ‘mental defectives,’ a term that was in use at the time. Prevailing thought in the early 1900s was that mental defects were genetically inherited and could be stopped from spreading to the rest of the population through both segregation and sterilization. This belief in eugenics permeated the West for the first half of the 20th century and led to the building of institutions like the Michener Centre.

Opened first as a single building housing 108 people, by the 1970s the Michener campus included 66 buildings, including a fire hall, a grain house, a shoemaker, an industrial laundry, kitchen and sewing rooms, and iron works, and housed more than 2,300 people.

While it was originally conceived of as a place for training and education, less than 20 per cent of the children who lived there received any formal education. In practice, many people entered the institution as children, transferred to the adult part of the campus when they turned 18 and lived their entire lives at Michener. The deinstitutionalization movement, with its emphasis on community living, only began to take shape in the 1970s and Alberta’s sexual sterilization law wasn’t repealed until 1972.

Survivors told her about the reasons that led to their incarceration at Michener, including their own difficult behaviours, problems in the traditional classroom, truancy, long-term illness, and family issues like poverty, single parenthood or abuse in the home.

After they arrived, their clothing, toys and personal possessions were taken away. They rarely saw their families after moving to Michener and families were often discouraged from visiting for the first year to give their child time to acclimatize to the institution. Little by little, children’s sense of personal identity was stripped away and they had no privacy, even while showering or using the toilet.

Daily life at Michener was regimented. Once residents had been toileted and fed, inmates who did not attend school were put in the day room. These rooms were sparsely furnished with a television droning on in the background and no interaction with staff.

Staff sometimes treated residents poorly, abusing them, and sometimes residents abused other residents. Violence was a regular occurrence and incident reports from the institution’s archives show numerous reports of inmates suffering bruises and lacerations. An ex-worker said pushing, kicking, shoving, tying residents down and slapping their faces occurred on a daily basis.

“Violence became an ordinary part of life. One guy talked about how, if he really wanted a break from the craziness of the ward, he’d go over and bite somebody or hit an orderly and know that he would get into the time-out room so that he could actually have some predictability and peace,” says Malacrida.

Vocational training included an agricultural program and making furniture to be sold at the twice-yearly tea and sale events. Residents also worked in the community for local families and farmers.

“When people asked why they didn’t get paid, they were told that this was their training. So there was lots of economic abuse, too,” says Malacrida. “Ironically, many of the women I interviewed who had been sterilized because they were not fit for motherhood worked as nannies for families in the Red Deer community.”

In return, Michener Centre provided employment for the citizens of Red Deer, with one in five people employed there when the centre was at its largest.

In the late 1960s, after a number of scandals, deaths in custody and deaths during escape at Alberta institutions, R.W. Blair was appointed to investigate. The Blair Report didn’t suggest abolishing the eugenic law but recommended Michener be closed.

“Going back that far, the government has been toying with the idea and promising it will close Michener, but it doesn’t happen,” she says.

The political flip-flopping occurred as recently as last fall. When she was premier, Alison Redford announced in March 2013 that the Michener Centre would be closed and the remaining residents, numbering roughly 125, would transition to community living. Redford’s decision met with backlash and Alberta Premier Jim Prentice reversed the decision last September.

Malacrida, and the survivors she interviewed, would like to see Michener Centre closed. Even though efforts have been made to make Michener Centre homier for its remaining residents, Malacrida says eliminating the physical buildings is the only way to prevent its legacy from living on, unlike the etched images that remain in survivors’ memories.

Apart from the political wrangling over the fate of the Michener Centre, many former residents have thrived in their new homes in the community, some achieving literacy and others reveling in the ability to make simple choices like what to wear on any given day. Despite the deprivations they lived with for years, the survivors Malacrida interviewed didn’t hold a grudge.

“They were forgiving in their tone and they felt sad that their families had been lost to them, as was the case for almost all of them. They knew it was wrong that they’d been sterilized but they didn’t blame any specific individual. It was a pretty inspiring group as far as the capacity for human forgiveness goes,” says Malacrida.