Image Manitoba Development Centre Cemetery (Credit: Megan Linton)  

Content note: institutional violence, mass graves, sexual abuse, ableism, eugenics

Institutions, be it prisons, personal care homes, group homes, or psychiatric institutions are designed to segregate, isolate and invisibilize disabled people, particularly those labelled with intellectual/developmental disabilities. These institutions are unique, but are intricately woven together with carceral logic–which rationalizes confinement and control.

The Manitoba Development Centre (MDC) is one of the last two remaining large-scale institutions for people labelled with intellectual/developmental disabilities in Canada. For well over a century it has been used to forcibly remove disabled people from their communities and isolate them. The provincially operated institution has inflicted violence on disabled people who have spent lifetimes incarcerated in the MDC.

After decades of advocacy, the province finally announced on January 29th, 2021 that the MDC would be closing. In a press release, Community Living Manitoba said, “The closure of the Manitoba Developmental Centre is the first step in abolishing institutional care."

The fight for freedom for disabled people is far from over. The need for abolition is more urgent than ever for disabled people. Through this article, I examine the violent history of disability confinement in Manitoba, the generational fight for deinstitutionalization and the need for abolition beyond the closure of the MDC.

Institutional History

Built in 1877, the Stoney Mountain Institution was the first institution constructed  to contain disabled people–such that one of the first people incarcerated in Stoney Mountain was charged with being a “lunatic." As eugenics grew across the country, there was an increasing desire for the categorization and segregation of people labeled as “feeble-minded."

Eugenics was central to the development of a white protestant settler colonial state. Across Canada, this was enforced differently, most apparently in Alberta this was legalized through the passage of the Sexual Sterilization Act, 1928. More than 2,800 people were forcibly sterilized through this Act. Indigenous people were “the most prominent victims of the Board’s attention," accounting for more than 25% of people forcibly sterilized between 1969-1972.  

While Manitoba did not pass sexual sterilization legislation, institutionalization was used to enforce eugenics through sexual segregation and isolation. Eugenics and institutionalization are settler colonial tools used to eliminate and invisibilize populations deemed “unfit."  

Medical Historian Dr. Erika Dyck’s Managing Madness (2017) explains the role of the construction of the Asylum in the prairies alongside the rise of other institutions–provincial legislatures, Indian residential schools, universities, and sanatoriums. She explains, “These institutions dotted the landscape, reminding onlookers of the growing pains of civilization and the reality of settlement that went hand in hand not only with law and order but also disorder and incarceration.”

The Manitoba Home for Incurables (what would become the MDC) was built in 1890. Institutionalization was developed and enforced to eliminate disabled people through isolation, segregation and sterilization.  Many non-disabled people were also forcibly institutionalized into the Home for Incurables, including sex workers, Indigenous people, poor people, refugees, Franco-Manitobans and people who used drugs and alcohol.

Institutionalization in large-scale institutions was the primary policy response for disabled people until the 1970s. In Manitoba, three institutions were established to confine and segregate disabled people: the Pelican Lake Training Centre, the Manitoba Home for Defectives and the St. Amant Centre.

Government reports, alongside the testimonies of survivors, detail the violent conditions of incarceration. Staff had complete control over every decision of incarcerated disabled people. There was no access to privacy, such that there were no stalls between toilets, and dormitories were shared with dozens of residents.While significant understaffing resulted in neglect of residents.

Institutions have always been, and continue to be places of immense violence. Institutional settings are inherently violent, and their conditions result in ongoing physical, sexual and emotional violence inflicted by staff. In sworn affidavits, survivors detail routine use of solitary confinement, starvation, sexual, emotional and physical abuse and neglect.

Like prisons, institutions were constructed in rural, remote locations. This forcibly removed disabled people from their communities, and families. Like all institutions across the prairies, police and the RCMP were responsible for the capture and confinement of disabled people. The film, Freedom Tour (2008), documents institutionalization across Canada. In the film, survivors detail the attempted escapes from the institution only to be captured and forced to return to the institution by law enforcement only to be punished by the staff.

Many people were incarcerated in the MDC for their entire lives. And, the cemetery demonstrates murderous conditions of institutional life. The cemetery has headstones for children from 1 years old to people aged 81. While some information is available about the graves, there are believed to be many unmarked graves in the cemetery.

Opposing the violent conditions within institutions, the deinstitutionalization movement emerged. A movement of disabled people, parents of disabled children, scholars, journalists and doctors came together to challenge the system of institutionalization.

Deinstitutionalization commenced in 1982 with the project Welcome Home, but unlike other provinces, Manitoba did not have an end date for institutional closure. In 2011, Community Living Manitoba won a human rights complaint against the MDC resulting in 50 more people being freed from the institution.

Labour and Deinstitutionalization

While most institutions across Canada closed in the 2000s, including BC, Ontario and Alberta, in 2004, the NDP government in Manitoba invested $40 million into upgrades of MDC. How did Manitoba become the national face of institutionalization and confinement of disabled people?

Liat Ben-Moshe’s Decarcerating Disability draws the important parallels between the role of labour unions organizing in maintaining institutionalization and incarceration. In Manitoba, the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU) perfectly demonstrates the connection between institutionalization and incarceration.

MGEU is the leading force for the defense and proliferation of carceral spaces across the province. MGEU represents 32,000 workers, 360 of which are employed at the MDC, and 120 of whom are employed in prisons. This is but a fraction of their large workforce, yet MGEU has spent considerable hours invested in their proliferation.

James Wilt and Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land examine the role of MGEU in Manitoba’s growing carceral landscape, noting that “...while the trend toward punishment and securitization is not unique to Manitoba, the MGEU is a key piece in solving the puzzle of how new jails and police have become a project of the social democratic left.”

A key piece in solving the puzzle of the maintenance of the MDC is MGEU’s continued pressure and political relationships. MGEU has been committed to, and benefitted from the ongoing institutionalization of disabled people in Manitoba.

MGEU has levelled two primary arguments to justify the institutionalization of disabled people in Manitoba. The first, carceral ableism, which justifies that some level of disability requires institutionalization. To do so, MGEU relies on the narrative that the people incarcerated are too disabled and too complex to live in community, a blatant lie used to justify incarceration. There is no level of care, no form of disability that requires incarceration.

In MGEU president’s Michelle Gawronsky’s press release following the news of the closure, she raised concerns about community care as, “The staff at MDC provide a safe, familiar environment and many clients at MDC have complex needs, including 24-hour medical care.”

Despite decades of ableist violence inflicted by the structure and workers of MDC, MGEU has frequently sought to celebrate its members, such that in 2010, MGEU inexplicably purchased radio ads in hopes “this ad campaign will help get the word out so that other Manitobans can hear about the great work our members are doing for MDC clients and their families."

Between 1990 and 2010, there were at least 10 cases of worker-inflicted violence against incarcerated disabled people. In 2007, Dennis Robinson, a 52-year old man incarcerated in the MDC died while on an outing. An inquiry into his death found that the “outing” was supposed to be to the park. Instead, the eight incarcerated residents were taken on a drive around the city–without seat belts. During this drive, staff members stole the incarcerated people’s money to buy themselves coffee which they then drank in front of the residents, proceeded to run personal errands, and ultimately decided to not go to the park. The staff members then left Dennis Robinson in the van, where he was found dead one hour later.

The second argument that’s levelled against the closure of the MDC by MGEU is job loss. The isolated institutional location of MDC was partially justified on the grounds of rural job creation.

In a 2016 election survey commissioned by MGEU, their tenth question asks: “The Manitoba Developmental Centre in Portage la Prairie provides important services to people with intellectual disabilities. It is one of the region’s largest employers and is the source for good jobs that support the local economy. What is your plan, if elected, to ensure MDC remains open?”

Image Description: Responses from Provincial Parties to the MGEU's Survey Question, "What is your plan, if elected, to ensure MDC remains open?" The Liberal response is "We support the good work of the MDC and will continue to fund it. We think centres of excellence should not focus only on Winnipeg and think this model has much to offer." The NDP response reads, "We value the work of the staff at MDC. We recognize the importance of this service and the jobs it has provided to families in Portage la Prairie and the surrounding communities. Any further work to secure the best and most appropriate care for residents currently at MDC will be done in full consultation with the MGEU and in cooperation with residents, families, and the City of Portage. Where appropriate, we will ensure we put in supports and staffing for community living, while we also recognize that some residents may require supports such as long-term personal care in a comparable facilities." The Conservative response reads, "Under the NDP, Manitoba is experiencing job losses not growth. Manitoba have lost 10,500 full time jobs compared to this time last year while Ontario gained over 66,400 new full time jobs. The Selinger NDP's fiscal mismanagement saw Manitoba's first credit downgrade in 30 years - this means Manitobans will be paying more and getting less. Higher NDP taxes continue to hurt economic growth and business investment that creates jobs. Since Greg Selinger became Premier, we have been last in the country in average weekly wage growth in Canada. If we had only management to keep pace with other provinces, Manitobans would have seen an average income increase of $2,600 a year. A new Progressive Conservative government will continue to work to strengthen and grow our economy and ensure we attract investment an provide opportunity and quality employment for all Manitobans." 

But institutional settings have never been good for workers. Historically, the institution relied most heavily on the indentured labour of disabled people. Today this is continued through labour programs that create a second class of workers. This poses the most significant threat to workers.

Yet, MGEU has repeatedly supported the MDC transitioning into an Employment Centre for adults labelled with I/DD.  Employment centres such as the ones they are calling for, typically use and proliferate sheltered workshops.

Sheltered workshops rely on sub-minimum wage labour and continue to be used in Manitoba. Sheltered workshops are segregated workplaces or “training programs'' for people labelled with intellectual disabilities. CORCAN, the federal prison labour program, uses the same language of “employment and employability skills training," to justify coerced, underpaid labour. These programs promise training, but for many incarcerated and disabled people it is a lifetime of training.

These “employment programs” typically find workarounds to the minimum wage provisions in the Employment Standards Code by offering people labelled with intellectual disabilities a per diem or honorarium, and thus can pay workers pennies. Sheltered workshops are exploitative programs that put workers at significant risk.  As a labour union, MGEU should be fundamentally opposed to these dangerous and coercive workplaces. Instead of supporting these forms of coercive labour, MGEU should be working to unionize disabled workers to instill workplace protections.

Is this deinstitutionalization?

While the MDC will be closing, we are far from close to deinstitutionalization in Manitoba. Disabled people continue to be confined in long-term care homes, group homes, and prisons. Only once every form of institutionalization, confinement and control is abolished can disabled people be free.

Despite the impending closure of MDC, the ongoing institutionalization and segregation of disabled people continues. But one example of this can be seen in the 2018 construction of two segregated homes for “adults with challenging intellectual disabilities." These segregated homes were specially built with “reinforced walls, doors and windows, as well as strengthened plumbing systems." These types of homes have access to “behavioural planning mechanisms," which can include chemical and physical restraints and confinement.

These new forms of institutionalization demonstrate the need for ongoing movements against institutionalization. Liat Ben-Moshe argues that deinstitutionalization is only realized with the abolition of carceral ableist logic. Abolitionists and disability organizers should work together to demand justice and freedom for all for institutionalized people.

For instance, current plans to transform the MDC into a personal care home, a treatment facility, or an employment centre will simply maintain it’s institutional history. Moreover, this erases the violence perpetuated at this site of confinement. Just as in Huronia and Kingston, demands must be made to create a memorial at the site of MDC. This is necessary in order to make “sure that people, locally and nationally, remember the brutal and recent history of eugenics and abuse that took place on the site."

The fight for justice must include accountability. Currently, none of the records from the MDC are publicly available. These records must be made public in order for there to be accountability for the institutionalization of disabled people. Academics and survivors have raised concerns about unmarked graves in the cemetery; this must be investigated. The violence within these institutions must be reckoned with. This injustice cannot be forgotten.


Megan Linton is a graduate student & writer based in Ottawa. Find her tweeting about long term care, disability and abolition @PinkCaneRedLip, and read more of her writing here.