The cousin of a woman who died at the Manitoba Developmental Centre hopes the inquest into her death will bring an end to the institutionalization of vulnerable people in the province.
Ann Hickey, a longtime resident of the facility in Portage la Prairie, Man., was 51 years old when she died in March 2011.
A seatbelt that was used to secure Hickey in her wheelchair had strangled her.
An autopsy determined that her death was accidental, but an inquest was called with the aim of preventing similar deaths from happening in the future.
Final recommendations from the inquest are expected in the coming months.
Her cousin, Julie, who lives in Victoria, B.C., said she learned of Ann's death on Facebook in January.
"I had no idea that I had a cousin in a major institution in Canada until January," Julie Hickey told CBC News on Tuesday.
Hickey said given her professional life has been devoted to helping developmentally disabled people live in the community — she manages seven group homes for 30 people in Victoria — it was especially hard to learn about how her cousin Ann died.
"I was upset because, you know, the work that I do and all that we've done in community living — basically, we have moved people to smaller, more personalized settings so they aren't so vulnerable," she said.
"I just feel that my cousin was very vulnerable."
Julie Hickey said she has only distant memories of meeting her cousin at a family gathering when they were children.
Ann would have been around two or three years old, said Julie, who said she was seven or eight years old.
Hickey said she remembered Ann being different back then, but she added that she has a pleasant memory of them playing together.
She added that Ann Hickey was one of the first people with developmental disabilities she had ever met.
Calling for better supports
Julie Hickey said she agrees with groups such as People First of Canada that have been advocating for better supports for residents of the Manitoba Developmental Centre so they can live in the community if they choose.
Hickey said since she has been following the inquest into her cousin's death, she has learned that two staff members were on duty that night for between 26 and 28 residents.
Just weeks before, Ann Hickey had started using a wheelchair, but she sometimes tried to slip out.
"They moved her to a brand-new ward with staff that didn't really know her," Julie Hickey said.
"They put her in a wheelchair and she died because of that — because nobody knew that she was going to slip down, and no one knew her care needs."
Hickey said she believes her cousin would have been less vulnerable in a group home with four or six residents with two caregivers.
'Nobody was advocating for her'
But Ann Hickey had been institutionalized since she was 10 years old, and her immediate family was not involved in her life.
"She should have been out of that institution and she probably wasn't because her parents died a while back and nobody was advocating for her," Julie Hickey said.
Hickey said she hopes the inquest means no one else will suffer the same fate as her cousin, and she hopes its recommendations will see an end to institutions like the Manitoba Developmental Centre.
"Manitoba's really behind," she said.
"You still have institutions. We don't have any institutions in British Columbia. We don't have them in Ontario either. They're closed."
People First of Canada is making its submissions to the inquest into Ann Hickey's death on Wednesday.
The group is recommending that the provincial government provide the resources necessary so that Manitoba Developmental Centre residents can live in the community.