Manitoba

$50M lawsuit alleges intellectually disabled residents were sexually abused, starved at Manitoba institution

Children and adults who lived at the Manitoba Developmental Centre suffered regular sexual and physical abuse for decades, including abuse by staff, resident-on-resident rape and beatings and food deprivation, a $50-million class action lawsuit against the province alleges.

'They told me not to tell nobody what happened there,' says former Manitoba Developmental Centre resident

Staff stand in a dormitory at the Manitoba Developmental Centre in an undated photograph. A lawsuit, which is seeking class-action certification, alleges abuse of residents by staff, resident-on-resident rape and food deprivation at the Portage la Prairie institution. (Archives of Manitoba)

WARNING: This story contains graphic details which may be disturbing to readers.

Children and adults who lived at a provincially operated institution for Manitobans with intellectual disabilities suffered regular sexual and physical abuse for decades, a $50-million lawsuit against the province alleges.

The claims include allegations that staff at the Manitoba Developmental Centre in Portage la Prairie, Man., beat residents, as well as allegations of resident-on-resident rape, food deprivation and the use of nudity as punishment.

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 31, has yet to be certified as a class action by a judge. It's intended to cover all living or recently living residents of the Manitoba Developmental Centre admitted after July 1, 1951.

David Weremy, a representative plaintiff in the lawsuit, says he experienced years of trauma at the facility, which included sexual abuse, physical assault and being confined naked in a room.

"It was a bad place to live. Really bad," he said in an interview with CBC News Tuesday in Winnipeg.

David Weremy is the representative plaintiff in a $50-million lawsuit against the Manitoba government for alleged abuses at the Manitoba Developmental Centre in Portage la Prairie, Man. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Weremy, 74, was sent by his parents to live at the centre in 1958, when he was 14 years old. He lived there until he was 29.

"Everything was a secret," he said. "They told me not to tell nobody what happened there."

'I hope they're ready for me'

None of the claims have been proven in court. 

A spokesperson for the Manitoba Justice Department said its lawyers have reviewed the statement of claim. The province declined to comment about the case because it is before the courts.

The Manitoba government has until Jan. 29, 2019, to file a statement of defence.

Along with $50 million in punitive damages, the lawsuit seeks an admission from the province it was negligent in the operation, management and supervision of the Manitoba Developmental Centre.

An undated aerial photograph of the Manitoba Developmental Centre. (Archives of Manitoba)

"People simply, at no point in time, at any point in the years past, should ever be living in these circumstances. Period," said Weremy's lawyer, David Rosenfeld, a partner with Toronto-based firm Koskie Minsky.

The firm has represented other class actions against institutions, including one against the Huronia Regional Centre in Ontario, which led to a $35-million settlement

"The lawsuit is good. I hope we win," said Weremy.

"It's not going to be hard on me, no way.… I hope they're ready for me."

Rosenfeld hopes that by speaking to media, Weremy may encourage other current or former residents to come forward.

MDC still operates today

The Manitoba Developmental Centre, which first opened in 1890, remains an active long-term care facility for more than 100 residents with intellectual disabilities. The 2018 operating budget for the facility is $29 million.

It has operated under different names over the years, including the Home for Incurables and the Manitoba School for the Mentally Retarded, often referred to as the Manitoba School.

The population at the centre has shrunk considerably since Weremy was a resident, and it is no longer accepting new admissions unless they are short-term or court-ordered placements.

In the 1960s and 1970s, around 1,200 people lived at MDC. The numbers began to rapidly decline in the 1980s under Manitoba's Welcome Home initiative, which sought to help people with disabilities integrate back into the community. 

Today, the sprawling campus in the north end of Portage la Prairie — a small city about 85 kilometres west of Winnipeg — includes several multi-storey brick buildings, basketball hoops and shaded, outdoor picnic areas.

Much of the Manitoba Developmental Centre in Portage la Prairie, Man., is surrounded by a chain-link fence. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Much of the property is surrounded by a locked, chain-link fence. Signs warn against trespassing or walking dogs in the area.

CBC asked for a tour of the facility but the province declined the request, to "respect the privacy of our residents."

People First of Canada, a group that advocates for people with intellectual disabilities, has been campaigning for the closure of Manitoba Developmental Centre for nearly 30 years.

"The harms that people have endured are horrific. They're horrific," said People First executive director Shelley Fletcher about MDC.

"People don't think this happens here. It does happen here. We know it happens here."

Nightly abuse, says former resident

Weremy often thinks about his time at the Manitoba Developmental Centre. When he sleeps, he has nightmares about it, especially the sexual abuse, he said.

During the 15 years he lived there, he slept in a dormitory with dozens of other boys and men.

In the 1970s, children as young as six were admitted to the Manitoba Developmental Centre. It's unknown when this photograph was taken. (Archives of Manitoba)

After dark, even while a supervisor was on duty, residents had sex with each other, he said, and sexual assault was common as well. Weremy said boys raped him and did "dirty things" to him. 

During group showers, Weremy said he was raped by another resident in front of a staff supervisor.

"He said, 'A piece of ass will not hurt you,'" said Weremy.

He also recalls being pushed by a staff member into the shower and hurting his arm. The injury continues to cause him pain, he said.

In his sworn affidavit, Weremy said he was punished for running away by being stripped naked and put in a "lockup" room. He slept naked on the floor in that room, he said.

"One of the rooms had chains on the floor. I saw other boys chained to the floor for a long time," Weremy said.

There was no privacy in the washrooms and Weremy remembers people watching him use the toilet. 

No wall separated toilets at the Manitoba Developmental Centre. (Archives of Manitoba)

Along with abuse, another constant at the centre was starvation, the lawsuit alleges. ​Weremy said he and other residents were routinely underfed, especially at dinner time.

"The boys were eating out of the garbage can, out of the toilet bowls," he said. "Believe me, I lived there. I saw it."

'Grossly overcrowded'

Conditions at the MDC have come under scrutiny in the past.

A 1973 government report by Dr. Graham Clarkson on the Manitoba Developmental Centre found unexplained injuries, insufficient staffing and poor supervision. 

"The Manitoba School is at present grossly overcrowded and understaffed compared to other provincial institutions," he said. 

Residents at the centre included people who "can't control [their] sexual desire and [become] promiscuous or assaulting," Clarkson found. At that time, children as young as six could also be admitted to MDC.

Weremy said he knew of residents who died at the centre, including a boy he saw eat feces.

Hundreds of people are buried at the Manitoba Developmental Centre cemetery. Recently installed tombstones show many died during the 1950s and 1960s, when Weremy was a resident.

North of the Manitoba Developmental Centre, off Highway 240, is the cemetery where hundreds of former residents are buried. Many of the tombstones say the residents died during the time Weremy was a resident. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The centre has been the subject of two recent inquests. The 2007 and 2014 inquests into deaths at the centre found insufficient staff training. In the former, Justice Brian Corrin said staff seemed to require no health-care certification or past group- or care-home work experience.

Fletcher, with People First, believes Weremy continues to talk about his time at the Manitoba Developmental Centre because he doesn't want what happened to him to happen again.

"He'll talk about this until the day he dies," she said.

Since he left the centre in the late 1970s, Weremy has fought to regain his full independence. He no longer lives under a trusteeship and hires his own personal care worker to help him navigate daily life. 

He says he still worries that one day, the Manitoba Developmental Centre will come and force him back inside. He yearns for the day MDC is shut down for good. 

In the meantime, an apology from government would make him feel better, but money would make him feel better still, Weremy said.

If the class action goes forward and ends in a payout, Weremy plans to go on a holiday to Las Vegas.

"It's bright every night. Just like the sun is out," he said.

David Weremy says he experienced years of trauma at the Manitoba Developmental Centre in Portage la Prairie, Man., which included sexual abuse, physical assault and being confined naked in a room. 2:58

About the Author

Laura Glowacki is a reporter based in Winnipeg. Before moving to Manitoba in 2015, she worked as an associate producer for CBC's Metro Morning in Toronto. Find her on Twitter @glowackiCBC and reach her by email at laura.glowacki@cbc.ca.