After more than a century, Manitoba facility for people with disabilities closing its doors

The Manitoba Developmental Centre in Portage la Prairie is set to close, once its remaining 133 residents with intellectual disabilities move to community living over the next three years, the province says.

133 residents at Portage la Prairie's Manitoba Developmental Centre will move to community living over 3 years

Seen here in a file photo, the Manitoba Developmental Centre in Portage la Prairie, Man., now has 133 residents. In the 1960s and '70s, it had upwards of 1,000. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

A more than century-old Manitoba facility for adults with intellectual disabilities will close after its remaining 133 residents move to community living over the next three years, the province announced on Friday.

While discussions have been underway to transition residents out of the Manitoba Developmental Centre in Portage la Prairie for years, Families Minister Rochelle Squires said the COVID-19 pandemic was the last straw that showed how crucial that step was.

"COVID has certainly confirmed that this institutional way of living poses additional risks," Squires said on a phone-in news conference. "Community living is not only more dignified but it is safer for our residents."

A COVID-19 outbreak was declared at the facility at the end of November and was declared over earlier this month. Two staff contracted the illness and have since recovered, a provincial spokesperson said.

People living in the facility will eventually be moved to places like group homes run by licensed agencies and home-share living situations, where a person with a disability shares a home with a licensed support provider, Squires said.

Those with more complex medical or behavioural issues may also transition to purpose-built homes where they can get the extra support they need, she said.

Families Minister Rochelle Squires says the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need to move people out of institutionalized settings and into community living. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Janet Forbes, executive director of Inclusion Winnipeg, said the facility's closure is "the first step in abolishing institutional care."

"As a society, we must guarantee future generations of people with intellectual disabilities, and their families, that we will never create institutions again," Forbes said in a news release put out by the province.

Class-action lawsuit

The site was known as the Home for Incurables when it opened in 1890 and was later called the Manitoba School, among other names. It was officially renamed the Manitoba Developmental Centre in the 1980s.

The number of people living there has shrunk significantly since the 1960s and 1970s, when around 1,200 people lived at the centre. Those numbers began to rapidly decline in the 1980s following Manitoba's Welcome Home initiative, which worked to help people with disabilities integrate into the larger community.

Today, the sprawling property in the north end of the Manitoba city, about 85 kilometres west of Winnipeg, includes several multi-storey brick buildings, basketball hoops and outdoor picnic areas.

A lawsuit launched against the province in 2018 by people who had lived at the institution alleged they suffered sexual and physical abuse for decades. The province called for the suit to be dismissed.

The suit was certified as a class-action last May. The province appealed that certification last October. A decision on the appeal is pending.

Until new homes for MDC's residents are identified by the province's Department of Families and other groups it works with, people living in the facility will stay there, Squires said. She said staff are looking at each person's situation and helping to make the best decision for each individual.

No immediate staff changes

For the 370 people working at the Manitoba Developmental Centre, including about 280 full-time employees, there won't be any immediate changes, Squires said.

Staff at the facility include psychiatric nurse assistants, nurses, activity instructors, housekeepers, dietary aides and engineers, she said. Squires said there won't be layoffs coming down the line, and anyone who wants to stay working in government will be accommodated.

"As long as there are residents living at [the Manitoba Developmental Centre], their work will be needed," Squires said.

Danielle Adams, the Opposition NDP critic for persons with disabilities, said the province needs to make sure that residents have adequate supports when they move into the community, and that staff can access jobs of an equal quality and still be close to home.

"This facility provides good jobs to hundreds of Manitobans in Portage la Prairie and the surrounding region," the Thompson MLA said in a news release. "These workers and their families deserve better than empty promises."

Squires said plans for what will happen to the site once all its residents leave are still being worked out, and the province is mindful that for now it is still people's home.

She also gave an overview of that transition plan to people involved in the area, the province's news release said, including Portage la Prairie Mayor Irvine Ferris.

Ferris said the city has been working with the province for years on the future of the facility and understands the need for the change.

"We look forward to continuing this working relationship as we find valuable alternative uses for the property that will create a meaningful economic impact and ensure Portage la Prairie voices are heard," he said in the province's news release.

With files from Laura Glowacki