Manitoba

Manitoba denies widespread abuse at institution for people with disabilities

The Manitoba government is calling for the dismissal of a $50-million lawsuit against the province alleging widespread abuse took place over decades at the Manitoba Developmental Centre in Portage la Prairie, Man.

Sister of former resident of Manitoba Developmental Centre requests RCMP investigation

Staff stand in a dormitory at the Manitoba Developmental Centre in an undated photograph. (Archives of Manitoba)

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

The Manitoba government is calling for the dismissal of a $50-million lawsuit against the province alleging widespread abuse took place over decades at the Manitoba Developmental Centre in Portage la Prairie, Man. 

In a statement of defence filed Feb. 8, the government says it's up to David Weremy, the 74-year-old representative plaintiff, to prove the disturbing allegations made in the lawsuit. 

"Manitoba's operations of MDC has at all times been reasonable and appropriate," the government's response says.

"The qualifications, training and supervision of staff at MDC were in accordance with the standards of care for a facility such as MDC that were applicable at any given time, while having regard for the financial circumstances and obligations of Manitoba at that time."

In his sworn affidavit filed in December, Weremy details a gamut of abuses, including resident-on-resident rapes, being forced to strip naked as punishment, solitary confinement and a lack of food.

The allegations date back more than 40 years and the province says that makes it difficult to defend or confirm his allegations because evidence has deteriorated.

More residents come forward

Since Weremy filed his affidavit in December, three former residents and the sister of a former resident who cannot speak for herself have filed sworn statements detailing similar experiences.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

Two women who attended the Manitoba Developmental Centre in the 1960s and 1970s as girls include stories of molestation and rape, beatings with rope and solitary confinement.

The Manitoba Developmental Centre, in an undated photo, 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. (Archives of Manitoba)

Avril Chartrand, now 63, was sent to live at the Manitoba Developmental Centre, called the Manitoba School at the time, in 1966 when she was 10.

She recalls, as Weremy did, being stripped naked and left in a room without a mattress as punishment for trying to run away. The room was called Skyview, Chartrand said.

"I sometimes was forced to stay in Skyview for weeks at a time. The only time I was allowed to leave was to go to work in the medical ward," she said in her affidavit.

"In Skyview, staff members would force me to stand naked with my arms above my head. If my arms came down they would whip me with a rope."

In a brief telephone interview, Chartrand told CBC she was never taught to read and write at Manitoba Developmental Centre, an education gap that continues to block her from higher-paying work.

"I was robbed of my childhood and my innocence," she said in her sworn affidavit.

Margaret Goudreau lived at the centre around the same time as Chartrand and the two stayed close friends.

She, like Chartrand, said she was sexually assaulted by staff at the Manitoba Developmental Centre. She alleges she was raped by a doctor at his home and later had an abortion.

"I was told by the staff no one would ever believe me. I felt helpless," she said in her affidavit.

She, too, said she was locked inside Skyview multiple times, where she was stripped naked as punishment.

A dormitory is filled with beds and cribs in this undated photograph of the Manitoba Developmental Centre. (Archives of Manitoba)

She said along with no mattress, the room didn't have a toilet.

"You had to go to the bathroom on the floor," Goudreau said in her sworn affidavit.

The Manitoba government flatly rejects the assertion that residents of MDC were placed in solitary confinement as punishment.

"In certain instances, a resident may have been placed into a segregated unit to ensure the safety of the resident and other persons at MDC," part of the statement of defence says.

"Manitoba denies that residents were placed into a segregated unit as a form of punishment or for any improper purpose."

Former RCMP officer seeks answers

Debra Roach, a retired RCMP officer, continues to push for justice for her sister, who is autistic and virtually non-verbal, after she found a sexual assault at Manitoba Developmental Centre reported by staff in her medical file. 

In Roach's affidavit, which she filed to swear to the experience of her sister, Christine Barthelette, she wrote that in January 2017, she learned through her sister's health records that Barthelette was "severely molested" by a group of boys at a cottage or unit at the Manitoba Developmental Centre.

The attack led to a "Manitoba School Incidental Report" that included descriptions of injuries to her genitals and said she was found with a male resident at a barn on the school's campus, Roach said. 

"The Manitoba School Incidental Report also notes that steps should be taken to ensure girls can get to and from school without being molested by the boys," Roach wrote. 

"I do not believe that my parents were informed of this report. If they were they would have removed Christine immediately. To this day Christine must be sedated for a doctor to perform a gynecological exam."

Last summer, Roach asked RCMP to investigate the incident, which she said had a permanent effect on her sister.

Manitoba RCMP declined to confirm or deny there is an active investigation into the allegations.

'Controlled by staff'

Thomas Saunders, the only other male resident to swear an affidavit, gets so emotional discussing his time at the Manitoba Developmental Centre that he has difficulty talking.

In a phone interview, he said it felt like everyone at the centre was abused. He lived at MDC from 1954 to 1969, from age 15 to his early 30s. 

Thomas Saunders and his dog Rover in an undated photograph. (Thomas Saunders)

"Every part of my life at MDC was controlled by staff," he said in his sworn affidavit. "They told us when to wake up. They told us when to go to bed. They told us when we ate. They told us what to do all day."

He, like Weremy, said he was sexually assaulted multiple times at the centre and that sex and fighting were common in the dormitories at night. 

"The staff knew this was happening and saw it happened to me," Saunders said. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, children as young as six were admitted to the centre, which was formerly called the Manitoba School, the Manitoba School for Retardates, the Manitoba School for Mentally Defective Persons and the Home for Incurables. 

The centre still operates in Portage la Prairie. This year there are approximately 160 residents at the Manitoba Developmental Centre, the province's statement of defence says. The residents range in age from 18 to 86.

The province said it works "continuously" to transition residents to live in the community.

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.