Episode Description

The Manitoba Development Centre (MDC) is one of few remaining large-scale government funded and operated institutions for people labelled with an intellectual/developmental disability in Canada. For well over a century it has been used to remove people with disabilities from their communities and isolate them from family and friends.

Show Notes

In memorial of Joyce Gibbins, and all the lives lost to the harms of institutionalization.

A heads up that today’s episode deals with confinement, sexual and physical abuse and suicide.

Big shout out to David Weremy, Shelley Fletcher, Janet Forbes, Josée Boulanger & Erika Macpherson.

Records of institutionalization are not publicly accessible. Much of the work from this episode is part of the archival work Mary Horodyski and her MA thesis, “Society seems like it doesn’t even know...”: Archival records regarding people labelled with intellectual disability who have been institutionalized in Manitoba,”  (2017), https://mspace.lib.umanitoba.ca/handle/1993/32118. 

The closure of the Greyhound in Western Canada has particularly impacted communities of incarcerated people and rural, northern, and Indigenous communities. Check out the audio documentary called Still Waiting for the Bus: The Unnatural Death of Prairie Intercity Transit, made in partnership with Winnipeg-based documentary producer Emily Leedham and the ATU.  

Adele Perry, Jocelyn Thorpe & Karine Duhamel take this up in their report “Missing the Bus: Indigenous Women and Two-Spirit Plus People and Public Transit in Western Canada”. They found that “Public transit, therefore, is not an additional or optional service, but a fundamental necessity”, as “ public transportation remains necessary for many people, allowing them to attend educational institutions, seek treatment, get to work, and connect with families and loved ones. Its availability makes possible the full participation of Indigenous women and Two-Spirit plus people in all aspects of society.” (Perry, Thorpe & Duhamel 2021, 3) .

Allen Mankewich has taught me so much about disability politics and labour in Manitoba, follow him on twitter.

Bar None in Manitoba provides rides to prisons, noting that “There are no busses to take people to prisons, and this often means people on the inside don’t get visited, and people on the outside don’t get to visit if they don’t have regular access to a car.” If you have a car, you can help out!

I wrote about this earlier for Winnipeg Police Cause Harm: The Institution that Remains: the Manitoba Developmental Centre and Disabled Confinement in Manitoba. Check out their blog!

The only way I got to the MDC was because of my dear friends driving me. Thank you Rebecca & Jana for holding my hand and driving with me to the Developmental Center, pastries.

You hear me reference McCains, well I got to get stories from a dear potato scientist after this, thanks Amy & Morag for your hosting!  


Horodyski, Mary. “Society seems like it doesn’t even know...”: Archival records regarding people labelled with intellectual disability who have been institutionalized in Manitoba,” Master’s thesis, University of Manitoba  (2017), https://mspace.lib.umanitoba.ca/handle/1993/32118.

Eugenics Archives: Manitoba

Full Script

Today we arrived in Portage La Prairie. We’ve now driven about two blocks to the cemetery and it’s literally just on the side of the highway. There’s not even a road connecting it.”

Marc Blanchete (presenting at a townhall)

Well David, he's been abused at that institution for so many years that he didn’t know what was going on in there so he ran away about nine times. On the ninth time they just said let him go. And he lives in the community, and he may be a pain in the neck sometimes, but I’ve known him longer than anybody, and I agree with people. Institutions should be shut down, not kept open. The Manitoba government needs to wake up and smell the coffee. We should close down these institutions! Thank you.

Hey, I’m Megan. I am a disabled researcher and writer passionate about understanding and making known the conditions of disability and institutions in Canada, and this is Invisible Institutions. A podcast about the long history of disability confinement in Canada and its ongoing impact on the lives of people labeled with intellectual/developmental disabilities.

A heads up that today’s episode deals with confinement, sexual and physical abuse and suicide.

/Free the People/

The Manitoba Development Centre (MDC) is one of few remaining large-scale government funded and government-operated institutions for people labelled with an intellectual/developmental disability in Canada.

The Manitoba Developmental Centre was the first institution built in the province–– built to treat, house and remove people with mental and physical disabilities from their communities and isolate them from family and friends.

Over more than a century it has institutionalized thousands of people labeled with some variation of physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities. For well over a century it has been used to remove people with disabilities from their communities and isolate them from family and friends.

Last year, a $50-million class-action lawsuit for “all persons who resided at MDC between July 1, 1951 and May 29, 2020, and were alive as of October 31, 2016.” was certified.

Through the lawsuit, the lead plaintiff of the class action, David Weremy, who we will be hearing from in this episode, alleges class members experienced verbal, sexual and physical abuse while institutionalized at the centre. And that the province failed in its’ fiduciary duty and responsibility to protect vulnerable residents

After decades of advocacy, the province announced on January 29th, 2021 that the MDC would finally be closing its doors.

(Transit sounds) I’m based in Ontario these days, so I flew back to Winnipeg, and drove out to Portage la Prairie, and I’m going to take you with me on this road trip through the flat plains, all the way back in time.

Accompanying me on this journey is the Freedom Tour, a 2008 documentary that documents the incredible journey of 16 self-advocates and friends who travelled across the Prairie Provinces to raise awareness about life in an institution.

The doc provides amazing stories told by survivors of institutions who had moved into communities across the Prairies. Produced in partnership with the National Film Board, with  audio footage generously provided by Josée Boulanger and Erika Macpherson. 

Here’s Marc, he’s the narrator of the freedom tour.

        Marc Blanchette        

I got involved with the whole Freedom Tour, because i heard that the government was putting 40 million dollars to keep MDC open, I said that can’t happen. because if we can get the word out that institutions should be shut down. We saw a documentary of a bunch of people in the US in an RV and we said to ourselves this would be great. So after months and months and months of planning it’s finally happening

[freedom tour] 6:54 David:ok hello! Welcome to the tour.

I anxiously boarded my first plane during the pandemic, I secured my N95, put my headphones and sink into the nostalgia of listening to John K Samson as I fly back to where “the Atlantic and Pacific are the very same far away”. Flying into Winnipeg is stunning, a flat patchwork quilt of industrial agriculture— canola, soy, wheat, canola, corn, mustard, soy, wheat.

It is so, so flat. There’s that joke that you can watch your dog run away for three days because that’s just how flat it is.

I grew up in Winnipeg and lived there most of my life. I’m biased, but its an amazing city, some say great, with a strong history of resistance.

Growing up in Winnipeg meant I got to grow up in an amazing disability community and culture.

I grew up in Winnipeg and lived there most of my life. I’m biased, but its an amazing city, with a strong history of resistance. As I came into the disability community in Winnipeg I got to know about a lot of the wonderful parts of disability culture, resistance and arts. It’s where the  Canadian Council on Disability was founded,  home to the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities and Jim Derksen, one of the writers of the United Nations Declaration Rights of Persons. I met Jim at a Disability Cabaret put on by Sick and Twisted, a theatre collective dedicated to exploring the experiences of disability. I got to listen to music made by disabled people like Nestor Wynnrush and Nic Dyson. 

This helped me understand my personal experiences with disability as political experiences driven by ableism –– the discrimination against people with disabilities. Despite all the wonders of the disability community, Manitoba remains one of the last provinces with large scale institutions and provincially, we never talk about them.

Before taping this, I had never been to the MDC, I had never been to the cemetery.

Going home is special, I got to hug my best friends, and two days later we buckled up to drive to Portage La Praire.

I forgot to get sunflowers. Those are the flowers used to remember institutional survivors. I scold myself. We pick up coffee at a fruit stand on the way. I get an overwhelming amount of saskatoon berries, buttery pastries and prairie wildflowers.

Driving to Portage, it’s so flat. There are few trees, you can see everything. Portage la Prairie is a small city with over 10, 000 people.

Until 2018, you could get there by the Greyhound, nowadays there are few ways to get there if you don’t drive.

It’s about an hour drive from Winnipeg, which was intentional –– institutions were designed to be in COMPLETE isolation (Goffman, 1985).

Complete isolation meant that people with disabilities and the conditions they live in wouldn’t be seen. Complete isolation means it is difficult for family and friends to visit. Even more cynically, the flat, treeless land made it really difficult for people to escape these institutions.

The hour drive from Winnipeg made Portage la Prairie a desirable place for a lot of different institutions over time.

In five years, between 1888-1893 a women’s prison, the Portage la Prairie Indian Residential School and the Manitoba Home for Incurables were built on the perimeters of the city. The Manitoba Home for Incurables (what would become the MDC) was built in 1890, and had 57 residents.

The name, the Home for Incurables, really showed the thought behind the institution –– to isolate people who would not “get better”, for the rest of their lives.

But maybe that name was a bit too on the nose, so in 1924, the name of the Portage la Prairie institution was changed to the Home for the Aged and Infirm. By this time, the institution had 410 residents and 85 staff.

The institutional population continued growing. By the 60s, the institution grew to 1,240 people. Around this time, David Weremy was institutionalized into the MDC So I’m going to introduce you to him now and hear about his experience there.  

My name is David Weremy, and I’ve been outside the institution for 18 years, and I’m tired of watching those people, it’s bad. I hope we can close them down, that’s why I came on this tour. To shut them down, everyone one of them. I hope it works out.  

Megan: I’m wondering David, you have been such an amazing advocate for so many years. Your persistence is completely amazing. I am wondering if you can tell us a little bit about what your life was like at the Manitoba Developmental Centre?


No Good Megan, No good


Did you have many friends there?

David:Not too many

Megan: No. How many people did you live with?

David: What?

Shelley: How many people slept in your room?

David: 31

Shelley: 31

Megan: That’s a lot of roommates

David: Yup

Megan: How many people do you live with now?        

David: What?

Shelley: How many people do you live with now?

David: Nobody

Shelley: Nobody. Nobody! [laughs]

Megan: Do you like that?

David: Yep!

Megan: And what was it like to sleep there?

David: No good

Shelley: Can you describe it?

David Boys making love with double, double

Shelley: Boys were making love with other boys it was no good

Shelley: How many people slept in your room?

David: 31

Megan: How many staff were in the room with you?

David: Only 1. Overnights only 1

[Megan Narration]

I am going to paint you a picture of what it was like inside, but you can see the actual pictures in our show notes.

The wards in the institution where people slept were overcrowded, housing between 30-100 people on single beds just inches apart. There adults with co-occurring disabilities were often forced to sleep in “cribs”. There are no curtains, there are no doors, there isno privacy.  The room is stark, no pictures on the walls, only hospital linens. And there was only one set of doors.  

The only doors were the ones used to lock residents in overnight.

The bathrooms were also without doors between ten toilets. Side by side, no separation.

 Here’s Wayne, he was incarcerated at the MDC for 30 years, reflecting on the institution

[Freedom Tour]

Dave: I will never forget what happened there, never.

Wayne: Remember for the rest of your life. Makes you kind of wonder?

Remember in the bedroom there, there used to be piss and shit all over the place. and we’d have to clean it up.

Dave: People used to drink out of toilet bowls, used to run around naked. Boys in the bathroom fucking all night.

Wayne: I remember seeing that.

Dave: you won’t go back to living there, right?

Wayne: No, I’ll never go back.

Dave: We’re going to shut it down, we’re not going to give it up. We’re gonna keep on pushing.

[Megan narration]

Piss and shit everywhere makes sense. During the night, people were locked in their wards because there was only one worker. Understaffing the institution was used to drive down the costs of the institution by supplementing the paid labour with unpaid labour.

David and most residents worked every single day at MDC as a dishwasher, either unpaid, or for pennies an hour, And it made it really unsafe. But don’t worry, we have a whole other episode on that!

Driving into Portage, I felt my jaw clenching. There is more than one Manitoba Developmental Centre on google maps. the first, a brutalist office building out of place in the rural prairie neighborhood.

We try again, the Institution is two blocks away, just 30 seconds in the car. As we arrive, i feel my heart rate speed up. The car gets quiet, we stop the music, reach out to hold each others hands.  

The Institution is threatening, private property signs dichotomizing my understanding of this “publicly” operated institution. No trespassing. Trespassers will be prosecuted. We pull up in front of the litany of signs so I can take my photos.

It’s 4:35, shift change.

Pick-up trucks filter out of the one way street.

A woman in a lifted truck rolls down her window, “what are you doing? Do you need any help?”.  Just a developmental services worker trying to help yet another disabled person. I feel our cars' collective heart rate rise.

We obviously can’t get past the gates.

David and the freedom tour co had a bit of an easier time getting onto the grounds, but not in any buildings.

Marc: we're gonna need some pictures of the place they call MDC I call it a dump but they thought in DC that's where we're headed we're going to see where David used to live first they lock him in. He gets out now he can't go back in without supervision in my point of view it's the hellhole from Manitoba


It is a hellhole. People still live here, in this hell hole where so many people were incarcerated, institutionalized and forbidden from leaving. People have lived their entire lives incarcerated in this space, people spent their entire lives trying to escape there.

And David is just one of them, during his time at the MDC, David ran away nine times to escape the violence of the institution.

David Weremy: They told me, never say nothing what’s going on there. They told me not to say nothing that’s going on there. Everything was a secret. When you go  home, you don’t tell nothing what’s going on there.

David Weremy: My mom phoned there and asked them what’s going on.

Margaret Weremy: I remember we did phone a few times because of what you told us was going on

David: When I went back there i got locked up for it. For three weeks.

Margaret: so then we wouldnt phone anymore because then we got him in trouble

David: They’re still with their secrets Maggie

Margaret: A lot of that stuff has changed David

David: No, they’re still with their secrets.


As a result of these horrible conditions, David tried to escape nine separate times. Each time he was captured and returned to the MDC, he was consistently punished.

On one occasion, Weremy was hit by staff on the behind with a '2x4' for trying to escape. Consistently, he was placed in their version of solitary confinement where he was forced to sleep naked on the floor without a mattress.

There he observed residents who were chained to the floor as a form of punishment. I think about this conversation between David and Wayne a lot…

Dave: Took a  long time. Took a long time, but we got out.

11:43 Dave: Easy to get in there, hard to get out. Easy to get in there, hard to get out.

Easy to get in there, hard to get out.

This horrific abuse that David experienced in the wake of his escapes, shows just how perseverant David is and just how violent the conditions of MDC were. And the abuse that David experienced, wasn’t in isolation. David told me that about some of the abuse he witnessed

Megan: What were the staff, did you like the staff people?

David: What?

Shelley: Did you like the staff people?

David: No?

Megan: What were they like?


Megan: bad, ya. Um, so…do you have a question you?

Shelley: why were they bad were they mean?

David: *** was mean

David: Muffled speech I could have killed him!

Shelley: I know! Tell megan the story.

David: He beat the boy up black and blue. I was watching it. I was watching him.

Shelley : You were watching it

David: Exactly. I choke *** with his two hands. I told [redacted] if there’s two hits, I’ll hit you and you’ll hit the floor.

Shelley: Did you catch that megan? Do you want me to repeat any of it?

Megan: Ya, if you could repeat it

Shelley: So he was in his room watching this staff member named [redacted] who was beating another boy, black and blue. And [redacted] caught david watching it. And he said to him, you want to be next? And he said to [redacted] there will be two hits, I will hit you, and you will hit the floor.

Shelley: And what did [redacted] do?

David: Walked away.

Megan: Laughs

Shelley: Cause why? Why did he walk away?

David: He was scared of me

Shelley: Damn straight he was, he was scared of him.

        David: My proudest moment that day

Shelley: One of David’s proudest moments in there where he stood up for himself, and the staff walked away

Megan:You are such a fighter David,

And this isn’t anecdotal, there are so many stories of violence, abuse and neglect from the MDC, here’s Adrian’s story.

Hello, my name is Adrian Dene, I used to live at the MDC, the rules were very strict and I did not think they were very fair when we did not follow these rules we had our privileges taken away.

Some of the staff we're meaner than others and these staff members would actually hit the patients. I witnessed a friend of mine being hit in the head and face for nothing more than simply getting upset about something.  Finally I would just like to add free our people exclamation point exclamation point exclamation point.

Staff hit patients for being upset. See that is where one of the very fundamental problems of institutions arise –– staff have so much power and authority, over a group of people that are made vulnerable, who are unable to see the people they love, who are not trusted by authorities and who are far from home. (Check out Rossiter & Rinaldi’s book, Punishing Conditions)

And in these conditions many people were killed by the conditions of the institutions. David told me about this

David: Megan! One boy hung himself

Shelley: One boy hung himself at MDC, where was that?

David: In the kitchen

Shelley: In the kitchen.

David: That room had to be locked at all times. But somebody forgot to lock the door that day.

Shelley: That room had to be locked at all time, but somebody forgot to lock the door and a boy hung himself

Megan: Did other people die when you were there?

David: Joyce Gibbins, she climbed up the water tower and threw herself off of it, 150 ft.

Shelley: Joyce Gibbins, she climbed up the water tower and threw herself off of it, 150 ft and many many people who were at MDC watched

David: When they hit the sidewalk [?]

[zoom interview david and shelley] Shelley

They were all in their rooms, and they had little tiny windows in there rooms. And so many people, so many survivors that we met with over the years. Everyone of them tells us that story. About joyce. It was very sad hey dave?

[Megan Narration]

There have been so many people who have died preventable deaths at the MDC. SOme deaths, like Joyce's, were in pursuit of freedom from violence and persecution, in pursuit of escape. So many deaths in fact that the MDC has its own cemetery. Here’s Mark and the freedom tour on their journey

[FT] Car door sounds

19:58 we’re gonna drive around and we're gonna look at the cemetery. we're gonna try to find the cemetery we want to take some pictures on there and remember all these people that have already passed away from MDC.

[FT] Mark

certain people that are buried here their kinfolk never did

20:54 find out about them they never were told when they died they didn't tell the kinfolk whoever they were that they were dead…

[MDC Arriving, Megan]

00:47 SO i took some picture of the entrance before a large train of trucks were leaving at the end of their shift because it’s about 4:30 here. We have now driven about two blocks to the cemetery. And, it’s literally just on the side of the highway, there’s not even a road connecting it.

And it feels so devastating, I have never been to one of these institutions, and i’ve never been to their cemeteries, and it feels really heavy. It’s a gray sky, it’s windy, and we, my friends who drove me and who have accompanied me, we can’t stop talking about how eerie and hard it feels. I am gonna capture some sounds from the train the train, that’s nearby, and the graveyard. And we’re gonna lay down some flowers. I tried to find some sunflowers, but it’s a drought here, so I just have some prairie wildflowers that i’m going to lay down at the graves

[insert soundscape here]

[Megan Narration]

I found the cemetery location on google maps, only coordinates obtained from a local cemetery archivist project. We head north on the 241, and speed past it. It’s walking distance from the Institution.

There is no turn off road, not even the familiar rumble of gravel, just a hardly driven on patch of grass driveway brings us to the cemetery. We park our car, it seems like next to us is supposed to be the parking lot, but the uneven ground alludes to a more sinister reality. A wrought iron gate in the middle of a patch of grass reads “MDC cemetery”.

This was not a cemetery, this is a mass grave.

Pine trees section off the graves from the rural surroundings: another canola field, a baseball diamond, a church and a community centre. Life surrounds. The trees are planted in memorial of the people who died at the Institution.

The grove is filled with them. No names, only a bit more life. Some of the trees are so young. We walk past the gate.

There aren’t paths in the cemetery, there are hardly headstones. Every step was physically  painful, I grimaced as my feet connected with the ground, it’s all a grave.

I am walking on a grave.

The few headstones haunt me, one of them not even a grave, it’s a tiny tomb. She was five. She was 15. She didn’t get a headstone. He didn’t have even a date of birth. He didn’t have a name.

I lay down the wildflowers. I grip the top of the memorial, right where the bird shit has accumulated.

I breathe. What do I do with the weight of it all? Where do you put flowers down when it is all a grave?

In lieu of headstones, there are tiny concrete markers reading Protestant, New Protestant, Catholic, New Catholic.

No names, only religion. What do they mark? How many people are buried beneath them?

So many unmarked graves here, so many people in 30s and 40s,. 20s, 10s.

Entire lives in the Institution. Short lives experiencing only incarceration. Long lives, decades and decades institutionalized. The memorials end in 1967 but the institution is still open. The peak population hadn’t even been reached in 1967.

And while we don’t know the number of people who died in MDC between 1967 and today, government commissions and coroners inquest demonstrate just how horrific the conditions were.

David was still institutionalized in 1967. By 1971, David tried to escape for the ninth time, making it all the way back to Winnipeg. This escape was FINALLY successful.

Since David escaped, He has lived at home in the community since  …

Megan: David what has it meant for you to live in community?

David: Good, good Megan

Megan: What do you like about it?

David: Love it

Shelley: Love it. Megan, ask him umm ask him who is his boss now. Whos the boss now. Like just say to him whos the boss of your life now? Like ya, ask him that question

Megan: So whos the boss of your life now?

David: Me, I’m the boss Megan.

Megan: You are, you definitely are. I feel like you were the boss of shutting down the MDC and keeping everyone in line even when yuo were there

Two years later a watershed report about the conditions in Manitoba, called the Clarkson Report outlined the major issues in the institution, heres a few:

(a)        older buildings are in poor condition;

(b)        MDC suffers from overcrowding and a lack of adequate plumbing;

(c)        due to the gross overcrowding the facility is not geared to provide for many of its residents the intensive progressive and condition programs;

(d)        there is lack of qualified personnel in some positions including social services;

( e)        the centre is grossly understaffed;

(f)        there is a lack a privacy provisions for residents including bathing or going to the toilet;

(g)        the infirmary and medical ward are grossly inadequate and;

(h)        the medical ward is so overcrowded that patient's had to be wheeled out in order for oxygen to be wheeled in for other patients.

By this time, families of people labelled with intellectual/developmental disabilities began organizing against institutionalization, forming citizen action groups across the country.

 In Manitoba, deinstitutionalization began its slow journey in 1982 with the project Welcome Home, but unlike other provinces, Manitoba did not have an end date for institutional closure. The Welcome Home (1982-1986)  report resulted in the largest movement of people from institutional care into many Manitoba communities and occurred from 1982-86. Under this initiative, 220 people moved from the Manitoba Developmental Centre and about the same number from family homes moved to community living situations.

But even after 220 people were discharged from the institution, the 1987 Manitoba the 17th  annual Report of the Manitoba Ombudsman (the "Ombudsman Report") was released, which extensively covered MDC. The Ombudsman Report made the following conclusions:

(a)        the MDC is less than desirable for the residents;

(b)        the standard of care at the MDC has been a long standing issue;

(c)        the MDC is unable to meet its stated objectives relating to standards, physical care, and training and education;

(d)        despite a decreasing resident population, unexplained injuries continue to increase on an annual basis;

(e)        an injury that resulted in the death of a resident had a direct correlation to the staffing level at the MDC;

(g)        the living areas are very congested and lack environmental stimulation;

(h)        many of the residents are unable to speak and are "forgotten souls"

(j) staffing issues significantly impact the social, psychological, educational and physical well-being of the residents;

By 1987, institutions in major provinces were closing. But unlike them,  the MDC had no plan to close, despite consistently failing to meet feasibility standards, despite the mountains of evidence about the success and need for deinstitutionalization.

The next ten years were classified by consistent staff abuse of residents, in one incident a Nurse II designation was seen hitting a resident on the back of the head. That same individual previously been disciplined for using inappropriate and derogatory language with a resident while they were having a seizure; on another incident choking a resident; and on another occasion teaching a resident to say "I am a mongoloid deformity, I am a genetic defect".

In 2004, the most deadly of these incidents of violence occured. On what was supposed to be an outing eight institutionalized 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 left Dennis Robinson in the van, where he was found dead one hour later.: Robinson Inquest  

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. Infuriated by this investment in ongoing institutionalization, Inclusion Canada took the MDC to court, here’s Shelley Fletcher, she’s the Executive Director of People First of Canada, and has been involved in the fight against institutionalization for a while.

Megan: How about you Shelley? You have also been working on deinstitutionalization of the MDC for a long time now. Can you give us a little bit of a history of what the fight towards deinstitutionalization has been in Manitoba?

Shelley: The outcome of the class action lawsuit was ont what we wanted. I think they committed to moving up to sixteen people out. Which I mean, this took years and years in court. And it was, it was not the outcome we wanted. However, we have never stopped as People First, as the um.. National Taskforce between People First of Canada, and the, then known as the Canadian Association for Community Living, which is now Inclusion Canada. Our two organizations have fought tirelessly for, for many years around doing.. to do the right thing and move people.. Close the institutions and move people to community. And on the day of the announcement it was, it was very surreal.

The outcome of this first human rights complaint wasn’t a failure, but it was infuriating. And throughout the 2010s, the NDP government was reluctant to shutter the institution. Government’s own reports, legal action, and abundant academic and lived experience demonstrated the Abundant need for institutions to close, so why the heck weren’t they? Here’s Shelley again


Megan” Ugh,  that is so long. Umm, what has been would you say, maybe shelley this question is for you? What has been the main obstacle along the journey towards deinstitutionalization in Manitoba

Shelley: It’s political will, it really is. This has been a battle that we have been fighting for so many years, the town that this institution is in used to house a women’s jail, it used to house a very very large factory. It was actually a potato factory, umm I can’t say it was McCains

Megan: (whispers) It was McCains

Shelley: It was McCains there we go. And over the years, the women’s jail closed and they moved uh uh the women’s jail closed, the potato factory closed, and the MDC is the largest employing place in Portage la Prairie where it is. And I mean I can remember in the 2010ish when the class action was going on. And a reporter called me from the Portage la Prairie Leader or whatever the newspaper was.

the daily graphic and he asked me why we were trying to close this. And he was coming at it to me from, “do you understand what would happen to this town, if we closed MDC. Like we’ve already lost so much of our economy here. Do you like imagine (stutters) like its the largest employer in the community, what would happen to our community. And I remember just saying to him like, that is a terrible trade off for human beings lives. That isnt that is not even a conversation to have to talk about the economy of your community versus human beings lives. Their wellbeing, their safety. We know and we know from our work across Canada that institutions never close until governments says they’re gonna close

Employment has been such a huge player in the fight against closing the institution in Manitoba. All of the workers employed at MDC are unionized, and the union has fought tirelessly for the maintenance of the institution. Here’s a commercial they funded in 2010 during the Human Rights Complaint.

[MGEU MDC Portage La Prairie]

Transcript: An independent rating agency has given the programs and staff at the Manitoba Developmental Center a grade of 98 per cent for outstanding service to its clients. Portage la Prairie can be proud that it provides valuable services to vulnerable people and their families. Congratulations to the MDC staff and thanks for always being there providing a great quality of life in a safe and caring atmosphere a message from MGEU

Now let me be clear. I am incredibly pro-union & labour movements. But this isn’t an issue of a bad apple. This staff were not abusive because of the uhion, but rather that conditions of institutionalization are fundamentally violent, fundamentally abusive. That radio ad gives a really positive view of the staff at MDC, but here’s a family members view of the staff…

Interview with Trisha Kellan (Freedom Tour)

My name is Trisha Kellan and I'm here today to share a little bit about what happened a year ago.  A year ago in 2006 to my daughter and MDC in Portage La Prairie my daughter is 31 and she's physically mentally challenged. from it she has a head injury from a car accident 20 years ago we had come to a point of depression that Tammy was in,

that it was decided MDC would be a place for her to go to be cleaned out of meds and to take her off the medications that she was on.  When we were–– my husband and I were first told about MDC all we knew about it was it was an institution. We had always said to each other that we would never ever consider putting our kids in there. When it came down to no other place in Winnipeg for my daughter to go to be taken off of the medications we really had to seriously think about it.

and they were telling us 21 days that she'd be there it didn't seem like too bad. Self-abuse started which is something we've never seen in our daughter we watched her be bodily picked up and carried up staircases and restrained by three different people want on each side one laying on top of her we were degraded by the nurses it was supposed to be three weeks after 52 days we walked in and my daughter was standing there with no voice left from screaming after screaming for 24 hours. 18 bruises from head to toe two black eyes huge lump on her forehead and a lump on the back of her head and we just took her out.

I mean we presented, plan a closure plan to the government that included every single person who worked there, and lived there. A plan. It was gonna be 40, $29 million cheaper than what it cost to run them. To bring people out into community and find jobs, for everybody, and they said no. That was in 2010 we did that, when they said no.

I think when I heard this, steam came out my ears, because it makes me FUMING. And the thing is, MDC ran a campaign against it’s closure, failing to mention the inclusion of workers in the closure plan. And I mean full-scale campaign. In 2016, it was one of their primary questions to provincial parties in the Manitoba election, where they asked: “What is your plan, if elected, to ensure MDC remains open?"  And parties unanimously said they would keep funding MDC and have its doors remain open.

Shelley: So it’s not about money, it’s not about the cost of putting people into community, its actually cheaper to put people into community its about i dont even like to talk about money with this, its about dignified lives. And about being part of society. And so We know from our work across Canada that institutions only close when governments say they’re going to close

Megan: Inclusion and People First have continued fighting to close the MDC, this time going the route of a Class Action Lawsuit. Here’s David and Shelley….

Shelley: So in our Ontario, they they did a class action lawsuit against the three institutions that were left there. And it was successful. The class action was successful. And so the lawyers who spearheaded that class action contacted us in Manitoba. And said would we be interested in leading umm… in leading a class suit. So that’s pretty much been Davids dream come true. His whole life he has said: people need to pay for what they did to us.

Shelley: And so when david was approached of course he jumped on it. Umm, I assist david, as well as another colleague and friend of ours named christine curry, uh whose a dear friend and a really good support to dave. So the three of us. David is the lead plaintiff and chris and i are just here to help dave with all of that legal stuff that goes on. So… the class action was launched against the manitoba government. And the government every every step of this takes a really long time.

Shelley: And so step one was was filing the the class action in front of a judge, we had to go before the judge our our lawyers and there was quite a few survivors that came that day and just supported it. And then the government plead their case on why there shouldn’t be a class action lawsuit. And then we all went away and then covid hit and then it took a really long time but we did finally get word back that that judge ruled in our favour. And said Yep you guys have enough here to move forward with the lawsuit a class action lawsuit.

Shelley: So then the manitoba government was gonna appeal that decision and umm again that takes a really long time we just recently found out I would say 2 weeks ago that the government decided not to appeal the decision so we are moving forward. Yay right dave? We are moving forward to the next step of the lawsuit. So David’s the lead plaintiff of this class action, but he’s representing everybody who lived there.

So the $50 million class action is underway, and David gets to live one of his dreams, representing the Class in holding the Manitoba Government accountable for the years of abuse labelled people were forced to endure. And here’s what they're hoping for…

David: They’re gonna pay!

 Shelley: Ya, we hope they’re gonna pay. We talked about things like therapy for those who survived it and have PTSD and are not covered for any kind of counselling for their PTSD that’s something that we did put in. We wanted to make sure that there is an appropriate landmark to sorta umm monument that that depicts the people lives of those who lived there. So a memorial site is what we’re looking for. Where that will be we don’t know. We do know where the graveyard is, it’s actually quite a ways away from the institution, umm but that we was something that was important. I would think, probably to the class, I can’t speak on behalf of the class, and I won’t speak on behalf of David, because dave for david financial remuneration is very important, but also an apology. They want an apology.

[Megan Narration]

And get this… in early 2021, the Manitoba Government announced they were going to FINALLY CLOSE THE MDC. This is a huge step towards deinstitutionalization and justice for labelled people in Manitoba and beyond.

But this fight isn’t over until the institution is closed and the government is held fully accountable for the centuries of removal, segregation and abuse that people labelled with intellectual disabilities faced in the province.

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.

And as for the institution, I am going to leave the last words to David because he has been crystal clear about his desire for what will happen to the institution:

[zoom interview shelley and david]


David: Burn it all down, burn em.

Shelley: Dave’s been pretty adamant about that his whole life. That those buildings need to be

David: I would love to go there a


That was something that we did talk to the manitoba government about already, that as they start to demolish the buildings, we asked them to let us know what the demolition plan was. Because a lot of the survivors want to be there when they knock the first building down. And that is really important, I don’t know if we’re going to get it or not but I will keep reminding the government of this that as part of their healing, they need to see those buildings come down.

Megan: I would, I feel like David needs to be right there, essentially operating the demolition

David 18:18 Blow it up! Long time to take it down.


Script - End Credits

reusable session: Megan group-homes-1 #3

(bara music underneath)

Invisible Institutions was created by me, Megan Linton, with support from People First of Canada & Inclusion Canada’s Joint Task Force on Deinstitutionalization. Audio recording by Megan Linton. This episode was advised by the Joint Task Force on Deinstitutionalization. Audio post-production and sound design were by Helena Krobath, and our theme music was composed by Bara Hladik. Special thanks to David Weremy, Shelley Fletcher, Mary Horodyski, Kit Chokly, Janet Forbes, Erika Macpherson, Josee Boulanger and the whole freedom tour cast and crew!