Provincial Profile: Manitoba

The story of institutions in Manitoba starts in 1890, with what was originally called the Home for the Incurables in Portage la Prairie. This institution has been given other shameful names since then, but we now know this group of buildings as the Manitoba Developmental Centre (MDC). Over the years, the institution grew to house nearly 1,200 people labelled with disabilities at its height. So many people were placed there that overcrowding caused the province to convert the Ninette Tuberculosis Sanatorium into a new institution, called the Pelican Lake Training Centre, in 1973.

The St. Boniface Sanatorium in Winnipeg was also started in 1931, by the Grey Nuns, to house people labelled with an intellectual disability. By 1974, this sanatorium was renamed the St. Amant Centre.

Fortunately, the movement to deinstitutionalize Canada was gaining momentum. Communities who knew the history of how people were confined to institutions for decades started to do something about it. The ‘Welcome Home Initiative’ began in 1982 when 220 people were able to find homes in the community and leave the institutions that imprisoned them. Since then, self-advocates have been joined by a many people from advocacy and service organizations, as well as community members, legal organizations, government, media and students, to create change.

Thousands of survivors and allies effectively raised awareness about life in institutions.

In 1996, Ron and Jean Nobess opposed the decision to send their son Derek to MDC. In an interview with them in Module 1, you learned how their fight for Derek’s freedom led to the creation of a new law in Manitoba. The Vulnerable Persons Living with a Mental Disability Act (VPA) protects the rights and safety of people with intellectual disabilities. The Pelican Lake Training Centre then closed in 2000, thanks to the advocacy work of Community Living Manitoba.

While approximately 400 people still lived at MDC in 2004, the province announced a $40-million investment to improve the infrastructure of the buildings. This decision sparked a renewed resistance to institutions in Manitoba and, in 2005, rallies were organized at the Manitoba Legislature. In 2008, The Freedom Tour documentary was released to raise awareness of the movement. Survivors and their allies travelled thousands of miles to share their message: “Free Our People!”

During the making of the Freedom Tour survivors drove thousands of miles to share their message, “Free our People.”

In 2010, Community Living Manitoba filed a Human Rights Complaint on behalf of the people still residing at MDC. A settlement was made by the government. This led to the release of 49 people from MDC and a commitment to providing increased support for people to live in the community was renewed. With help from Community Living Manitoba, a guide was developed to help people at MDC, their families and substitute decision makers learn about community living options. At the same time, St. Amant became a prominent provider of community living services in Manitoba, supporting individuals and their families with residential options, family care and outreach services.

The journey to close institutions is still ongoing in Manitoba. In 2018, a class action lawsuit was filed that alleges the government has failed to care for and protect people who live at MDC. The proceedings for this case are still ongoing. On January 29, 2021, the Manitoba government announced plans to close the Manitoba Developmental Centre. By 2024, the facility will close, and people in Manitoba will be able to focus on healing and recovering. There is a strong commitment in Manitoba to ensuring there is never another institution for people labelled with a disability again.

When you think about institutions in Manitoba, consider the story of Ann Hickey:

Ann was a resident of MDC who died at the institution in 2011. It was reported that she was strangled by a seatbelt that was used to secure her to her wheelchair. News and details of her death were not immediately shared with her family and friends. There was an inquest into her death, which renewed the call for MDC to close. An inquest is an investigation lead by a judge, jury, or government official to determine why a person died.

Below are some links to articles on Ann Hickey’s death:

Images From Manitoba


“Citizens Have the Power to Create Change” Class Action

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

— David Weremy

David Weremy is a resident of Manitoba and an advocate for the rights of people with an intellectual disability to live in the community. He was a key person featured in The Freedom Tour. He was also one of the directors of the documentary film about institutions in the Prairie Provinces.

David himself was a resident of the Manitoba Developmental Centre (MDC) from the age of 14 to 29. He has dedicated his life to telling the story of MDC and other institutions. In doing so, he has tried to help people who were left behind in an institution. In describing his time at MDC, David said, “It was a bad place to live. Really bad.”1

In 2018, David decided to take action and became a plaintiff in a $50-million class action lawsuit against the Manitoba government. David is taking the Manitoba government to court and demanding that they be accountable for what happened to him and others at MDC.

What is a class action lawsuit?

It is a lawsuit that gives one person the power to represent a group of people with a similar claim. The group of people represented by this person is called ‘the class.’ In this lawsuit, David is representing other people who also lived at MDC and have shared his experiences.

What did happen at MDC?

If you read the articles that are linked below, you will read stories that speak of both sexual and physical abuse experienced by people who lived at MDC. It’s not easy for David to speak about these memories. However, he believes it is important to shine a light on what happened to him. Not every person who lived at MDC wants to talk about their experiences, but David is adamant that his voice needs to be heard. His concern is for the people who left institutions but carry memories of abuse, as well as for the people who still live there.

The lawsuit has not been easy for David, but he carries on with conviction. The Manitoba government responded to the claims of this lawsuit. You can read the press release below to find out what David replied to the government’s statement of defence.

In February of 2021, David heard that the Province of Manitoba had finally made a promise to close MDC. David called one of his friends and shared the news with tears of joy. Later, when asked by a reporter how he felt to hear this news, David stated: “I feel happy.”

For You to Read:

These articles, from provincial news outlets, share the evolving story of David’s class action lawsuit.

Questions to think about:

  • What are your thoughts on how the media has reported on this lawsuit?
  • What qualities do you think a person needs to file a lawsuit and stand up to a provincial government to tell them they were wrong?
  • Take a few moments to search for new articles on this lawsuit and discuss what you find. Where does the case stand today? How do you think this is going to end? What evidence have you based your prediction on?

Hope in 2021 M3.V2

In this video, you will hear from Janet Forbes. Janet is the Executive Director of Inclusion Winnipeg. She discusses what is happening in Manitoba today and what is to come as we plan for the future.

Three Questions to Ponder:

  1. What has shocked you the most from learning about Manitoba’s institutions?
  2. What questions do you still have?
  3. What is happening in Manitoba that shows the power citizens have to make change happen?