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Operating MDC may bring legal woes for province

Firm exploring class action after victory in Ontario

The Manitoba Developmental Centre means jobs for Portage la Prairie residents.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

The Manitoba Developmental Centre means jobs for Portage la Prairie residents.

For years, advocates for the mentally and physically disabled have demanded the province close the Manitoba Developmental Centre and relocate its residents to group homes to provide better care.

For just as many years, the province has resisted those demands -- despite no longer admitting new patients to the Portage la Prairie facility and placing many others in group homes -- allowing MDC to live on indefinitely.

However, the province may no longer be able to duck the issue of the MDC and its continued existence if a Toronto law firm weighs in on the debate.

Koskie Minsky, which last fall won a $35-million settlement against Ontario for abuse suffered by residents of facilities for the developmentally disabled, is looking to file a similar class-action suit in Manitoba.

Celeste Poltak, a lawyer with Koskie Minsky, said her firm would very much like to launch a class action for MDC residents, although it has not yet identified a representative plaintiff on whose behalf an action could be filed. Poltak said it is her firm's policy not to directly approach anyone to serve as a lead plaintiff. However, with the additional publicity surrounding the Huronia settlement, Poltak said it is her hope someone will come forward.

"We're certainly trying to get the word out across the country about how the case was resolved in Ontario," Poltak said in an interview.

Threatening a lawsuit is certainly a long way away from filing a lawsuit, and the province, contacted last week, declined to comment on Koskie Minsky's interest in Manitoba.

Still, this is one of the country's leading class-action firms with a record of success that will, should a suit be filed, command the province's attention.

Koskie Minsky was a lead firm in the residential schools class action, and has also recently filed suit against Ontario for abuse suffered by child wards of the Crown.

Poltak noted the Huronia case has many points of resonance for the experience of residents of the MDC.

The Huronia Regional Centre in Orilla, north of Toronto, had been operated by the Province of Ontario for more than 133 years when it was finally shuttered in 2009. The firm had originally sought $2 billion in compensation for about 4,500 individuals who had been residents in the facility between 1945 and 2009.

It had been expected a trial would have taken nearly four years to complete, Poltak said. Last September, the province announced it had reached a settlement. Residents who either did not suffer direct abuse, or cannot describe it in specific detail, may receive as little as $2,000; those who detail specific incidents of abuse will receive up to $42,000.

A similar class action in Manitoba could very well put the province in a difficult position. Despite general agreement the MDC should be closed, the province has been slow to relocate the remaining 220 residents.

For a long time, successive provincial governments in Manitoba have resisted calls to close the MDC, once home to more than 1,100 residents, because even in its diminished form, it remains a major employer in Portage la Prairie.

However, in the mid-2000s a complaint to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission resulted in a deal with the province to move 49 residents out of MDC into group homes. The complaint was filed after the NDP government announced it was spending $40 million to renovate the aging institution.

Demands to shutter MDC intensified in February when a provincial court judge released an inquest report into the 2011 death of a 51-year-old woman who had been a resident of the facility for more than 40 years.

The woman slipped down in her wheelchair and was strangled by a seatbelt. The inquest concluded a lack of staff -- there were only two nursing assistants on staff to oversee more than two dozen residents the night the woman died -- and poor communication led to the death.

However, the judge said it was beyond his authority to close the MDC.

Poltak said closure of the facility is not necessarily a goal of the class action. As well, any decision to close the MDC before a class action was filed would not, on its own, defuse the suit. Poltak noted the Huronia suit was filed several years after it was closed.

At one time, large institutional facilities were considered de rigueur for the treatment of the developmentally disabled. However, quite a long time ago, disabled activists proved that for a gross majority of those residents, institutional care was not only unnecessary, it was dangerous and unhealthy.

For many years, successive governments in Manitoba made political decisions to keep the MDC open even as evidence about better, healthier options continued to accumulate.

If a class action is filed on behalf of the residents of the MDC, we'll finally get to see just how expensive those political decisions were.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Monday, June 2, 2014 at 9:35 AM CDT:
Corrects spelling of Koskie Minsky

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