The history of Alberta's infamous Provincial Training School, or Michener Centre, is brought to life through Claudia Malacrida's sensitive coordination of former inmate perspectives. After a successful collaboration with Alberta's Community Living organization, which resulted in a publication of former patients' and inmates' recollections (Hear My Voice, 2006), this new book places those voices in conversation with the history of intellectual disability, institutionalization, and eugenics in Alberta. It theorizes this past using key sociological sources, including Erving Goffman, Michel Foucault, Andrew Scull, and Nicholas Rose, among others. The story unfolds in ten chapters, each of which explores an aspect of the life and legacy of survival at the institution.

This book reveals the grim realities of incarceration in an institution that superficially promised to train, rehabilitate, and even treat children with a variety of physical, intellectual and mental disabilities. Peeling back the public relations rhetoric, Malacrida relies significantly on the insights of former inmates, many of whom spent their childhoods in the Michener Centre, to expose the harsher experiences of dislocation, discipline, and dehumanization. Guided by the sociological literature on total institutionalization, discipline, and normalization, Malacrida shows how the Michener Centre functioned in many ways as a typical psychiatric institution or, in this case, one designated for 'mentally defective' children. Examples abound of the prioritization of the institution over the welfare of its residents; the rigidity of order and schedule over elements of privacy or autonomy; and the leaching of humanity and dignity away from people who had been physically and emotionally severed from their families and communities. The details are often gritty, and the anecdotes are illustrative of a system that was designed to manage 'social junk', as sociologist Andrew Scull has termed the detritus of society who end up in these institutions. The children and adults at the heart of this book are rendered sub-citizens, and at times, sub-humans, robbed of any basic rights upon entering the facility.

The chapters are structured around themes and are roughly chronological in order. Readers are introduced to the Provincial Training School, as it was originally called, as one of the few western Canadian institutions purposely designed to 'serve' children who were at different historical points described as feebleminded, mentally deficient, and intellectually disabled. Its emergence coincided with broader historical trends in both compulsory education and institutionalization, features that contributed to deeper concerns about nation building that developed throughout much of Europe, the United States, and Canada. These trends also coincided with ideological commitments to improving society, professional projects aimed at medicalizing 'abnormality', and political initiatives designed to prove that middle-class white authorities were in fact superior. These broader socio-political, cultural-religious, and medico-scientific ideas frame the history of institutionalization and help to explain how the process of de-humanization could in the first instance be applauded as progressive, and later be rendered all but entirely invisible and absent from contemporary political discourse or public reconciliation.

Subsequent chapters explore specific themes in greater detail, peppered with commentaries from participants themselves. Feelings of abandonment routinely accompanied the early days in the institution, and were reinforced by rules and regulations prohibiting familial contact or uncensored communication. The physical layout of the complex created feelings of surveillance, while disciplinary measures through isolation in 'side rooms', and the ritualistic performances of purposeless activities culminated in a display of obedience over dignity. Mid-way through the book, Malacrida moves beyond an illustration of how institutionalization itself creates an administrative efficiency that overrides concerns for patients or inmates, and turns to direct evidence of abuse and violence. Drawing again on Foucauldian ideas of discipline and order, she shows how former 'trainees' or inmates recalled their experiences in witnessing violence or being subjected to it by staff or other inmates. The strategic reporting of such incidents further underscores how the system worked to minimize the consequences of these events, or how victims were expected to internalize blame, shame, or responsibility through unreported but visible acts of indecency. The hierarchies of order are made knowable through Malacrida's careful attention to how inmates came to understand these moments, and how those experiences conditioned behavior at the time, and later, memories about how those events influenced their self-perception.

The latter half of the book critically examines the contradictions between posing as an educational facility and the nature of training that occurred, both for inmates and for staff who more often acquired skills on the wards than in school. It goes on then in chapter eight to consider the ethical or lack of ethical context that guided decisions by the superintendent regarding medical and dental care, alongside what appears to be a culture of medical experimentation. Eugenics is the topic of the final substantive chapter, where Malacrida recounts the history of the provincial program, its structure, and the legal challenges that arose in the 1990s by Leilani Muir, whose trial succeeded in court. Hundreds of other cases were left unsettled or settled out of court and thus remain behind the cloak of privacy laws governing access to those archival files. Due to Alberta's historic place among eugenics programs, the relationship between active eugenics, or sterilizations, and institutional or passive eugenics, blurs together in this chapter, reinforcing the dual-pronged and heavily armed state machinery taking aim at individuals considered unsuitable for 'normal' society. This chapter makes it clear that those people were rarely even considered capable of understanding the consequences of eugenic sterilization, underscoring another historical assumption about this population as simply sub-human.

The abuses, the duplicitous rhetoric, medical experimentation, and overall dimensions of sub-humanization are, tragically, common throughout at least the late 19th and 20th centuries and across geo-political contexts and go hand-in-hand with the history of large-scale, long-stay institutions. Malacrida's book, however, adds an important element to this dark history by highlighting the candid reflections from participants who are more often considered subjects of examination than reliable sources of information. This approach is long overdue and necessary for recalibrating a history of power dynamics within scholarship on these topics, and will undoubtedly be a welcome and at times refreshing addition to the growing field of disability studies.

For readers familiar with the history and social construction of disability and institutionalization, this book covers some familiar territory. Indeed, for historians of eugenics and psychiatry, the role of the institution as one of the instruments of population control and passive eugenics has been well established (Rembis, 2013). At times the sociological approach seems to dominate the contextual or historical analysis, drawing readers quickly into contemporary debates and interpretations of the past based on present assumptions. Readers are often reminded of the connections to Nazi Germany and the atrocities of the Holocaust, suggesting that the experiences at Michener were indeed part of a historical continuum. While this comparison is effective, more might be said of other institutions throughout North America that functioned even more similarly to Michener. The widespread use of institutionalization as a then-acceptable measure of social control has its own history, arguably one separate from Nazi eugenics and extermination, but likewise draconian. Drawing attention to how states have continued to use institutions, and have often avoided responsibility for these abuses may require us to think of them as more common features of our past, not exceptions but in fact the rule, in order to generate the critical insights necessary to effectively dismantle this way of thinking.

Return to Top of Page


Copyright (c) 2015 Erika Dyck



Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact the web manager, Maureen Walsh.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)