Manitoba agrees to pay $17 million and apologize to settle disabled abuse lawsuit
WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government has agreed to pay $17 million and apologize in the legislature to settle a lawsuit filed on behalf of former residents who say they were abused at a centre for people with intellectual disabilities.
The class-action settlement agreement, which still requires court approval, would also see a monument built at the Manitoba Developmental Centre's cemetery and funding flow to projects that help people with disabilities live in the community.
"There's a legacy that's associated with this particular settlement that, in addition to the compensation for harms, will benefit all class members and all Manitobans," David Rosenfeld, lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Tuesday.
The lawsuit was filed in 2018 by David Weremy, who lived at the Manitoba Developmental Centre in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
The centre in Portage la Prairie is one of the last large-scale institutions of its kind in Canada and is slated to close in 2024 as part of a trend to have people live in the community with personal support.
The facility opened in 1890. At its peak in the 1970s, it housed some 1,200 people but is now home to fewer than 160. The Manitoba government stopped accepting new residents at the centre in 1996, except for short-term and court-ordered placements.
The statement of claim sought $50 million and alleged staff beat residents, deprived them of food and allowed sexual assaults to occur between residents.
Weremy alleged he was often hit with a whip or a wooden board, frequently underfed, and punished for trying to run away by being placed in solitary confinement or being forced to sleep naked on the floor.
The government denied the allegations in a statement of defence and said the centre was run in accordance with the standards of care at the time. It maintains that denial is part of the proposed settlement agreement, and also denies liability.
The Progressive Conservative government did not provide a comment Tuesday.
Rosenfeld said the $17-million settlement is a good result, as it includes commitments to ongoing education that could not happen if the case went to court.
"A court can't make a government apologize for what may or may not have happened in the past, and you can't set up an endowment," Rosenfeld said.
It's too early to say how many people may file claims for compensation or join the lawsuit, he added.
Out of the $17 million, $1 million would be set aside for an endowment fund that would generate money annually for projects such as educational programming on the history of institutionalization and initiatives that promote or support community inclusion for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
There would also be audiovisual productions highlighting the stories of people who lived at the centre.
A court hearing to determine whether the agreement will be approved is scheduled for May.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2023
Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press