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Work, Education, and Privilege: A Small Town's Parasitical Relationship to a Total Institution for 'Mental Defectives'

Claudia Malacrida, University of Lethbridge


Discussions of community include notions of belonging and solidarity. Nonetheless, critics note that often the community's 'centre' is achieved only through the exclusion of 'others'. Drawing on oral histories from 21 institutional survivors and archival materials, this paper takes a critical perspective on 'community'. This is done through an examination of the historical employment arrangements between the City of Red Deer and Michener Center, a total institution for 'mental defectives'.

In Red Deer, the benefits of the city (education, employment, freedom) were not universally accessed, but instead, power relations played out along axes of ability and disability. The city was highly advantaged through its proximity to and symbiosis with the Institution. For many years, Michener Center was the largest area employer, and it offered educational and career opportunities to community residents. The Institution also benefited from its peripheral location to the City, which provided a ready workforce. However, the inmates themselves were used as 'hosts' to the parasitical needs of both Institution and City. Inmates, often admitted to the institution with the promise of education and vocational training, were exploited in systematic ways. They worked as unpaid nannies, caregivers, farmworkers and factory hands in the City, and often this employment was couched as 'vocational training'. Further, inmates working inside the institution provided a subordinate workforce to City residents, who supervised their work at tasks deemed unsuited to 'able' workers. Speculatively, is appears that this 'able' city would not have survived had it not been for its 'disabled' periphery.

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